Isn’t that every creative person’s dream? To make their art and get paid a lot of money for it. Well most die before that. Some though live to make $200 Million.
Meet David Choe, a former vagrant, ex-con, hobo, college dropout and currently a millionaire. How did he make his money? With his immense talent of course, because although Choe might be a less than savoury character, his art is introspective, profound, if not a little chaotic and claustrophobic at times. This article isn’t dedicated exclusively to his art though, but also to his story and how he went from a graffiti artist to a 200 million dollars in the bank. Let’s take a look.
You really can’t start a story about someone without diving into his/her background, it’s like a book; the character needs to be developed so their actions can be justified. David Choe was born in the late seventies to Korean immigrants and grew up in Koreatown, L.A. Of course due to his location, pop everything was a huge part of his visual culture, including what he would later endeavour himself, graffiti (that in the late 70s it was just starting). After dropping out of high-school Choe started travelling across the U.S., Europe and Asia with little to no money. For two years he stole and “borrowed” his way through the trip. He seemed to have an awakening during his trip and decided he needed traditional art training…then two years later he decided that he didn’t really want it as much as he needed it. He also stole his way through art school. For a period of time he went to jail for graffiti. Shortly after he was released he started pursuing less illegal venues for his art. He started drawing comics for adult and subculture magazines.
This is my favourite part of his pre-wealth story: Choe had a show at a traditional gallery, but the reception of his work was lacklustre. In a completely subversive move he took the work and exhibited in an ice-cream parlour in an area that was heavily populated by hipsters. The show was so popular that it remained in the parlour for two years, with Choe replacing paintings as they were sold.
I really presented Choe in a bad light here, but he is an immensely talented artist and a manic worker. There might be a lesson there, but I’m not here to instruct, I’m here to entertain. In one night Choe created a 35 page comic book that was extremely explicit, extremely violent and sexual, two years later he published his first graphic novel called Slow Jams. While traveling to Japan, Choe punched an undercover guard in a mall, resulting in a three month stint in prison. During his time in Japanese prison he created art on scraps of paper using his own bodily fluids and various food items as colour on his drawings.
In 2005 Choe was approached by the president of a small but promising social media start-up to paint a mural on their overly “corporate” bare walls. The reason that the start-up wanted to tone down the stuffy office atmosphere of their new facilities, is because at its core it was fun, targeting college and high school students. After creating an immense mural and recently released for jail, he was offered $60.000 or stock in this small social media start-up. He took the stock options, because he trusted the first president of the social media start-up, Sean Parker. According to Choe, when Parker was looking for funding for this small start-up he got a professional hair-cut, worked out daily and got a fake tan. Although he said that level of dedication as bordering on insanity, it made him take the gamble. The social media company Parker lead, was non-other than Facebook. Choe was signed on as an advisor to Facebook and was given 0.2 per cent of the company’s initial stock. After Facebook went public, Choe’s small percentage was evaluated at an insane $200 Million.
In a strange turn of fate, practically overnight Choe’s work became a highly tradable commodity, like Facebook’s stock. His fame and fortune had made his paintings’ value sky-rocket. He went from being in jail just a couple of years ago and returning home broke, to being a millionaire and now he could live off the sale of one his paintings for a year. Afterwards while still furiously creating artwork, he started producing videos like the web-series Thumbs Up! which follows Choe and a friend hitchhike and stow-away on trains crossing the United States and in later seasons crossing China into Macau. He’s had exhibits in museums, top tier galleries and streets across the world, because yes he still does street art.