It’s 2005, and young graffiti artist David Choe has caught the eye of the owners of a little-known tech company. So they offer him $60,000 to paint murals on the walls of their new offices in Palo Alto, California. But Choe turns the money down – he’ll do the job, but there’s something else he wants in payment for it.
Los Angeles native Choe had a reputation as a street artist – although he’s branched out since his younger days. Back then, he was known to many by his “tag.” This was a whale encumbered with buck teeth which he’d sprayed to identify himself to other graffiti artists and passers by.
Choe’s early days were difficult, and he even had some trouble with the law. Nevertheless, he has since achieved success, and these days you can see Choe’s art in galleries and museums. You may not have heard much about him, but that has a lot to do with his desire to stay private – though he has published a self-titled book of his art.
Choe is the son of immigrants from Korea and was born in 1976 in Los Angeles, California. His mom and dad were born-again Christians, and this fact may have inspired his first piece of graffiti which he sprayed in his early teens. It was a message from the verse John 11:35 from the Bible: “Jesus wept.”
Choe’s youth, however, was distinctly unchristian. He not only went to jail for stealing and cashing a bad check, the artist also got involved in looting during 1992’s L.A. riots. Then after dropping out of high school, Choe spent a couple of years traveling around the world. But he didn’t stop painting – putting to use any materials that he could come by.
Choe told ABC News in 2011, “I would use the soy sauce. And I don’t want to be gross, but I would use urine and blood and all these things, and anything that would create any kind of pigment… It was the only thing that let me keep my sanity.”
Choe said that he quit his travels when he was 21 in order to get some proper education and become a “real” artist. He took a place at Oakland’s California College of Arts & Crafts. However, Choe didn’t finish his course of study and ended up quitting after two years.
Times were still tough for Choe, though. Apparently, he stole books, art supplies and food so that he could survive and study. Eventually, he found himself doing a week in jail – having been caught doing graffiti. That sent him back to his parents’, and he found some regular illustration and writing work for a number of magazines including Vice, Hustler and Ray Gun.
Choe also began what would be a lasting connection with Giant Robot – a magazine and store that features Asian pop culture. However, he couldn’t get art galleries interested in his work. So he put some of it on the walls of the ice cream Double Rainbow on trendy Melrose Avenue. At last, he got some notice, and his work proved popular.
Things changed a bit for Choe after an incident in Japan in 2005. There, he had a physical confrontation at one of his shows with a security guard and ended up in jail. As a result, he turned to God and began to read the Bible. Switching to a straighter track helped Choe, and he soon started to enjoy more success.
The artist developed what he called “dirty style” – wild and frenzied painting that looks messy. In his 2008 autobiographical documentary Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, he claimed that the smudges and smears from his painting came from being lefthanded as a child. Possibly, using nosebleeds as paint didn’t help either.
Choe explained to Fecal Face, an art magazine, “Dirty styles is painting on found object besides a blank piece of paper or blank white wall… 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 [and] making a mess.”
Choe’s art soon started to crop up in different areas as his popularity grew. And when Jay-Z and Linkin Park collaborated on an album – Collision Course – Choe did the artwork. His pieces also featured on the sets of hit movies The Glass House and Juno. In 2008 he even painted then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and the work later ended up in the White House.
And it’s not just in painting that Choe has made his mark. He created a graphic novel in 1996 called Slow Jams and then gave the copies away as gifts with the hope of attracting a publisher. Three years later he then gained a grant that allowed him to bring out a second edition at $4 a copy.
Choe also painted murals for the Hollywood pimp Heidi Fleiss. In addition, he put on solo exhibitions in San Jose and San Francisco and then the Santa Rosa Museum of Contemporary Art featured his work in 2005. Two years later he was showing in New York, and then 12 months after that he debuted in London and Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom.
In the 2010s Choe began a podcast alongside porn actress Asa Akira called DVDASA. However, this brought him some controversy when he told a story involving alleged sexual assault with a masseuse in 2014. Choe later claimed that the story was fictional, but the controversy followed him.
Problems continued for Choe in 2017 when he was commissioned to paint on the Bowery Mural Wall in New York and protest erupted. Some artists quickly made statements decrying his involvement in the project. Ultimately, his work was painted over by other graffiti artists, and Choe was forced to again apologize for telling the story about his masseuse.
Elsewhere, Choe’s wanderlust saw him feature in an online series made by Vice magazine. In Thumbs Up! he hitchhiked and hopped freight trains across the United States and thumbed his way through China. More conventionally, his work in watercolor gained recognition, and increasingly Choe devoted himself to charity – particularly for causes connected with Haiti.
But let’s return to 2005, when Choe was an artist with a growing reputation. At that time, Facebook was also on the march, but it wasn’t the giant that it is today. When that year began, it was still “TheFacebook.com” and only the adopted the name it has now in August. Furthermore, it didn’t accept people who weren’t students until late 2005.
Change was afoot in the life of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, too. He had been taking a break from his studies at Harvard, but in November 2005 he decided to quit the school altogether. The time had come for him to become the company’s leader full time and let others do the programming.
It took until September of 2006 for Facebook to open to anyone who wanted to join – so long as they were older than 13 and had an email address. By this point, the company had begun to attract attention across the globe. And it would stay in Palo Alto until February of 2011 when it moved its headquarters to nearby Menlo Park.
