In his mid-twenties, Andrew Hem was a few years out of art school and working at an animation studio doing character design. It was a good job, but something inside him was pushing him to devote more time to his own projects.

He asked his bosses if it was possible to work part-time. When they said no, he faced a choice: Continue working at the studio, or leave and pursue projects entirely on his own. Eventually he came to think about how different such a decision might look in the future.

“Obviously my mom was thinking I was crazy. It was definitely scary, but at the same time I was feeling like, I can’t do it when I’m older. I was 25 quitting, right? But if I was 35, I wouldn’t be able to quit and say, Hey I’m done,” Hem said in an interview.

“When you’re younger, you want to start a band. But when you’re older, you realize, you can’t really start a band [when you have] kids,”

Hem left for what he thought would be a one-to-two year experiment. Seventeen years later, he is a sought-after muralist whose work can be seen everywhere from Southern California to Helsinki.

As he predicted, balancing art with life’s responsibilities now looks different for Hem. His latest work is a block-long mural along the south wall of the Main Street offices of Labib Funk + Associates. It’s a sprawling outdoor scene of kids happily racing over lush, rolling hills. But Hem won’t be there Aug. 27 for the unveiling at the El Segundo Art Walk: It’s his son’s first birthday.

“When you’re younger, you want to start a band. But when you’re older, you realize, you can’t really start a band [when you have] kids,” Hem said.

Hem was born in Cambodia and arrived in the United States as an infant. After a brief stint in Richmond, Virginia, his family relocated to Culver City. In his youth, he was drawn into the West Los Angeles graffiti scene. He joined a crew known as Dreams2Reality, and painted under the moniker Cyfe.

Hem did not particularly like the gritty thrill of sneaking out late at night or early in the morning to tag; it was the companionship that came with it.

“I think I was a little bit of a loner,” Hem said. “And the fact that I did something and then all of a sudden people acknowledge it and say, ‘Hey you wanna come with us and paint?’ I was like, ‘Wow, I actually have a buddy now.’” As he began establishing himself as a muralist, the graffiti scene’s valorization of authenticity continued to influence him. His first big job for a mural brought him back to Richmond. The painting was to be at least twice the size of anything he had done previously, and he initially planned to start work by “projecting,” a common technique in which a muralist arrives at the project scene at night and projects a sketch of the work onto the wall, then traces the projection to serve as an outline. But, told that some in the scene dismissed projecting as a kind of cred-compromising crutch, he began a long period of freehanding murals.

Hem was talented enough to pull it off, including on a mural taking up one side of a nine-story building. But doing things “the old-fashioned way” inevitably adds time to a project — time that, as a new father, he can no longer sacrifice to vanity.

On a recent El Segundo afternoon, Hem lowered himself on the scissor lift he’d been using to focus on a section about ten feet in the air. Back on the ground, he walked backward for a few paces to see how the work was shaping up. Hem’s head, shielded by a camouflage bucket hat, swiveled slowly back and forth as he tried to make sure the piece as a whole was cohering.

Working on a canvas too big to take in at once is both the challenge and the charm of mural painting. The sense of motion needed to experience them suggests one reason why Southern California, entangled with the automobile, has long been thought of the country’s mural capital.

Hem recalled being captivated as a kid by the huge murals of artist Kent Twitchell, which he mostly encountered while motoring along the region’s freeways. The El Segundo mural, with its scene of a diverse group of children at play — getting along in ways that adults in 2022 seem increasingly incapable of — suggests youth running optimistically into the future.

“When I was a kid, I know how much murals affected me,” Hem said. “I just want to return the favor.”