A young man with glasses standing in front of a mural
Steva Ha is a muralist and graphic designer. Photo by Yastika Guru.

Steve Ha was 18 years old when he was first arrested. He was working on some graffiti in San Jose when the police showed up. 

“It’s funny, the whole thing was on the news. I have a VHS tape that my dad recorded. We call it “the fame and shame tape” because, on one hand, he was so happy to see me on the news, but on the other hand, he hated why I was on the news.” Ha ended up paying a fine and doing some community service. 

Now 43, Ha still loves graffiti. You’ll spot him and the rest of his collective “Illuminaries” working hard at 16th and Capp streets, revamping the wall of the Victoria Theatre (San Francisco’s oldest operating theater) over the next two days. 

The Illuminaries, established in 2017, are a mural group of graphic designers and tattoo and mural artists. They aim to improve indoor and outdoor spaces through art, putting “paint where it ain’t” and beautifying various spots. Their niches are sports, entertainment and schools. 

The members come from all over the Bay Area and met each other as friends of friends, or through the internet. Ha was born in San Francisco but soon moved to Fremont. He’s been into art for as long as he can remember. It started with tracing at age 5, and grew into going to school and college for art, though his work is predominantly self-taught, he says. 

The Illuminaries’ current project at the Victoria Theatre is mask-themed. They were contacted and commissioned by the owners. “A lot of it is letters, but we’re also doing a kabuki mask, the rapper MF Doom’s mask. And the owner wanted a seal, so we’re doing a laugh-now-cry-later mask that the seal is wearing. We have curtains and spotlights on the side.”

All of the members have other sources of income on the side. “We’re like the Wu-Tang Clan,” says Ha, who works in graphic design, such as logo development, for a studio called Flavor Innovator. Emagn does graphic design and teaching on the side. Romali is a tattoo artist. Krupt does software app development.

Emagn, Romali, Krupt and Steve are working on a graffiti production at Victoria Theatre. Photo by Yastika Guru.

The group works on projects of all scales and types. They do wood cutouts, paint on canvases, and make their own clothing. 

As someone who started out in graffiti and eventually turned that into legal artwork that could earn him a living, Ha describes the nuanced trade offs. 

Part of it is the contrast between commissioned versus self-initiated projects. Sometimes their projects are serendipitous; they spot a wall that’s tagged up all over, and they like the spot, so they talk to the owners and ask to paint it. “Since it’s for free, we get to do what we want, we get to exercise our own skill and time.” 

The Victoria Theatre project is commissioned, but also pretty unsupervised. “They’re letting us do what we want to, since they’ve seen our portfolio and trust us.” 

But sometimes, if they get commissioned and paid for a project, the owners get to interject a lot. “So there’s this internal struggle of, ‘Is this what I want to paint? Is it going to look good on my portfolio? Am I going to have fun doing it?’” says Ha.  “Sometimes you do projects and it’s like, yeah, I got paid, but you don’t have fun doing it. It’s always about striking the balance. And since it’s our work, we get to kind of dictate how that pendulum swings. If you don’t want to work with us, that’s fine.”

Another complication is criticism from purists. The members of Illuminaries are originally graffiti artists, but now do a lot of commissioned murals. “They aren’t really graffiti, they don’t look like graffiti. So some people are like, ‘ohhh, you’re getting paid to do that, legal beagle, you’re just doing legal artwork, you’re helping gentrify a neighborhood,’ or whatever.” 

Ha’s favorite project was a mural they did in downtown Oakland, a 100 -by-100 foot mural depicting an elephant carrying the town on its back. It took three weeks to complete and was the largest mural they had ever done. 

Part of the challenge there was technical. “We didn’t even know how to get the artwork onto such a big surface.” People have different ways of doing this. Some people use a grid system; the Illuminaries used a projector. 

With the elephant mural, Krupt’s software-development skills came in handy. He made a little quick program. He stuck a phone on one side and projected the image live onto his other phone. This way, they could see where they were, every five seconds. 

But the “main, main, main thing” was, they are all dead scared of heights. 

“Everyday we were praying, like, ‘please, just watch out for us,’” Ha laughed 

You can find the Illuminaries on Instagram.

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Yastika is from India. She spends a lot of time on public transport.

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