On a small grass field, a group of young students walk in a row lugging paint cans. Last Saturday, early in the morning, some of the younger members of A Place Called Home — a South Los Angeles non-profit organization that helps 8-to-20-year-olds through mentoring, art classes and more — gather excitedly to begin a new project. They sift through a bucket of black aprons, lay out material to protect the grass and tease each other in the way only elementary school students can.
Then David Choe arrives.
To the students assembled, Choe is just an artist coming to help them out with a mural for the day. But for those familiar with the name, Choe resides on the more famous side of the art spectrum. Besides creating his distinctive style — with explosions of color and weird characters — Choe cemented his name in popular culture through works like the album cover for Jay-Z and Linkin Park's Collision Course.
Then came the Facebook commission, a job that put his name on even more lips. The mission was to transform the company's headquarters with spray-can murals, in which he got free rein — and perhaps even encouragement — to go as visually lewd as he wanted. Choe chose stock as compensation for his work and since then, Facebook relocated, expanded and did a stock IPO — making Choe worth around $200 million, putting him in the league of wealthy artists like Damien Hirst. Today, more than 34,000 people follow him on Twitter. He follows no one.
“I had the kids design all these characters yesterday and at the end I told them, 'You can ask me any question you want,'” says Choe, lightly spray-painting one of the kid's characters. “You know, they're so earnest, they're like eight to twelve years olds. So one kid goes, 'So on the scale of one to ten, how famous are you?' and one of the other kids goes, 'He's about a two' and one of the other kids goes, 'No, he's probably like two, two and four-fifths.'”
Choe remembers thinking almost the same thing as a third-grader, when Ronald McDonald visited his school. Yet he also remembers thinking that Mr. McDonald probably kept a busy schedule but still took time out to visit the school. In some ways he sees himself in a similar position, but this particular location ties into his personal history.
“This is the most devastated area from the L.A. riots,” says Choe, who grew up in Koreatown. “Also, you know, my family's business burned down in the L.A. riots but I also looted in the L.A. riots, so maybe it's like a sort of redemption kind of thing.”
In the morning, Choe talks with the kids about the characters they designed and then lets them take paint and brush to the wall to fill out the images. He later spray-paints onto the wall himself, along with an assistant. Throughout, he chuckles at certain moments, like when a couple of kids dip their hands up to the wrists in a can of paint.
The community service organization A Place Called Home boasts twenty years giving back to the surrounding area. The executive director, Jonathan Zeichner, believes that exposing the students to art helps the organization in “developing the whole person.”
Choe remembers the lack of arts programs during his own childhood; Zeichner thinks his presence helps bring out the kids' artistic personalities.
“David works with them in a way that really kind of releases any performance anxiety, you know, and they're just enjoying themselves,” says Zeichner. “What they're gonna see when they step back is that together they've created something that they could not have created by themselves. And that resonates with the mission of APCH.”
As a financially successful artist, Choe hopes to spark some inspiration in students, though he admits the life of an artist does not always prove glamorous. At the end of the day, most of the kids left as Choe finished the mural. One student with headphones in his ears stayed behind, spray-painting his detailed character of a giant dog.
“I just wanted to come here, do it, and hopefully something will stick inside,” says Choe. “You know, people will remember that one weird guy that came to their school one day, painted their wall and then left.”