An artistic and spiritual redemption without the self-pity

Dirty Hands: The Art & Crimes of David Choe

on April 30, 2010 by Mark Keizer
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David Choe is a tagger, world traveler, irredeemable criminal, successful artist and manic depressive, in proportions that fluctuate depending on what phase of his life we’re talking about. Director Harry Kim followed Choe for over seven years, charting his evolution from “dumb, stupid 20 year old” to 30 year old “grown ass man.” The resulting documentary is a dank, sometimes disturbing, yet oddly inspiring journey that’ll have viewers alternately sympathizing, hating and rooting for this Los Angeles-born genius cum delinquent. Kim’s film also wrestles with some intriguing questions, such as, “can a man sell a painting made from urine and soy sauce?” Luckily, there are other, more engaging inquiries here, the most provocative being, “can only transgressive people create transgressive art.” Kim doesn’t have the answer. In fact, this first time director may not even realize he’s asking the question. But these emergent themes make Dirty Hands a wild biographical ride that adds an unexpected psychological layer to the classic art versus commerce conundrum. San Francisco-based distributor Upper Playground shouldn’t expect much coin from this one, since its appeal is limited to art vampires and graffiti bombers who’ll just illegally download the movie anyway.

Kim and Choe met at a Korean-American teenage summer camp in 1990. Motivated by Choe’s ability to channel his boundless energy into drawing and shoplifting, Kim began videotaping his friend’s musings and adventures. And the David Choe we meet initially is, by any definition, a dead ender. Prowling the streets, he shoplifts spray paint and tags buildings with his signature, crudely drawn whale, ruining entire sides of buildings. His version of self-improvement is teaching himself to spray graffiti with both hands simultaneously. That might be cool with the kids, but the younger Choe is just a wayward and bi-polar punk who says he’s creating “art for people who don’t give a (whit) about art,” but is really creating art for people who don’t give a whit about other people. His chosen form of expression is clearly fueled by his lifestyle and vice versa. He’s traveled to dangerous parts of the world, including the Congo where he went “dinosaur hunting” and bought a slave. And there’s video of Choe punching himself in the nose so he could use his blood as paint. It’s all quite renegade, in that self-aggrandizing, subcultural way.

Renegade also describes the look of Dirty Hands. Whether by design or lack of sophistication, Kim gives his doc a loose, outlaw feel. It looks like it should be screened in a basement littered with empty beer cans and ornate bongs. Much of the video was shot at night in dingy workspaces and dark alleys. Its lack of visual polish works, however, when it’s describing someone trying to “sleaze and slime my way through life.” But Choe’s sleazy, slimy attitude changes in 2003 after he spends over two months in a Japanese jail on assault charges. He emerges with a sense of consequence and vows to stop stealing. He goes to therapy and pops meds. Yet this is not a pat tale of redemption. How can it be when your main character carves a cross into each forearm as a reminder to not shoplift? Choe claims “not caring shaped a lot of my work” and the film’s pull comes from wondering how much of his creativity was driven by his anti-social behavior. If money is any indicator, Choe’s art was elevated—not ruined—by his stint in the slammer. He becomes the hot new find, designing graphics for videogame commercials and Jay-Z album covers. Although not covered in Dirty Hands, Choe provided the artwork for the title character’s bedroom in Jason Reitman’s Juno. A gallery show in New York sells out. Choe himself, though, is not a sell out. Like many whose identity is wrapped up in their sense of counterculture credibility, he expresses guilt over making money. He struggles, he questions himself and sometimes he slips. Choe began as a hip, young loser, but now he’s something more dramatically interesting: a troubled, coping success. We’re drawn to his lengthy moments of self-evaluation because they never lapse into self-pity. “I’m a man/boy,” he says, “who just wanted to do graffiti… (now) I get paid to be myself. That’s pretty rad.” What constitutes being “myself” never really changes over the course of Dirty Hands. Mainstream recognition and hard earned lessons may have shaved down his most self-destructive edges, but Choe and his art remain true to their complicated, aggravating, compelling nature.

Distributor: Upper Playground
Director: Harry Kim
Producers: Braxton Pope, Harry Kim and Elizabeth Ai
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: April 30 LA

Tags: graffiti, artistry, David Choe, documentary, artist
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