In 2012 Facebook then held its initial public offering and it became technology’s biggest – with the firm capitalizing at $104 billion at its peak. At the close of trading, the shares were going for more than $38. At the time of writing, a share in Facebook trades for more than $150, so Zuckerberg might well be pleased that he knocked back an offer for $75 million in 2006.
As we mentioned, Facebook was still in its early days when Choe was offered the opportunity to paint murals in the Palo Alto offices in 2005. The artist wasn’t entirely keen since he didn’t like the social media platform at the time. But the internet firm was offering $60,000 for the job, so he was interested.
Choe explained what was in the murals during a conversation with Barbara Walters on TV network ABC in 2011. He said they had all sorts of things in them, adding, “There [were] lots of women, cityscapes – just abstract forms. I paint very quickly. And it just, it almost comes out of me like it’s almost my therapy.”
The murals were not suitable for children, however. And when Sean Parker – who’d hired Choe – told him that he should be sexual and bawdy in his painting, the artist took him at his word. Apparently, Parker, who’d founded Napster before getting involved in Facebook, had told the artist to paint penises in the artworks. And Choe obliged.
However, Parker wasn’t that pleased with what he got. According to ABC News, he described the murals as “schizophrenically distracting” and reportedly asked Choe if he had anything more to add to them. Even so, Facebook ended up taking the murals with it when it moved HQ – literally ripping out the walls so that the art could be transported.
And Zuckerberg liked Choe’s style, it seems, although he asked him to tone it down when he asked Choe to paint more murals for another office. You can get the flavor by watching the hit movie The Social Network. For that film, Choe’s artist buddies Rob Sato and Joe To created murals that were based on the originals.
But when it came time to get paid, Parker offered Choe an interesting choice. He could either take the money in cash or in stock in the company. The former told him that he ought to take the stock. Given how small the company then was, it was a tough choice, but Choe later told Howard Stern that he “likes to gamble.”
Choe said to Stern, “Facebook was a joke.” So, it was quite the risk at the time. Of course, few could foresee that the social media firm would blossom into the giant that it is today. But Choe did take the stock, and that proved to be an extremely good decision on the artist’s part.
When Facebook went public, everyone who owned stock made out like bandits. And that included Choe – whose holding was estimated to be worth $200 million at that time. He didn’t quite have all that he began with, though, as he told ABC. Choe said, “I just sold a couple… to just secure that I would have something out of this in case anything changed.”
When speaking with Stern, Choe was clear what he had thought of Facebook. He said, “People don’t remember, Facebook was a joke.” However, the artist became an admirer of Zuckerberg and told Stern that he liked him a lot. And when Facebook needed a new mural in Menlo Park, Choe did the work for free.
But when the news about Choe’s windfall got out, he became famous for all the wrong reasons. He said to Walters in their ABC interview, “Because I was already doing okay, and to have this abstract amount of money now, I cannot buy my privacy back. I was like, ‘What the hell’s happening?’ Every news – Al Jazeera, every news organization in the world is beating down the door, trying to get a, you know, interview. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’”
But despite Choe’s popularity and wealth, he considered himself to be homeless – dividing his life between hotels and casinos. On top of that, by 2012 he had become quite well known and had his art on show in museums and collections worldwide.
Choe didn’t feel that the money was anything special, however. He told Walters, “It’s gonna sound horrible for me to say money is meaningless.” The artist continued, “I did everything I wanted to when I had nothing. Everyone’s like, ‘Well, what are you gonna do now?’ I’m like, ‘I’m still gonna do whatever I want except more people are just gonna bother me now.’”
However, Choe was not asking for sympathy. He added, “Don’t feel sorry for me. This is like a godlike amount of money – where I could actually change the world and do things to help humanity and do good things. As an artist, I often wonder what my purpose is or why I do what I do. So those things will hopefully come into more clarity, or maybe not. I don’t know.”
The artist showed his disregard for money when he reportedly discovered $100,000 sitting in a shoebox. He chose to offer it as a prize in an intricate scavenger hunt which ran across the States. On top of the money, Choe offered a flight to L.A. to collect the prize and a painting by the man himself.
In another stunt in 2017, Choe held an L.A. exhibit that he allowed free entry to. The catch? Anyone who wanted to go to the show had to apply and be selected to visit. On top of that, they had to sign an agreement to keep what they’d seen to themselves – so the show’s contents remained an enigma to the general public.
But does Choe still think Facebook is a “joke?” Well, maybe not, given that he has a page of his own on the social media site. There, he posts pictures of his work and sometimes images of other people’s art. And his windfall certainly attracted attention – with posters asking him about his newfound riches in 2012.
That’s not all that Choe posted, as his page paints a picture of a rebel artist. In the past, it displayed plenty of pictures of him with women with not much in the way of clothing. It also featured expensive booze – perhaps explaining one way that the Facebook money had changed his life. Elsewhere, one of his posts showed off a $40,000 bottle of liquor.
At the time of writing, Choe continues his work as a painter, and now that the Facebook story has gone cold, his renown as an artist is what defines him. After his Stern appearance, the shock jock called him the “prince of all media.” And Dirty Hands topped the visitor figures when it debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival.