Street artist Phil Lumbang took a random doodle and turned it into a local phenomenon, not to mention a sweet living.
ISSUE: Summer 2012
STORY: Jimmy Lee
PHOTO: Diana King
Phil Lumbang has some advice for other street artists out there: Try painting in the daylight. It worked for him.
“I wasn’t some vandal in the middle of the night with a hoodie on and with spray cans going,” says Lumbang. “But if I’m out on a Sunday afternoon where everybody can see me, then [people might think,] ‘Hey, that guy belongs there.’ That’s a little trick. … Act natural. When you see a cop, don’t run.”
The fact that Lumbang’s graffiti consisted of cute bears drawn freehand might have kept him free from rousting by the LAPD. But when those cuddly-looking creatures started to pop up in L.A. neighborhoods like Los Feliz and Silver Lake about five years ago, their admirers bestowed them a name: Awesome Bears. And an art phenomenon was born.
Drawing has always come naturally to Lumbang. The son of Filipino immigrants who grew up in Sacramento, Calif., can’t remember a time when he wasn’t marking up some surface. “I was just drawing on everything. I was drawing on walls,” says Lumbang. “My parents bought something huge, and there was a big cardboard box for it. I think that’s my fondest memory of drawing, of me sitting in front of the TV with this huge card- board box and just drawing on it.”
But being lazy also came easily, Lumbang admits. “I have this saying: Don’t work hard; work smart.” The 1.8 high school GPA is indicative of neither work nor smarts. And when he was just lying around the house for about a year after graduation, it was his mom who suggested that he attend the Art Institute in San Diego.
There, his drive and pride kicked in. “I’m very competitive when it comes to art. I want to show my skills,” says Lumbang. It led to an internship at Studio Number One, the design firm founded by Shepard Fairey, and then a job, after earning his associate’s degree.
“When I started working at [Studio Number One], I was like, ‘This is my career. I’m going to work my way up the cor- porate ladder, and I’m going to end up being art director,’” says Lumbang.
But his creativity got the better of him. One day, Lumbang was sketching in his notebook. “I just started drawing these bears, out of the blue,” he remembers. “I was like, dang, these guys are super cute. And they brought a smile to my face.”
When the Awesome Bears started earning him money, first via a run of 100 original prints, he discovered he could make a living as an artist. He also got some encouragement from Fairey. “Shepard inspired me to go and do my own thing,” says Lumbang.
Today, Lumbang sells paintings, designs T-shirts and even does some freelance graphic design work for Studio Number One, all while balancing fatherhood. Clearly, at the age of 26, he’s figured out the working-smart part of his personal mantra.
— Jimmy Lee