The doctumentary Dirty Hands: The Life & Crimes of David Choe is a welcome supplement for Choe’s work, the kind of brilliant art that can only be fully understood in the context of the artist’s remarkably raw, status quo-defying biography. If you just happened to walk into the pop-up art gallery in Beverly Hills where David Choe’s “street art” is currently on display, it would be hard to sense the street cred behind the artwork. The spray-painted human figures, akin to George Condo’s lycanthropic orgies, carry their severed heads so they can rim their own asses and turn fellatio into a masturbatory practice, recalling the anarchic spirit commonly found on the back pages of a spoiled teenager’s notebook. Dirty Hands contextualizes Choe’s work, which could be seen as gratuitous transgressiveness, turning him into an unsettling hybrid character/icon of what is terrific and terrible about what we have come to call the American Dream: the genius American artist on prescription medication so he doesn’t go to jail before making it to his gallery opening.
The film follows Choe’s unlikely excursion from lawbreaking, flaneur-like graffiti artist to globetrotting, commodity-embracing, mass-producing enfant terrible cash cow of the art world (these days, he designs Jay-Z album covers). Dirty Hands’s witnessing of Choe’s “from g to gent” journey is delivered in no linear fashion, perfectly matching the artist’s creative process and maniac persona in its editing style. Director Harry Kim, the artist’s longtime friend, captures Choe’s rhetoric of unapologetic freedom and man-boy irresponsibility—both frenetically spoken and literally etched onto his body—with such delicate intimacy it’s hard not to think of the film as a kind postmodern, kin-making love letter.
In the course of Dirty Hands, which took eight years to make, Choe plasters graffiti whales throughout Los Angeles, punches himself in the face to use his blood as ink, cuts Christian crosses onto his forearms to guiltily prevent himself from shoplifting, is jailed in Tokyo for three months, buys a slave or two in Congo, and makes the case for an anti-academic, stream-of-consciousness, museum-without-walls art that feels so refreshing it’s easy to ignore its political implications. But as with any kind of passionately irrational project, it easily breaks down when perceived through a non-egotistical lens. And as much as Choe’s art claims to be about people who “don’t give a fuck about art,” it’s mostly about his Peter Pan/Robin Hood self (the forever child-like Choe steals from the rich to give to the poor, which, in this case, is himself). Yes, one can ask how else may a poor Korean-American kid from the ghetto take ownership of his city but by defacing the very architecture that makes Choe’s story a barely possible exception. But his spray paint turns out to be better at becoming personal profit than achieving something beyond angry sloganeering.