those crazy artists (or, why I went to Riverside)

It’s a lot like the Oregon Trail, driving out to Riverside. The road gets emptier as you go further along 60 East. There are warning signs: GUSTY WINDS AHEAD. You hope your passenger doesn’t die of cholera. At one point, the trail divides. You can choose the 15 to Barstow, and if you keep going you’d get to Las Vegas.


But we stayed the course. All for the sake of a documentary about David Choe, a Southern California graffiti-artist-turned-hispter-phenomenon. If you’re from Los Angeles you might recognize his work even if you don’t know who he is. On the street, he’s famous for spray painting huge whales saying funny things on freeway retaining walls. His gallery showings include paintings made with soy sauce and urine from his three-month stint in a Japanese prison, an ice cream shop gallery of his portraits, and a $2.5 million sell-out show in London.

The film, Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, is a cut of 7 years of footage of Choe doing crazy things (traveling around the Congo with a child’s drumset on his back), breaking the law (grand theft for stealing groceries from a frat house), and talking about his life (a bevy psychological problems and addictions, the desire to make his girlfriend happy and God).

But the fundamental question I walked away with (from the film and the arduous journey into the armpit of Southern California): does great art or leadership or work require a streak of crazy? Is it necessary to travel down that road, where personal relationships and mental health sometimes suffer, to have singular experiences?

Choe himself wrestles with this problem in the film. When he tries to take prescribed drugs for his obsessive compulsive disorder and clinical depression (among other diagnoses), his art suffers. His inhibition — that manic feeling that makes his imaginative and often disturbing art so interesting to look at — was reigned in. He stopped taking the medication.

For those of us who keep or inhibitions in tact, like a security blanket that keeps us safe, Choe’s art and life can give us a taste of what goes on in a mind that does anything it wants. And it can inspire us to do the same, to some degree at least.