From Street to Mainstream: David Choe’s Art

David Choe: Toxic LA Sunsets. David Choe: Toxic LA Sunsets. Auction passed (Est: £800 - £1,200) via Chiswick Auctions (June 2019).

What started with a bucktoothed whale spray-painted on walls around Los Angeles has turned California-born David Choe into a cultural icon. The style of David Choe’s art has transcended the streets and elevated him to one of the most well-known and recognised artists in America today; his work has even hung in the White House.

David Choe: Nothing Lasts Forever mural

David Choe: Nothing Lasts Forever mural in the Wynwood Walls outdoor museum, Miami, Florida (Image credit: Terence Faircloth on Flickr).

David Choe eschewed the cliché of a struggling artist gallantly painting their way through life while struggling for recognition, like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, or Claude Monet. And while David Choe faced financial challenges in his youth, he managed to make the streets his canvas, catapulting him to fame as the go-to mural artist of choice for celebrities before he was even 40 years old.

Whale tourist by David Choe, at Wynwood Walls, Miami, 2016.

Whale tourist by David Choe, at Wynwood Walls, Miami, 2016. (Image credit: Jay Galvin on Flickr).

In fact, it was a commission from Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker at Facebook that thrust him towards notoriety as, while the artwork was bright, bold, modern and typically Choe, it was his decision to be paid for in Facebook stock that threw into the limelight. His shares were valued at approximately $200 million on the eve of Facebook’s 2012 IPO.

The mid-2000s saw Choe become a commissioned muralist and painter for the rich and famous. The decade led him to design to album artwork for the multi-platinum album Collision Course by Linkin Park and Jay Z, create artwork to decorate the set of the film Juno, and even have his painting of then Senator Barack Obama hung in the White House. Today, Choe is a part of the multimedia furniture and hosts his own talk show, The Choe Show on FX, but it’s his art that tells the story of his success. 

Humble beginnings 

It all started as a passion for Choe. There was no fame or financial reward when he first picked up a spray can in 1990 to emulate his heroes, LA graffiti artists Mear One and Hex. It was a far from lucrative time for Choe, who took to stealing to feed his hobby and he even spent a week in prison for a graffiti-related offence.

His early work often featured variations his buck tooth whale design with which he would become closely identified. Intent on changing his lifestyle, Choe started showing his paintings to art galleries. Although there was little initial interest, the catalyst for change was when Choe’s work hung in the Double Rainbow ice cream shop on Melrose Avenue. The exhibition figuratively and literally put Choe in the shop window and proved a great success that lasted for two years. 

Recognizing a need to formalize his artistic talent, Choe enrolled at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, but dropped out after two years. Instead, Choe channelled his creativity into producing a comic book that was largely composed during the course of an evening in 1996. The 35-page book focused on violent sexual obsession, and together with other collected drawings and paintings, it eventually became the graphic novel, Slow Jams.

Artistic progression

Harnessing the mischievous and seductive style that embodied his Slow Jams graphic novel, Choe drew on pop culture (most notably with Mickey Mouse) with pieces that had their roots in graffiti and graphic novels, drawing on his fascination with sex, love of animals, and images of women in an urban environment.

Always striking and bursting with colour, Choe’s compositions of animated figures in a stencil style, set against a plain background for maximum impact mirror those of British artist, Banksy, whose graffiti stencils today command millions of dollars. Where Banksy has stuck to his trademark style though, Choe has evolved his as he continued to stretch his repertoire and influence. 

Dirty style

Choe’s ‘dirty style’ was a real turning point. If his evolution from graffiti artist to graphic novelist was a significant step in his career, then his ascent from graphic novelist to a favourite artist of celebrities was stratospheric. 

Featuring his familiar female figure paintings, the raw, frantic, and bold approach that would propel him to worldwide attention once again drew on themes of desire, degradation, and adulation. The term dirty was coined as he would spray on surfaces that weren’t white or blank. This attracted the attention of Facebook in 2005, where Choe was hired to paint its original Silicon Valley headquarters with murals that evolved his taboo sexualized style and made him a celebrity favourite.

Impressive versatility

David Choe: Hopper's print, 2007.

David Choe : Hopper’s, 2007, print. Sold for £187.50 via  Chiswick Auctions  (December 2018).

Seemingly not content with embracing one sole style, David Choe’s art has exhibited great versatility, as his switch to TV chat show host has proved. And while his paintings and graffiti have featured elements of surrealism, Choe fully embraced the style for his Christmas Islands piece from 2007, which had echoes of Kay Sage’s sparse eerie atmosphere and a shared blue and grey tone.

David Choe: Christmas Islands.

David Choe: Christmas Islands. Sold for £1,342 via  Dreweatts 1759 (October 2011).

Titled Hopper’s, it’s clear who the influence was for his 2007 ode to an American classic. Like Edward Hopper’s modern masterpiece, Choe’s similarly features detached characters in a diner, potentially echoing a shared sense of loneliness and the isolation of big city living. It features a highly detailed scene inside the diner, while the raw and frantic exterior is pure Choe.

Presidential recognition 

David Choe: Obama Hope.

David Choe: Obama Hope, signed screenprint. Sold for £312.50 via  Chiswick Auctions (January 2020).

Public acceptance of an artist can come in many forms. Celebrity endorsement and art industry awards are among the most common forms of artistic acceptance, but to have your work hung in the White House is rare and highly prized praise that is difficult to emulate. 

Choe painted a portrait of then-Senator Barack Obama emblazoned with the word ‘HOPE’ during the 2008 presidential race as part of a grassroots street art campaign, and the original that combined his frenetic dirty style with his graffiti roots was later displayed in the White House. Not many graffiti artists can claim to have made it all the way to the White House.



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