Be forewarned, there are many, many words below. I am 38 years old as I write this and my story isn't an easy one to tell. People often ask, "where are you from?", and I've always struggled to give the short version. I've never really told the long(er) version, so I'll do my best by briefly sharing the most impactful moments of my life. Some of the info below might be hard to read, but they have all shaped me as a person and these experiences inform my artistic practice.
I suppose I should start with my name. I'm Mike Han. That's not my full given name, but it's what I go by. My story begins with my parents, who both immigrated from Seoul, Korea where they were born. My father landed in Ypsilanti, and my mother in Detroit’s Cass Corridor both during the early 70’s. They met in Ann Arbor several years later, got married, then had me. I was born at the University of Michigan hospital and was cradled in a custom Eames rocking chair that Herman Miller made for me (like, it's got my full given name and birthdate engraved on a small plaque on the back of the maize and blue chair) as my dad worked for them at the time.
I only lived in my "hometown" for a moment, as we moved to Boston shortly after, that's where my sister was born. It would take me 35 years to return to Ann Arbor, after moving 25 times, living in 9 different states from coast to coast, but would leave Ann Arbor to eventually set down permanent roots in the city I call home, Detroit.
But that's the short version. Hope you've got a coffee in hand. Here we go...
Our family moved from Boston to Holland, MI, then Westport, CT when dad took a job at Knoll in NYC. I was 4 or 5 by that time and while living in Connecticut, I got to experience NYC regularly as dad commuted into the city daily. In NYC I fell in love with graffiti, sushi, and intangible aspects of the city during my elementary school years. While visiting the city, my parents exposed me to the work of Keith Haring through his Pop Shop in Soho, modern design, and museums like the Guggenheim.
In Connecticut I had Korean friends, went to Korean church, and took Korean language classes. I had two best friends, one white and one Korean. From kindergarten through 5th grade, I developed a diverse group of friend groups, was accepted, and even became one of the "cool kids", you know, the kind that gets to sit in the back of the bus. But before finishing 5th grade, we moved to a very small rural town in SW Michigan as my dad took a new job. This dramatic shift in culture had a huge impact on me as I lost my connection to the city I loved, Korean friends and the language.
In this predominately white community (my family was the only Asian family in town), I became aware for the first time in my life that I was different (and that it wasn't ok). I was bullied throughout middle school, regularly humiliated because of the way I looked, called every name, and used as a punching bag during school dances. In high school a senior quickly carried the torch from my last bully and made a point to antagonize me between each class period during my freshman year. He was at least a foot taller than me, and his words and actions caused me to get physically sick to my stomach. I would often raise my hand during class to use the restroom because I couldn't go between periods.
We moved to Plymouth, situated between Ann Arbor and Detroit, for my sophomore year in high school where I perpetuated white norms learned in SW Michigan to be “normal” in my new school. I would make fun of myself and Asians with accents as a strategy to fit in and befriend the white kids. Asians in the school told me I was racist against my own people which I thought was ridiculous at the time, but found some truth in it many years later upon reflecting on this period of time that deeply damaged my identity, self esteem, and left me without any confidence.
My passion for art and design as a child soaking up NYC was lost for a decade as I had no creative stimulus from 5th grade to junior year of college. At 21 years old, I attempted suicide in West Lafayette Indiana while attending Purdue. I dropped out of school and came back to Plymouth to stay with my parents and recover. I was diagnosed with high social anxiety, chronic depression, and ADD, as I met with a therapist.
I finally opened up to my parents about my personal struggles and how I felt I had to live my life to make them happy and I couldn't do it anymore. I was miserable, and didn’t know who I was. I had so much work to do, to undo the negative feelings I had about my heritage and myself. I had never been to Korea because the last thing I wanted to be was different while living in predominantly white communities for a decade. While living in the Midwest I did everything I could to erase my heritage, was ashamed of who I was, and for the first time in my life, I wanted to change that.
On my virgin visit to Korea, my parents and I toured the country eating and experiencing everything from Jeju to Seoul. I loved it so much that our one week trip turned into me staying there for three months. I experienced craftsmen carving dojang (stamps made of family names which are used to sign formal documents), a master calligrapher writing on handmade paper, and the architecture of traditional homes and temples. These moments were seared into my brain, and awakened my creative soul which led me to participate in my first art show in Ssamziegil, a building in Insadong which is a creative and cultural center of Seoul.
Inspired by my experiences in Korea, I applied to Otis College of Art and Design in California with a portfolio made in a couple days, drawn on lined paper. I, nor the students at Otis, could understand why I was accepted. They ridiculed my work as their portfolios were filled with beautiful life drawings and perfectly rendered still lifes. I didn’t fit in with the fancy artists, and so I dropped out after two semesters.
While in LA, I auditioned to be a sushi chef at Katsuya by Starck, a famed sushi restaurant that was opening in Glendale. I beat out chefs with far more experience, and after two months caught the attention of the chef owner Katsuya who asked me to work at his personal restaurant, Katsu-ya in Encino.
After training at Katsu-ya, I made my way back to Detroit for an opportunity to be the head sushi chef of Oslo in downtown Detroit. I moved back and met the owners but realized there were many aspects of the restaurant I couldn’t fix, so I had to decline the position. While downtown, I had the opportunity to take time and explore it for the first time with unbiased open eyes, and in 2010 I fell in love with Detroit city.
Inspired by the city, I founded Street Culture Mash (SCM) as a blog, exploring the dynamic creative culture of Detroit, and moved into an artist loft in Corktown. My blog quickly turned into a creative agency, and from 2011-2013 I created an opportunity on Woodward, where Oslo was located, as most of the storefronts were vacant. I transformed seven of those vacant buildings into a world class public art gallery called the Woodward Windows Project in partnership with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Farbman Group, 323 East, and Strategic Staffing Solutions.
