ReThink Review: Dirty Hands: the Art & Crimes of David Choe

05/12/2010 08:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Street artists must be in the collective conscience this spring, with two documentaries about some of street art's biggest names hitting festivals and arthouses within a few weeks of each other, featuring artists with widely varying levels of self awareness.

First was the Sundance darling Exit Through the Gift Shop, which was directed by and stars Banksy, a street artist so certain of himself and his message that he refuses to reveal his identity. Exit follows the unlikely rise of Thierry "Mr. Brainwash" Guetta, a gadfly/videographer who becomes a street artist so seemingly oblivious that he doesn't appear to realize that his derivative ripoffs are cannibalizing the artform he claims to love. (See my ReThink Review of Exit Through the Gift Shop here.)

Following that is Dirty Hands: the Life and Crimes of David Choe, Harry Kim's documentary following eight turbulent, art- and crime-filled years in the life of one of street art's most notorious bad boys, David Choe. A Korean American from Los Angeles, Choe's boundless love of criminality and destruction is surpassed only by his irrepressible desire to create -- two urges Choe combines through graffiti with often stunning results. But as we follow Choe's journey from a free-spirited troublemaker illustrating porn magazines to a world-traveling, internationally-recognized artist in a Japanese prison, Choe is forced to confront the fact that the unbridled compulsions that fuel his art and success have also made him an irresponsible, self-destructive, immature prick. This leaves Choe with the challenge of trying to figure out who he truly is, and how much of that he, his art and his loved ones can live with.

Watch the trailer for Dirty Hands below.

The comfort between Choe and Kim, a close friend, is evident as Kim follows the brash, profane Choe from the streets of Los Angeles to the jungles of the Congo and into some painfully intimate moments as Choe's relationship with his longtime girlfriend falls apart. Though Kim seemed to have almost unlimited access during the eight years he followed Choe, the film often lacks a sense of immediacy -- many of the events shown in the film are described in the past tense in later interviews with Choe instead of the audience experiencing them with Choe as they happen. By relying so much on Choe's recollections, I felt that some topics were not adequately explained, like why the art world suddenly embraced such an outsider who held them in such scorn.

But any energy that may have been lost through these decisions is amply re-injected whenever Choe is shown making his art, whether he's defacing (or improving) someone's building with his signature whale tag, punching himself in the nose repeatedly so he can paint with his own blood, or doing a commissioned mural in a corporate headquarters. In these scenes, Choe distinguishes himself as a true artist, someone who literally can't stop himself from making art, even if it means using soy sauce and his own piss to keep an illustrated record of every meal he ate while incarcerated in Japan. His desire to create refuses to follow rules, laws or even plans -- even Choe's largest, most detailed murals are not sketched out in advance, starting from seemingly random streaks, swipes and sprays to lyrical works of beauty, vulgarity, rage and humor until something in Choe tells him to put down the paints. And as a fellow Korean American, I found it gratifying to see an Asian American who so clearly defies the stereotype of Asians being geeky, meek, asexual math-and-science types.

Dirty Hands is an excellent portrait of a born artist -- though if you've ever hung around such people, you probably know that they can annoy the piss out of you. They tend to focus on their passions to the exclusion of all else, including family, friends and the feelings of others. A lot of viewers will find Choe to be a talented but aggravating brat. Why does he take such unnecessary risks? What gives him the right to deface other people's property? Doesn't he ever think of anyone but himself? And why won't this guy just grow up?

But these are all questions Choe finds himself asking after his traumatic stint in jail, which also causes him to embrace Christianity (with limited success). In one of the film's more honest moments, Choe notes, "The downside about your dreams coming true is that you never have to grow up." Choe has made his dream of being paid (well) to be an artist, fuck-up and world traveler a reality. But by the end of the film, Choe seems as surprised as anyone to realize that it's he, not society, who wants him to get his shit together.

To check out some of David Choe's great art, visit

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