In an 18,000-square-foot warehouse tucked into the shadow of the 10 Freeway in downtown L.A., David Choe is covered in paint spatters and surrounded by half-finished canvases. His hair is unkempt, and his beard is scraggly. "This has been the most stressful month," he says.
Choe, 33, has been working day and night on his new show, "Nothing to Declare," which opens Friday at a pop-up gallery in Beverly Hills. It will be his first local appearance in six years, during which he's grown from petty criminal to respected international artist.
Last year, Choe had solo exhibitions in galleries in Beijing and London, and he was in San Francisco in February, but this show will be his last for a while, and he didn't want to do it anywhere else.
L.A. was Choe's first canvas, and his work can still be seen on concrete walls around the city. In 2000, he was commissioned to paint a mural at the Kitchen, a Silver Lake eatery. Owner Fred Schleicher says people still come to his restaurant, on the corner of Fountain and Hoover, to take pictures of the spray-painted blue and pink wall, with faces reminiscent of Choe's current work and trompe l'oeil buildings surrounding the real windows.
Choe's latest show is sponsored by Lazarides Gallery of London, which is best known for showing anonymous artist Banksy — one of street art's few household names.
Street art is an umbrella term that can encompass everything from graffiti to spray-paint art to stencils and posters. Considered blight by many, it has also launched multimillion-dollar careers, like those of Banksy and Shepard Fairey, the artist responsible for the popular Obama "Hope" posters.
Gallery owner Steve Lazarides calls his artists "outsiders."
"I've always maintained that it's a division of contemporary art," Lazarides said. "It's not necessarily a street art thing."
"I think it's part of a larger trend or phenomenon where things that don't look like art or aren't constituted out of traditional materials have become understood as art," said Richard Meyer, associate professor of art history and director of the Contemporary Program at USC.
Four years ago, Lazarides included Choe in a group exhibit. The next year, a Choe solo show sold out, with buyers including prominent British artist Damien Hirst. Now he is back in L.A. to do one more show and to start his "factory" downtown, where he can play drums, sculpt, paint or jump on the massive trampoline that sits in a corner of his warehouse. "I don't want to be the guy who does this and this and this," Choe said. "I haven't taken a break in a really long time."
It has been a long road back to L.A.
In 1995, Choe started at California Institute of the Arts, but when his family lost its business, he dropped out.
Broke and desperate for a job in art, Choe would go to the newsstand on the corner of Pico and Robertson boulevards and copy addresses out of magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. In the days before e-mail was ubiquitous, he would agonize over which pieces of his work were most worthy of color copies at Kinko's. "I would draw on the envelopes and make it a really nice package," he said. "Of course, [they replied], ‘I'm sorry, this isn't what we are looking for.'"
One of Choe's friends suggested working for porno magazines. "All the money is in porn," Choe says, shrugging. He began selling illustrations to some magazines but eventually asked himself, "Is this what I want?" The answer was no.
He spent two months working at a Beverly Hills advertising agency, mostly drawing movie posters. One day, Choe looked around at the other illustrators, "Their cigarettes dangling, their eyes glassy … like robots," Choe remembers. "[The art] looks amazing, but it's lifeless." He quit that afternoon.
Even though he'd already had run-ins with the law — at 15, Choe had been arrested in South L.A. trying to cash a forged check — he fell back into stealing materials he needed for his art.
"From then on, it was a lot of thievery, a lot of going to jail, a lot of struggling," he said, "doing one show after the next, giving things away, doing things for free."
Choe spent the next few years in the Bay Area, where he took classes at California College of Arts and Crafts and was arrested again, that time for stealing food from a frat house.
Yet, even after Choe started finding critical and commercial success with his talents, he still struggled.
In 2005, Choe was in Japan for an art show he had been invited to participate in when he was arrested for punching a security guard. After two months in jail, he was told he was looking at two to seven years in prison, and he says he had a breakdown. He started reading the Bible.
"I told myself I would just let God handle it, and, that day, I got out," he says.
Fellow street artist Robert Reiling, who is now a book publisher, talked about moving away from crime: "Everyone starts in the streets. But, as you get older, you have to identify who you are."
And while he may still be an "outsider," Choe's identity is increasingly high-profile. He has a book coming out in June, a collection of art and writing, in addition to the show that can be seen beginning Friday at 320 North Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills.
Yet even after all this worldwide acclaim, L.A. remains special to Choe.
"Ten years ago, I couldn't get a show except at a hair salon or an ice cream shop," he said. "And it's so nice to come back and have everybody want you."