This project made front page news, and was covered by all the local media outlets, print and TV. I was making art in downtown, working with vitaminwater and Red Bull, and creating opportunities for the talented friends I was making. But SCM never made enough money to support the small team of creatives that powered it. So in 2013 my short lived creative agency and unsustainable art practice went out of business.
I set out to learn Art Direction at Columbia College Chicago (CCC) with the intention of rebooting SCM, but successfully next time. At CCC I helped launch their inaugural public art project on Wabash (now called the Wabash Arts Corridor) as the only student participant because of my work developing Woodward Windows. While at CCC, I convinced one of my professors to let me miss finals to do an independent project which was to create the We Are Detroit Mural with citizens of the city, that was created coincidentally while the city declared bankruptcy on July 18th, 2013.
To my dismay, the school couldn’t help me build a creative business, they could only train me to get a job, and once again I dropped out to make sushi. I walked into Roka Akor in River North Chicago and landed the Sushi Sous Chef position. I worked there for a year, then came back to Detroit to partner with Social Sushi to open a sustainable sushi restaurant in front of Michigan Central Station inside shipping containers. We pitched the concept on A&E’s Project Startup and lost to Bonza (the chickpea pasta in stores nationwide), and when the building project fell through, I returned to Roka Akor.
Soon after my return to Chicago, I was promoted to Head Sushi Chef. I worked there for a year until making another attempt at opening a sustainable sushi concept in Detroit called Itadaku. I was in the Hatch Competition and missed the cut off for the finals by a handful of votes. The press helped me in pitching my concept to a number of investors who made offers but required majority ownership. I declined all of them. I failed to get loans and didn't have any money to open so I had to move again to advance my skills as a sushi chef.
I staged (trial day) at Michelin starred restaurants like Masa, Shuko, and Gari, and received offers from all of them but declined them to accept a position at Mayanoki to open and helm NYC’s first sustainable omakase sushi restaurant. My work was well received, and The Village Voice deemed it one of NYC’s Best New Restaurants in 2017 alongside Michelin star restaurants like Cote, and featured my work in the last print issue of the publication.
I was the only employee in the restaurant, which was an eight seat sushi counter driven by my tasting menu. My vision for the restaurant differed from that of the four owners (yes, there were four owners for an eight seat restaurant), and so I left to take the Head Sushi position at world renowned Zuma Restaurant in Miami. While at Zuma, I competed in a Shark Tank like competition which would select chefs for a new food hall in Detroit. I flew in to do a tasting for the judges, and was one of the four winners who beat out hundred applicants.
In 2019, I opened Pursue, Detroit’s first sustainable sushi concept inside the Fort Street Galley in downtown Detroit. Six months later, I was kicked out of the food hall as new investors of the Food Hall demanded I generate more revenue by selling California rolls and make the menu “more accessible”. I refused, so they terminated my contract. On the last day in the space, I held a one night only omakase sushi experience in the private dining room to show Detroit for the first time what I could do. After the meal, I thanked each guest before they left, and one of the guests offered me a restaurant in Ann Arbor on the spot.
Unfortunately had to decline as I had already agreed to be the Chef de Cuisine of Bamboo Sushi (the world’s first certified sustainable sushi restaurant group) in Denver. While in Denver, I was selected by the restaurant group to represent Bamboo Sushi in NYC to make sushi at the James Beard House for a sustainable seafood dinner with acclaimed chefs from around the country.
I stayed in touch with the omakase dinner guest while in Denver, and after half a year I decided to take the opportunity to open up my dream omakase sushi experience in downtown Ann Arbor. The cuisine would tell the story of the place I was born with flavors of my heritage using techniques I learned through sushi. I had painted a mural for the space which would be the backdrop for the dinners, worked with a ceramic studio in Ann Arbor to make tablewares for the concept, and carefully sourced traditional Korean bronzeware for one of the courses.
In May of 2020, one month before opening, COVID came and crushed my restaurant before it could welcome its first guest. This fourth attempt to open a sushi restaurant broke my spirit and left me deeply depressed, unemployed, and hopeless because I had no idea if or when intimate dining experiences would be possible again.
In November of 2020, after six months of unemployment, I ran out of money (the State of Michigan had a glitch in the unemployment distribution, so the money I was supposed to receive wasn’t paid out until the spring of 2021). I received a random email requesting a mural for a private residence and found hope in art as that commission paid my bills. Without a certain future and no idea how to make money, I decided to go all in on my art as I had nothing to lose. I put all my energy into creating new work and fulfilling commissions, painting on any and everything people requested.
On December 31st, 2020, I launched my first solo show on blueprints salvaged nearly a decade ago from the building that is now Shinola Hotel. I made the paintings in my Detroit apartment, and hung the work on every available wall. The show was launched on my website, because I didn’t have access to a gallery, and because of the limitations imposed by COVID.
My unique use of a living space was featured on Apartment Therapy, and I nearly sold out the entire show. I’m writing this on December 9th, 2022, almost exactly two years after that first commission which kick started everything. In two short years I went from hopeless to a successful full time artist. I have made a better living than I ever did as a sushi chef, and I’ve been able to help raise over $275,000 for various non-profits and charitable causes that I care about with my artwork during this short period of time.
Three days from writing this, I will close on a house, and for the first time in my 38 years of existence, I will be home. The House of Han will be my permanent place to create and present my artwork proudly from historic Rosedale Park, Detroit.
I’m so grateful for everyone who has followed, supported, and collaborated with me on this insane journey. I cannot fully express my gratitude to my parents who have been there for me during the worst of times, and believed in me even when others laughed at my very public failures. I love you all, thank you.