David Choe

Obama by david choe

David Choe [chwae] (b. 1976) is a Korean American muralist, graffiti artist, and graphic novelist from Los Angeles. He achieved art world success with his ‘dirty style’ figure paintings—raw, frenetic works which combine themes of desire, degradation, and exaltation. Outside of galleries, he is closely identified with the bucktoothed whale he has been spray-painting on the streets since he was in his teens.

Choe’s work appears in a wide variety of urban culture and entertainment contexts. For example, he provided the cover art for Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s multi-platinum album ‘Collision Course,’ and created artwork to decorate the sets of ‘Juno’ and ‘The Glass House.’ During the 2008 presidential race, Choe painted a portrait of then-Senator Barack Obama for use in a grassroots street art campaign. The original was later displayed in the White House.

In 2005, internet entrepreneur Sean Parker, a longtime fan, asked him to paint graphic sexual murals in the interior of Facebook’s first Silicon Valley office, and in 2007, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg commissioned him to paint somewhat tamer murals for their next office. Although he thought the Facebook business model was ‘ridiculous and pointless,’ Choe, an inveterate gambler, chose to receive company stock in lieu of cash payment for the original Facebook murals. His shares were valued at approximately $200 million on the eve of Facebook’s 2012 IPO. Those murals were loosely re-created by Choe’s friends Rob Sato and Joe To for the set of the film ‘The Social Network.’

Choe was raised in the racially diverse Koreatown neighborhood of LA, the child of Korean immigrant parents who were born-again Christians. Like many boys, his chief interests were ‘Star Wars,’ ‘G.I. Joe,’ ‘Robotech,’ and superheroes, which he drew obsessively from an early age. In his teens, in response to having his bicycle stolen repeatedly, he began to retaliate by stealing bikes and shoplifting whenever the opportunity arose. In 1990, inspired by L.A. graffiti pioneers ‘Mear One’ and ‘Hex,’ he started venting his teenage anger by scrawling graffiti on bus benches, billboards and back alleys across the city. With his first can of Krylon flat black, he cited the Bible verse John 11:35, which reads ‘Jesus wept.’ Rather than writing his name over and over, he painted faces and figures, cartoon whales, and punchy philosophical messages. Though he lived in Koreatown, he went to high school in the privileged enclave of Beverly Hills, and by the time the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out when he was 16, he had become acutely aware of the class and racial tensions that divided the city into mutually hostile territories. A proud participant in the violence and mayhem that ensued, he claims that he and his brother were the only Koreans who looted. After the six-day riot had subsided, he discovered that his parents’ real estate business in Koreatown had burned to the ground, which made the next few years difficult for his family.

Immediately after graduating from high school, Choe departed on the first of many adventures, and spent the next two years freight-hopping, hitchhiking, hustling and stealing his way around the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. When he returned to Los Angeles at the age of 21, he decided he needed formal training if he wanted to be a ‘real’ artist, and enrolled in the only art school that accepted him, the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland. There he came under the influence of professor Barron Storey’s raw, intimate, painterly style. Choe, who calls Storey ‘the current king of the dirty school,’ studied under the veteran illustrator for two years and then dropped out. All the while, he was stealing art supplies, books and food to get by, in addition to his ongoing nocturnal graffiti campaign, which eventually landed him in jail in Oakland for a week. Taking that as incentive to settle down a bit, he returned to his family home in Los Angeles, and began illustrating and writing for magazines including ‘Hustler,’ ‘Ray Gun,’ and ‘Vice.’ Around the same time, he began his ongoing relationship with the Asian pop culture store-cum-magazine ‘Giant Robot,’ which has continued to be mutually beneficial to this day. He also started showing his paintings to art galleries, which exhibited little interest. In defiance, Choe hung his work in an ice cream shop called Double Rainbow which was located on the hipster promenade Melrose Avenue. That impromptu exhibition was so successful that the store held it over for two years, with Choe replenishing pieces as they sold.

Always fascinated by comics, especially the work of Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane, Choe initially dreamed of a career as a comic book creator. In a single night in 1996, he wrote a 35-page tale of violent sexual obsession which, coupled with drawings and paintings that he created over the next few years, evolved into the graphic novel ‘Slow Jams.’ Choe initially made about 200 copies on a photocopier and gave them away at Comic-Con in 1998, hoping to interest a publisher. Later that year, he submitted it for the Xeric Grant and was awarded $5,000 to self-publish a second, expanded edition of 1,000 which came out in 1999 with a cover price of $4. Over the next decade, ‘Slow Jams’ became a cult phenomenon, and in recent years, increasingly rare copies of the graphic novel have changed hands on eBay for hundreds of dollars.

Having caught the attention of the entertainment and advertising industry with ‘Slow Jams’ and his makeshift art exhibit at Double Rainbow, Choe soon found himself in great demand for commercial illustration and graphic design. Within a few years, he was successful enough to be able to turn down many offers of commercial work in order to concentrate on his own paintings and murals. Simultaneously, Choe’s best friend Harry Kim began documenting his life, often living with him while videotaping his frenzied art-making, colorful personal life and intimate thoughts. Over the next 10 years, Kim would capture thousands of hours of Choe’s everyday existence as an artist, footage which would eventually become the documentary ‘Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe.’ All the while, Choe continued his obsessive traveling, from making an expedition to the jungles of the Congo to painting graffiti and murals around the globe alongside the world’s greatest urban artists for the street culture brand Upper Playground.

