A Pint With ... Oakland's Illuminaries

Tim Hon and Steve Ha

Tim Hon and Steve Ha

BEAUTIFYING THE BAY, ONE MURAL AT A TIME

As teens growing up in the East Bay, Tim Hon and Steve Ha were obsessed with graffiti. They painted their tags everywhere — from San José to Richmond —  leaving a trail of irritated cops in their wake. As adults, they still love painting graffiti — only this time, they’re getting paid for it. • By Shelby Pope

Hon, Ha and their friend Romali Licudan, make up the Illuminaries, a Bay Area company providing colorful murals for cities, sports teams and businesses. They’ve painted a kaleidoscopic phoenix for a Berkeley bookstore, a gigantic Steph Curry for Under Armour, and depicted the Oakland A’s mascot Stomper as a war elephant for a mural sponsored by the team. 

Hon and Ha met as high schoolers, and quickly bonded over their love of graffiti. They couldn’t get enough of the rush of sneaking around a city at night, the knowledge that their work would be seen by thousands of people every day.  

“It was like, hey this is free art, we can go put our names out, we can get published,” Ha said in an interview at downtown Oakland’s Drexl, as he and Hon drank California IPAs from Cultivar Beer in San Francisco. 

“The graffiti artist side of it is like, ok, they’re putting things in our face, so we’re going to put things in your face,” Hon said.  “That was our justification.” 

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After the police finally got caught up to them--“I was not trying to go to jail after that. I went once and I was like, fuck that,” Hon said--they turned to graphic design as their new creative outlet. They made fliers for raves, and designed tee shirts. Eventually, they settled into jobs they enjoyed, Ha working as a graphic designer, and Hon as a programmer. Then, about a decade ago, some friends offered them opportunities to start doing street art again. They painted murals at lumber yards, multiple Crossfit gyms and people’s homes. Then, they were asked to produce a 49ers themed mural for a music video. They liked the piece so much they started calling around to see if any local businesses would be willing to host it permanently. They ended up transplanting it to a Walgreens in the Mission, and convinced Vernon Davis--then a tight end for the Niners--to come by and autograph it. 

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Soon, other sports teams started calling, and they brought Licudan on board to help with larger projects. One of their most famous pieces is a mural they did while the Warriors were playing in the 2015 playoffs. After seeing a photoshopped picture of Steph Curry sporting famous local rapper Mac Dre’s ironic “thizz face” and afro, they thought it would make a perfect mural. They got permission to paint an abandoned Oakland building, and quickly drew the attention of local residents, who brought them food and thanked them for doing transforming the eyesore. “We painted that during game two of the finals and then in game three, the next day, Steph Curry did that face on camera,” Hon said. “We’re like, oh shit!” (The two later met Curry, who told him he thought it was, “hella sick,” according to Ha.) 

Now, Hon and Ha have more work than they know what to do with. In an average week, they’ll be approached to paint a mural for a kid’s room, or by a corporation who wants something more permanent than a billboard. Once they get a job, they’ll work with the client to figure out the best way to combine the client’s vision with the Illuminaries style: grungy, colorful and photorealistic. Then they’ll start painting. Their favorite project was the 105-foot mural of the A’s mascot the team commissioned, because of the challenge of the large size and the sense of community it sparked. While they painted, they were constantly interrupted by curious passerby offering anecdotes about the team or their guesses about the mural’s final look. (One woman guessed it was a swan, so they hid an image of a swan in the final product.) 

Both still keep their day jobs, so they murals have remained and enjoyable side gig, fueled by their decades-long artistic collaboration--and the IPAs they both enjoy. “Drinking is a big part of our [process] because a lot of times,  I’m too uptight with my art,” Hon said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, it needs to be perfect.’ And so when I’m drinking, I get loosened up [and] it just comes out.”

The fact that they get to parlay their teenage passion into a career is still surprising to Ha and Hon. “As a graffiti writer you’re always trying to find a spot that’s going to stay longer,” Hon said. “We’re always pinching ourselves. We’re getting paid to paint this stuff and it stays up for year, so it’s a dream come true.”  ABV