At Korean restaurant Ohgane on 40th and Broadway in Oakland stands a 130 feet mural painted by graduating Mills College second-year MFA studio candidate, Dave Young Kim. The mural displays the narrative of an iconic figure in Korean history, Yu Gwan-sun. For two months, Kim battled cars as he painted the mural located in the restaurant parking lot.
Kim has painted 18 murals around Oakland, including those located at 8th and Campbell across the street from the West Oakland Bart Station, at the Oakland Fire Station on 14th Street, and the East Oakland Youth Center.
Many of the murals Kim has painted were commissioned through the Community Rejuvenation Project [CRP], an Oakland-based organization aimed at beautifying and unifying communities one mural at a time. Through CRP, artists such as Kim contact businesses to ask if they’d like a mural painted on the side of their building. While some say yes or no, many businesses simply do not answer such inquires, prompting Kim and other artists to paint the murals anyway. While this is technically illegal, Kim and his collaborators do this in broad daylight, knowing that the police force has other things to worry about.
“[The police] are busy in Oakland; we’re putting quality work up on the streets. That is not a priority for them. They probably see good stuff happening, and let it happen until it becomes a problem,” Kim said. “Once, I had a cop come up to me and ask if I could paint a mural for him.”
Kim’s interest in painting murals began when he moved to Torrence, California as teenager and joined a gang. In this setting, graffiti was used as a way to alert other gangs that they were entering his gang’s area. Since then, his graffiti-style murals have evolved into more than markers of territory, and he looks back on his time as a gang member with a deeper understanding.
“It’s sort of a right of passage. I guess I was never hardcore,” Kim said. “All my friends joined this gang, and in the name of trying to belong to something and wanting to hang out with my buddies, I joined too.”
After high school, Kim attended the University of California, Davis. He joined a fraternity right away, “following that same desire to be apart of something.”
At Davis, Kim got into some trouble. In order to avoid expulsion, he had to switch his major from animal science to art and convince the Dean of Students that he would succeed as an art major. Though he clearly has succeeded as an artist, he wasn’t always sure that he would. After graduating from UC Davis, Kim traveled and then took a job in San Francisco not knowing what to do next. But then he had a moment of clarity.
“At some point I realized I needed to take ownership of this art thing, so I started doing that full-time and got into the MFA program at Mills,” Kim said. “Now I’m here.”
In September 2013, Los Angeles Korean Times published a short article about Kim. Miga Oh, the owner of the Korean restaurant Ohgane, saw the article and gave Kim a call in hopes that he would paint a mural for her restaurant.
A video of Dave Young Kim talking about who his mural is about: Yu Gwan-sun. Filmed and edited by Amanda Edwards.
Oh was lenient with the mural assignment for Kim, which made it hard for him to think of a subject. Kim began to think of his culture and eventually decided to tell the story of an iconic figure in Korean history and his distant relative, Yu Gwan-sun. Yu was a student during the time Korea was occupied by Japan in 1910 and led a demonstration that got her parents killed and herself imprisoned. At the age of 19, Yu died in prison, which immortalized her and made her a martyr for Korea. The series of images that appear on this particular mural show Yu in different stages of her life.
“I had been exploring my Korean culture. I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable taking the gig if I hadn’t been exploring my culture at the time,” Kim said.
Kate Rhoades, a Mills College graduate student in the studio art department, has collaborated with Kim on videos and murals. She has a studio next to Kim and has spent a lot of time getting to know him and his artwork.
“Dave is very passionate about his family and giving back to the Oakland community,” Rhoades said, “and I think you can see that in all of his work.”
Hung Liu, a Mills art professor who worked with Kim in the Chinese cultural department, introduced Kim to Whitfield Lovell, an artist who inspired this mural along with other graffiti artists that Kim likes.
“Dave is an artist who is open and willing to learn new ways of making art,” Liu said. “He has the will and ability to conceive and complete largescale murals by working with the communities well and keeping their interest in mind.”
Kim believes that his studio art experience at Mills has made him a better artist and helped him understand his craft.
“I think about my work differently and more effectively,” Kim said, “which helps me say what I want to say through medium[s].”
His studies also helped him better understand the idea of a narrative, which helped him shape what he wanted to do: tell stories through art.
“Being here [at Mills], I was well guided and well shaped into doing that successfully,” Kim said.
Kim is currently in the process of working on his thesis show, which opens May 3rd at the Mills College Art Museum. It is a large scale installation piece, seven pieces of 10 foot plywood, about Korean students who demonstrated during the war.
Once he graduates, Kim hopes to continue doing murals.
“Murals are fun to do and accessible to the public, which I enjoy. I like doing them,” Kim said. “After grad school, I think you can go either the path of teaching or the path of a career artist. I want to go the career artist path. I like a lot of hustling. I’ll go out there, make a lot of work, throw it out there and…see where it goes.”
A shortened version of this profile will be featured in The Campanil‘s special Commencement issue coming out Tuesday, May 6.
For more photos of Dave Young Kim and his work, check out our Flickr album below.
For more graduation-related posts, check out The Campanil‘s designated 2014 Commencement webpage here or click on the “Commencement” link in the upper right hand corner of the header.