The artist is back after going through an awful gambling addiction with his first gallery show in four years. As you'd expect if you know David Choe's work, it's completely insane.
Photos by Mauricio Castillo
Graffiti muralist, artist, and wanderer of the world David Choe has already had a lifetime’s worth of adventures. He made $200 million when Facebook went public thanks to his taking stock instead of cash when he painted the company’s headquarters; he’s hitchhiked across the United States on our show Thumb’s Up! (which I edited, way back when I worked in the VICE Brooklyn office); and his art is on walls and in collections all over the world—not to mention on the cover of VICE last year. But one thing he hasn’t done in the past four years is have a gallery show.
Well, he’s having one this Saturday in Mexico City. It’s called SNOWMAN MONKEY BBQ, it’s open to the public, and it has everything you would expect from Choe: two giant murals done primarily with spray paint, a series of watercolors, a few oil and acrylic paintings, a cyborg horse sculpture, and an army of piñatas carrying a giant whale.
I recently chatted with him to see how Mexico City was treating him and to find out when he’d do a new season of Thumbs Up!
VICE: So tell me how this show came about.
David Choe: I’ve been a gambling addict for most of my adult life. The baccarat room in most casinos is filled with Chinese people, and if you are not high-stakes gambler, to walk into that room is intimidating. It’s very loud, and there’s a lot of superstition, and everything is in Chinese, even in in Vegas. But every once in a while, you’d hear an American word screamed out—either “monkey,” which means you want a face card; “snowman,” which means you need an eight; and “BBQ,” which is when you lose—you get a six and the dealer gets a seven, and you get BBQ’ed. I guess it sounds like something in Chinese. And I was like, this is the fucking craziest game, its literally like 50/50, like flipping a coin, and people are betting millions of thousands of dollars. When I was a young man I thought, I’ll never be like those people. Cut to ten years later, and I’m screaming, “Monkey, monkey, snowman, snowman!” louder than anyone at the table, risking my entire life savings, losing everything, winning everything.
This is my first show in four years. And everyone goes, like, "What’s the holdup?" Well, I was busy screaming “BBQ, monkey, snowman!” I was gambling every single day at every casino in the world, every Indian reservation casino, Monte Carlo, Macau, anywhere where there’s gambling. I fell deep into addiction. But I don’t gamble anymore; I haven’t gambled in almost two years. I went to rehab and all that shit, which is gay, but I did it. I think one out of four gambling addicts kill themselves.
So I thought it was time to do a show, and when they asked me to think of a name for the show, SNOWMAN MONKEY BBQ seemed like the right choice.
After all these years, you could have done a show anywhere. Why did you decide to do it in Mexico?
First of all, I love Mexico. I want to do shows where I like to hang out, cause that’s where I’m gonna make the artwork. I think it’s really gay when you’re an artist—especially if you call yourself a street artist, which sounds gay already—and you just make everything at your house, in the safety of your home, with all your Google images and references. I like to go to different places and have the experience of living there infect my art.
I can definitely see some Mexican references in the work you have here.
There’s all the huichol stuff I’ve seen at markets. I went to this market and—I guess you are not allowed to sell it—but this guy had peyote. I also did ayahuasca two years ago in Colombia with the Kogi tribe, and it was like, wow.
When you see the hallucinogenic patterns, the colors—I can’t even help it, it just comes out. For almost every art show I had in my early 20s, I would go to the art store and pick out colors like black, brown, and gray. That was my color palette. And now I’m like, “Give me the brightest orange, the brightest blue, the brightest green!” I love color.
What about other Mexican references? I see some eagle and jaguar heads and a guy with a wrestling mask opening a giant vagina.
I go by this piñata shop every day, and it’s always like, the most retarded versions of R2-D2, Donald Duck... it’s amazing. All those piñatas are like Iron Man, Wonder Woman, they are all toys and kids’ stuff, and you hit them at kids’ parties. And then there’s a naked lady stripper piñata—it must look so disturbing to have people beating a naked woman with sticks.
I just went to the store one day and I was like, “I want everything.” And then I went back and gave them a drawing of Munko, which is the simplest stupid whale with a buck tooth. And they said, “How big do you want it?” A VW bug went by, and I said, “That size?” And they said, “Whaaat? That’s gonna be mucho dinero!” And I said, “That’s OK.”
Also, right when I got here, I met up with my friend and we went swimming with the whale sharks near Cancun, which was the most amazing, unbelievable experience. So I painted a giant whale shark—his mouth is ripping open with everything spilling out. Every single thing about the show is the imagery that I’ve taken in since I’ve been in Mexico: the places I’ve been, the fucking fish that I swim with. The paint here, the colors, all the materials that I used are from Mexico.
What about your other projects? Do you still have your radio show?
DVDASA is a podcast that I started in January. Every episode is getting more and more listeners, which is fucking crazy. We are having huge guests like Eli Roth, Lisa Ling, and John Cusack. It’s hosted by me, Asa Akira, and all our friends who hang out at the studio. It’s completely ruining my life. I’ve burned every bridge possible. I’ll tell the story of a girl I used to date, and I’ll change her name—I’d say something like “Stephanie,” you know? And people online would say, “This is the person he was talking about,” and then I’ll get a call from them. “Hey Dave, what the fuck is your problem? You are talking shit about me.” But it makes my life easier. It’s like going to the shrink. The reason why I haven’t gambled in two years is I’ve had three therapists, and I stopped seeing them about six months ago. And everyone is like, “Why did you stop?” I got my podcast, that’s why.
What about Thumbs Up!? Is there a new season in the pipeline?
We just finished shooting season four! We didn’t have much time, so we said, “Fuck it, let's just go from San Francisco to New York.” And I think it might be our craziest season so far. It was definitely fucking crazy shit, but it always is. Any time you are on the road asking someone for a ride it’s gonna get weird.
You made some art with Pedro Friedeberg for this show, right?
Yeah, I met Pedro last time I was here. Pedro Friedeberg is the last living Mexican surrealist. We have mutual friends and they were like, “Dave, you have to meet Pedro, he’ll love your shit, you’ll love his stuff,” so last time I came to Mexico I went to his house. He drinks like ten shots of mezcal every day, which does nothing to him, and I had one sip and I thought I was gonna die in his house—and his house is like... there’s not one inch of his house that doesn’t have art on it. He has all of his art and his friends’ art, and it’s just fucking surreal. He’s one of those cool old guys, he’s seen it all, been through it all, he’s been married a couple of times, all that shit.
I told him I’m doing this show here, and he was like, “Yeah, we should paint something together.” So we did the exquisite corpse where you fold the paper in half, and he would draw a serpent head and I would draw some hairy tits on it. They might actually be the best paintings in the show. We put like zero thought into them, we were being as stupid as possible, he was on the mezcal, we were just being sloppy fucking artists, just trying to crack each other up. If I’m not going to be a young dead artist, then I want to be an old cool guy like this. It’s fucking amazing to paint with a legend like that, you know?
If you are in Mexico City, go see David Choe’s show at the Museo Universitario del Chopo. It will be on display from August 17 to October 27. If you’re not, you can see the catalogue and some photos from the show here: snowmanmonkeybbq.mx
More art stuff: