asian art museum
Together, Let's Be
An interactive participatory mural for the Asian Art Museum, designed to spark community conversations around the topic of creative compassion.
I'm a first-generation Chinese-American, born and raised in the Bay Area. My parents immigrated to the US from China almost 30 years ago, and my childhood was a blend of both cultures. So when Creative Lead Marie Applegate-Swanson reached out from the Asian Art Museum to collaborate on a pair of 30 foot interactive murals, I was beyond excited.

The two installations sit right at the entrance of the museum, directly across from City Hall. One side features a swirl of surreal, magical creatures — characters reading atop a helpful crane, splashing with a giant koi, and dancing with a ferocious dragon. Since the murals are situated in a bustling area in the Civic Center, my goal was to work with a colorful palette that brought brightness and unexpected whimsicality to the otherwise commercial block.
painted in San Francisco
For the community
An interactive experience
As the Creative Lead behind the Village Artist Corner project, Marie had a two-year vision to feature a rotation of mural exhibitions centered around the theme of creative compassion and everyday heroism. Our collaboration, running from July to Dec 2019, would be the first in that series. Her idea was to invite participants to write down their intentions, goals, and hopes in the space — transforming the mural itself into a kind of community wall.

From there, we fleshed out the details of this interactive experience, called "Together, Let's Be _______." Every month there was a new word (eg. "Courageous" in July, "Generous" in December), that also roughly mapped to different stages in the Hero's Journey. Participants from the public were invited to write down their intentions as it related to that month's prompt, and then stick it onto the corresponding color-coordinated section of the mural. Marie and a team of coordinators facilitated the activation's 6 month-run, and by the end of the year, the mural was filled with thousands of participants' intentions and goals.
Justin Yee
Justin Yee
To start, participants were given a specific color-coded sticker with that month's prompt, and invited to write down their goals and hopes related to that word.
Justin Yee
Participants then affixed their note on the section matching their color-coded sticker.
Justin Yee
When participants fulfilled their goal, they'd then return to mark their original sticker.
Justin Yee
Creative Director Marie Applegate-Swanson and her team of facilitators ran this activation every month on the museum's First Sundays.
Behind the scenes
Sketching, painting, building
In the initial sketch phase of this project, I decided to go back to my roots. To start, I took a walk through Chinatown. Walking through the streets always brings me back to my own childhood, as growing up as a Chinese-American kid, balancing both cultures. I sipped on boba as a dragon dance group marched by in the street. I walked through the park, past toddlers playing with their grandparents, through alleyways marked with red paper lanterns. And I couldn't help but smile at the nostalgia conjured by these simple, familiar moments.

As such, I sketched a concept around the magic of these "everyday moments" — slices of everyday life filled with their own kind of whimsical magic.
Mural 01: Original sketch
Mural 01: Digital final
For the second mural, Marie and I discussed creating a simpler, more abstract pattern with larger color shape blocks. I painted a blooming lotus as the central focal point, symbolic of the conversations that we hoped would unfold with this installation.
Mural 02: Original sketch
Mural 02: Digital final
It truly took a village to create, paint, and install this mural. Marie art-directed and led this, and has been running the monthly activations with facilitators. And an incredible team of fabricators, museum coordinators, stewards, and dear friends all helped to bring this to life.
My studiomates Amy, Shirley, and Catherine (not pictured) helped me work on this mural and were gracious enough to let me take over our studio with these giant panels.
A lot of amazing friends like Ubin (above) helped me paint, prep, and lift this mural. Thank you Soraya, Nicole, Parteek, Sean, Jex, Mary, Allison Wyckoff and Marie!
Justin Yee
Installation with fabricator Paul Troutman. Thanks for training me in how install these boards and use a drill, Paul!
The wonderful Village Artist Corner stewards, who take care of the VAC space as part of a program in partnership with the Hunters Point Family.
Justin Yee
Justin Yee
Marie and Paul in the background, watching on.
My personal goal for this project was to inject a bit of color, whimsy, and imaginative magic into an otherwise typically grey, commercial city block — and to create that space for people to write down their secret dreams, hopes, and fears. I feel really grateful to Marie and the Asian Art Museum for this opportunity, and be sure to check out their upcoming VAC projects at monthly First Sunday activations!
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
I love this quote, because it rings true. Everyone is going through their own struggles and narratives in their own personal, internal lives. And there's power and beauty in creating a safe, welcoming space for people to come together and share what they're going through — to spark conversations and realize that you're not alone.
Video: Louie, one of the stewards at the Village Artist Corner, surprised me with this really kind message about what the mural means to him and the community.
Justin Yee
Sometimes I'll sneak pieces of my own life into my paintings. This is a younger me and my artistic grandma, painting a giant koi fish.
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Thank you

Marie Applegate-Swanson, Creative Director, VAC (Asian Art Museum)

Allison Wyckoff, Family and Youth Programs Coordinator (Asian Art Museum)

Justin Yee, Photographer

Paul Troutman, Fabricator

Supported by: the Village Artist Corner, the City of SF, Hunters Point Family, and the Asian Art Museum. Based on research by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo and Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey.