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Dirty Hands – The Art and Crimes of David Choe (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Dirty Hands - The Art and Crimes of David Choe

Dirty Hands – The Art and Crimes of David Choe


Featuring David Choe, Mama Choe, Papa Choe, Shepard Fairey, David Kinsey, Eric Nakamura, Saber and Martin Wong.

Directed by Harry Kim.

Distributed by Upper Playground.  92 minutes.  Not Rated.

Can you go from graffiti artist and petty thief to celebrated modern artist without letting it go to your head?

This is the main dilemma of Dirty Hands – The Art and Crimes of David Choe which follows seven years in the life of a street artist and small-time hood who has grown a huge following in the art world and a true hipster cache (he was brought in to paint the heroine’s quirky room in the popular film Juno).

David Choe is often angry, sometimes apathetic, occasionally violent, regularly misogynistic, obsessively vulgar and yet often a charming and intensely self-aware host in this portrait of an artist as a juvenile delinquent.

It’s just bad timing for the makers of Dirty Hands that a more innovative documentary on another celebrated street artist – Exit By the Gift Shop about Banksy – is coming out at about the same time and stealing most of the buzz that this film was hoping to receive.

One other slight problem I have personally is that I have to admit I’m not quite as big a fan of Choe’s work as the filmmakers and the people surrounding him.  While I do recognize the talent there, I don’t always respond viscerally to his work, particularly his early tagging.  I live in a city that is well-known for its street art, and Choe’s artwork does not always live up to stuff I see on a daily basis.  However, Choe has become very respected in the art world, so obviously there is something there that I do not always see in the work.

However, if I don’t always buy into the final product, I can’t deny that the guy is passionate about his work – occasionally at a disturbing level, as exhibited by a section of this film where Choe repeatedly punches himself in the face in order to use his own blood as paint.  Other parts show him using urine and soy sauce for colors.

This determination to bleed for his art seems to be figurative as well as literal.

The most intriguing thing about the man is that he is not in it for the money.  Choe creates art for the same reason all true artists do – because he has no choice but do it.

Choe will also throw himself into things just for the experience of it – everything from taking part in the LA riots to flying to Africa in search of a dinosaur.

The turning point in his life appears to be when Choe was involved with an altercation with a Japanese policeman.  Though it appears to have been something of a misunderstanding, what can’t be denied is that instead of taking the time to figure out what was happening, Choe struck first and found out what was happening later.  Therefore, even when he later explains how he was railroaded, the audience can not help but think that even with the extenuating circumstances, had he just kept his cool he wouldn’t have gone to jail.

He spent three months in the jail, and while you can’t exactly say he became mature, he certainly grew from the experience.

Another telling segment shows a female fan uncomfortably reading the completely angry, sexist and bitter text Choe wrote for his first calendar, supposedly a tribute to twelve former lovers.  It quickly becomes obvious that Choe craves women and despises them in equal measure.

But the very passion that got him stupidly into trouble with the law and his lovers also makes him an innovative artist and a flawed-but-beguiling human being.

David Choe is a fascinating contradiction; for this his world is an intriguing one to visit.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: April 30, 2010.

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