In late 2003, Choe arrived in Tokyo and was jailed within 24 hours. An undercover security guard had approached him threateningly, and due to the language barrier, he misunderstood the man’s intentions and reacted instinctively, punching him in the face. Choe ended up spending three months behind bars for violent assault, out of contact with his family or friends, and under threat of being imprisoned for two years. During that time, he suffered greatly from loneliness, anxiety and a lack of access to art materials. With small pieces of paper and the one pen his cell was allowed, he made over 600 drawings during that period, including portraits of his Japanese cellmates which he used to distract them from beating him up. In his desperation, he also executed a series of erotic paintings using soy sauce, tea, blood, and urine for color. After three months, he was released on the condition that he leave Japan immediately and not return. His prison art has been the subject of constant speculation and interest ever since.

Returning home to San Jose with a new perspective on life, Choe began the task of rebuilding himself from the ground up, focusing hard on his career and channeling his more self-destructive impulses into somewhat less risky pursuits such as gambling and drumming. Burying himself in work, he accepted mural commissions from Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and from the founders of Facebook, among others. After holding several solo shows in San Jose and San Francisco, he was offered a solo exhibit at the Santa Rosa Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005. He held his first New York solo exhibit, ‘Gardeners of Eden,’ in 2007 at Jonathan Levine Gallery in Chelsea, and in 2008, he had his first UK solo exhibition, ‘Murderous Heart,’ in both the London and Newcastle locations of Lazarides Gallery, simultaneously.

Having become accustomed to living under the constant eye of Harry Kim’s camera, it was a natural next step for him to allow a reality-style film crew to accompany him on some of his adventures. For a web series called ‘Thumbs Up!,’ which has so far run for three seasons, Choe and Harry Kim were filmed hitch-hiking and freight-hopping from Los Angeles to Miami and Tijuana to Alaska, and then hitching across China from Beijing to Shenzen and the gambling mecca of Macau.

It has often been said that Choe’s greatest artwork is his life, itself. As his friend Jason Jaworski explained, ‘For me, there is no artwork Dave or anyone can create that is capable of completely equalling the vast canvas of Dave’s life, which he paints daily while simply living. At the core, there seems to be two types of art, one which allows for escape from one’s self, and another which allows for introspection and confrontation with one’s self. In either case, I think art’s great contribution is when it makes one feel less alone. And if that statement has truth to it, which it does for me, then Dave has created one of the greatest pieces of art by simply living the way he does, which is like no one else.’

Over the past 15 years, Choe has built a worldwide reputation for his raw, vibrant, frenetic imagery, exhibiting in galleries in Barcelona, Beijing, Tokyo, London, Los Angeles, New York, and many places in between. He says he makes art because he has no other choice. ‘I don’t know how many times I have to say this—in all honesty and all kidding aside—without art I’d be 110% dead or in jail. I have a murderer’s blood coursing through my veins. I try to be good, but I’m just a bad man who happens to know how to wield a pencil and smear paint in fancy ways.’

David Choe’s painting process is fast and instinctive, involving building layers of texture wet-on-wet in a wide variety of media, including pencil, ink, crayon, watercolor, acrylic, oil, and spraypaint. In 2007, he described his ‘dirty style’ painting aesthetic to ‘Fecal Face’ webzine, saying, ‘The dirty styles rule all other schools and styles. The layering, the personal touch to everything. I’m from the school of dirty styles, but it’s more than just style and surface, it’s every dirty thing that’s inside you. Dirty styles is painting on found objects besides a blank piece of paper or a blank white wall. This started for me when my dad would bring home used Xeroxes from work so I could Crayola all over the backs, then I moved on to painting on bus benches and other shit on the street because I couldn’t afford canvases… So even before you start, there’s some history, there’s some spills, chills and marks, then you keep creating more history on top of that, spilling, spraying, dripping, creaming, collaging, making a mess. All this ugly dirty shit, and hopefully the end product being something that’s tolerable and beautiful… something born from that filth. Creating hope from dark beginnings… the fucking dirty styles.’

While Choe’s success has largely hinged on his paintings, he has been commissioned to paint murals all over the world, and still paints on the street for his own gratification. As he told ‘Juxtapoz’ magazine, ‘I never stopped graffiti. It influences my fine art, with the quickness and immediacy of it. I use oil paint like it’s acrylic, because I can’t wait for it to dry. I love fucking with mediums and seeing how they react to different mediums, but I always considered graffiti separate from my art. I always looked at it as destructive, anarchist, political, spiritual, and mostly just fun. It was a release from being cooped up, hunched over drawing tiny drawings with rapidographs and mechanical pencils. Fuck everything I’m doing at home, I‘m going out late at night to have an affair with the streets. I’m not worried about mistakes, or trying to make shit look right, or fame, or writing a tag over and over—I’m looking to destroy, pure vandalism, and maybe somewhere in between the process I can achieve enlightenment, fulfillment, and redemption, but probably not. You can’t ever really describe the feeling until you’ve stolen two cans of Krylon flat black and hit the streets with reckless abandon. The freedom of speech, and scale of the words and pictures, is humbling.’

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