Chalk it up to faith, or Kobe Bryant or Astrid Chitamun of European Optical in Laguna Beach. Whatever the inspiration, graffiti artist Hung Tran’s mural of the tragically killed former Laker and his daughter Gianna on a wall on Cress Street transformed the artist from an ex-con to a sober and creative talent whose career has launched like the billionaire rocket ships currently shooting into space.
It’s also made the corner of Cress Street and South Coast Highway a tourist destination for Kobe fans looking for mural Number 22 on the worldwide kobemural.com map, which documents 480 murals of the basketball star globally.
A few months ago, after the Cress Street mural was vandalized for the second time and then recently repainted with the addition of Gigi Bryant—who, along with seven others, also perished when the helicopter they were riding in crashed—Tran, who was by then a reformed addict who had done some jail time, revealed himself as the artist.
In an homage to the internationally famous street artist Banksy, Tran’s mural depicted the longtime Laker airborne in his Number 8 Jersey, a dropshadow of Michael Jordan behind him, dunking a heart-shaped balloon into the building’s vent, as well as a Banksy-esque little girl with a balloon. The mural went up overnight on Feb. 1, 2020, a week after the tragic accident, on the wall of what was then the Landmark Surf Shop building, now the home of European Optical. No one knew HungFineArt was the artist and Tran said he didn’t think the mural would stay up for long.
Normally, due to the notorious impermanence of street art, graffiti art is painted over. It’s been vandalized and restored twice with the Banksy girl as the main target, but the Kobe mural has garnered such a positive response from tourists and locals and brought so much attention to the artist that Chitamun, who took over the lease of the front of the building in March of 2020, has fought for its survival and, so far, has been successful.
“After the first graffiti tagging incident six months ago, I had to convince the landlord of the building not to paint over the mural,” said Chitamun, who lauded the mural for the joyful response from passersby and tourists. She also has a personal connection: her children were classmates of the Bryants. “I told the landlord that people come every day leaving flowers, taking pictures. I took videos and photographs daily of locals and tourists taking selfies and leaving mementos and sent them to him. I finally persuaded him to keep it. I met the artist in March and I had paint and he and some locals painted over the tagging. I and the other tenants here are happy with Kobe there. I have to protect it for all the people who want to see it!”
Tran, who ironically has gone by the nickname “Hunksy” for many years (that was the mysterious signature on the wall before the mural was defaced the first time), happily erased the tagger’s second strike and replaced the Banksy girl with an image of Gianna with a basketball emblazoned with “2,” the number on her soccer and basketball jerseys. Tran said he has been emotionally overwhelmed by the response to the mural, with passersby sharing heartfelt stories of their own encounters with Kobe and a documentary filmmaker including him in a film about the Kobe murals, along with five other artists. Vanessa Bryant posted an image on Instagram of the mural on Father’s Day and Klay Thompson of the Golden State warriors even stopped by for a photo.
For his part, Tran, a refugee from Vietnam who has struggled with sobriety in the past, said the mural has given him a new lease on life. His artwork —irreverent political posters, various Kobe prints and skate decks, among others—hangs in Oceanside where he painted a mural of Michael Jordan (the model for the Kobe mural in Laguna Beach) and at the Sound Spectrum and Wyland Gallery in Laguna Beach. He’s now working with the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach as a volunteer undercover janitor artist going by the name of Bruce Lee, helping kids create art and developing another Kobe mural, this time as Number 24. He is now committed to sobriety, he said, as well as God.
“I am so grateful that this Kobe mural changed my life in so many ways spiritually and opened up so many doors for me,” Tran said. “To see locals stop to tell their stories and the impact it had on them and their family members was touching and I’m happy that Kobe can hang awhile in Laguna Beach.”
Regarding his collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club, Tran said: “I want to see kids be kids and grow up to be creative adults that change the world through works of art. That is truly my mission from God—to make a nest for the youth to be nurtured into the future leaders the world so desperately needs.”