The cycle of life is creation, life, destruction, and rebirth. Designer and graffiti artist Mike Han is adding another layer to that: preservation through destruction. Rather than birthing something completely new, he prefers to continue the life cycle of objects by injecting them with new meaning for a true rebirth.
In his latest exhibition, United by Design at Playground Detroit, Han debuted two series of graffiti paintings called Modern Vandalism that use Albert Kahn and Minoru Yamasaki blueprints as a canvas. Informed by the idea of sustainability, Han’s creations are the result of destruction.
“It’s very problematic to make things because there’s a sacrifice that has to be made, and so I’m enamored with these because in this series I take things that are garbage or are no longer useful,” he tells Metro Times. “The building is made. They’re not plans anymore. So how do you then take this thing that no longer has any life, value, or purpose, and then change that? How can you make it so that you want to preserve or treasure it, and it becomes an heirloom?”
By painting Korean-inspired graffiti patterns on them, apparently, preserving instead of defacing, like graffiti is most commonly perceived as doing.
“That act of destruction becomes an act of preservation,” Han says. “To do that with architecture, with graffiti to me is very fun — the idea of destroying to preserve or enhance as a result of vandalism.”
The literal blue Albert Kahn blueprints Han uses for this exhibit are of a Sales and Service Building for Argonaut Realty Corp. at Alexandrine and Vermont in Detroit. In the corner, we can see it dated May of 1927, but Han says they’re actually reprints from the 1960s rather than the 1927 originals.
Blueprints in the Minoru Yamasaki series are from a building in San Francisco and were salvaged by Woodward Throwbacks and given to Han.
“When they go into abandoned buildings or projects they’re going to rehab, a lot of these things are just left behind,” he explains. “They’re saved, then they collect dust and get thrown out. Blueprints are not as rare as one might think, but finding an Albert Kahn or Yamasaki is pretty amazing.”
United by Design is part of the Detroit Month of Design, which sees exhibitions, installations, and activations across the city during September every year. Many of the exhibits — including Han’s and a “Trashion Show” featuring upcycled fashion made from plastic — have sustainability themes.
Besides the blueprint series, the exhibit includes several collaborations with Han’s designs, like funky 3D-printed tables produced by Haddy, wall art and a working speaker covered with Han’s work through Leon Speakers, and even a beer with a can and flavor profile created by Han. The beer, a sour ale called Onyx Mist, is a collaboration between Han and Mothfire Brewing. It includes a blend of blackcurrant, spicy Korean gochugaru, and blackberry, giving it a vibrant purple color.
Han planned for the Haddy tables to be made from recycled marine plastics and post-consumer waste materials, but couldn’t accomplish that in time for the Playground Detroit exhibit. While the pieces on display aren’t made from sustainable materials, he’s working on a program with the company where customers who recycle their furniture to be remade into new pieces will get a discount on future purchases.
“By having that, everybody wins,” he says. “We get the material back and we get to make new furniture. You get new furniture and you get a discount because you gave us the material back. So it allows people to consume, but these things aren’t going to end up in a landfill … If these things can be made responsibly and we can produce them at an affordable cost, it’s a really wonderful direction for people to be able to have both art and design.”
Where to see his work: United by Design is on display until Saturday, Sept. 30 at Playground Detroit. An artist talk is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 16; 2845 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; playgrounddetroit.com.