Dave Kim has built a career around the 5-string electric violin -- an instrument he's taken everywhere from conference halls to dance floors.
"We opened up for a lot of big bands such as Hootie and the Blowfish, Third Eye Blind, Dishwalla, Marcy Playground, Everclear," he said.
Kim has given TED talks and lit up the floors of San Francisco's hottest nightclubs with his 5-string black Zeta MIDI violin and another 5-string by Ted Brewer made of illuminated clear acrylic. He carries the instruments in a well-worn black road case with his initials on it.
"If I was caught in a fire, I would make sure I'd grab my kids, and then my violins, and that's it," Kim said.
.@DaveKimMusic has traveled the world with his electric violins — which were stolen over the weekend in Alamo Square. Now, he has them back thanks to @TheTileApp and @DalyCityPD. pic.twitter.com/oPraY0nOXa— Jonathan Bloom (@BloomTV) March 24, 2018
Kim had just finished playing the Red Cross Gala at San Francisco City Hall, sharing the stage with superstar DJ Steve Aoki, and went to spend the night at a friend's place near Alamo Square.
"Came to my car the next morning and my violins were gone," Kim said.
He admits he panicked. One of the violins was made by a company that went out of business years ago. The other was never sold in the United States. Replacing them would be difficult or impossible, not to mention costly.
But Kim said he didn't give up hope: A few months back, he'd put a Tile in a hidden part of his instrument case, to help keep track of the violins amid the chaos of playing shows at Burning Man. Tile is a small plastic square that uses low-energy Bluetooth to broadcast its location to the owner's smartphone. Years ago, we interviewed Tile's founders, who explained to us what it was for:
They’re rare, expensive, and back in the hands of @davekimmusic, after these 5-string electric violins were ripped off by thieves. Kim used @TheTileApp to track them to a convenience store where a man told @DalyCityPD he unwittingly bought them from an acquaintance for $150. pic.twitter.com/khLMUbdXhS— Jonathan Bloom (@BloomTV) March 24, 2018
"All types of bags, suitcases, musical instruments," said Tile co-founder Nick Evans during our 2013 interview.
When a Tile is in "lost mode," any phone running the Tile app that comes within range of it will silently relay the Tile's location back to its owner. That's how Kim tracked his tile to an apartment building in the outer Mission District, and then to a convenience store in Daly City.
Standing across the street from the store, Kim flagged down a passing police car. Officers confirmed that he'd already filed a police report for the theft in San Francisco, and that his Tile app had isolated the violins to a specific address -- two factors police say are necessary for them to investigate further.
Though recovering a stolen item through a tracking device used to be rare, Daly City police say in the past two years, it's become more commonplace.
"People tracking their iPhones, people using the Tile device to track their vehicle or personal items that were stolen," said Daly City Police Sgt. Ron Harrison.
Sure enough, the officers went inside and said they spoke to a man who claimed to have gotten the violins from an acquaintance in exchange for $150. He agreed to hand them over.
"Unwittingly, people do buy things off the street," Sgt. Harrison said. "They think they've found a bargain, and more often than not, it turns out to be stolen property."
Kim said he was overjoyed and now plans to put Tiles on everything he owns.
"As soon as I saw the violins come out of the building, I was literally in tears," he said. "I felt like, like my babies came back to me."