David Choe’s Fans Want to Follow Him to a World Beyond Conformity

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The artist David Choe first became known for his graffiti in the streets of Los Angeles, where he painted edgy, expressionistic murals in a mode he calls “dirty style.” For years, he alternated between living off his art, odd jobs, and money made gambling. He self-published a graphic novel. He illustrated an album cover for a collaboration between Linkin Park and Jay-Z. In 2005, when Facebook was still in its infancy, Sean Parker, the company’s first president and a longtime admirer of Choe’s work, invited the artist to paint murals in the company’s offices. Choe accepted payment in stock; when Facebook went public, in 2012, the value of those shares reportedly hit two hundred million dollars.

Choe, who is now forty-seven, has built his brand on the proposition that art is transgression, and that his transgressions are art. He once did jail time in Japan after punching a security guard at a gallery showing his work. He has painted using his own blood. In 2008, he made a portrait of Barack Obama rumored to contain a secret message that could only be seen using black light; it reportedly hung in the White House for a while. Around this time, Choe hosted three seasons of a Vice video series called “Thumbs Up,” in which he and his buddies hitchhiked around the world. (A sample episode summary from Vice: “Choe rips his pants after pretending to take a shit on the Great Wall of China.”) He has palled around with David Chang and Anthony Bourdain. In an interview with Barbara Walters after Facebook went public, he tagged her crisp white button-down with black spray paint, mourned his newfound loss of privacy, and said to her that “money is meaningless.” In a live chat with Gawker, in 2013, he wrote, “i do not give a fuck. i have no shame,” and “i like to watch things burn to the ground.” That same year, he launched a raunchy podcast called “DVDASA” that he hosted with Asa Akira, an adult-film star. In one episode, in 2014, he described sexually assaulting a massage therapist, a biracial Black woman. He later claimed that he was fabricating the tale and guilty only of “bad storytelling in the style of douche.”

Recently, after Choe appeared in the hit Netflix show “Beef,” clips from that podcast episode resurfaced on social media. (Choe quickly filed copyright claims to try to get them taken down.) The thrust of his response—that his disturbing comments were just part of an act—is deeply characteristic; in some ways, he has built a career on such swerves. By trying on so many identities, he has also cultivated a devoted audience—through his tagging, through his Vice show, and then through his podcast and his social-media channels—keeping his followers attentive, entertained, and sometimes destabilized.

After the onset of the pandemic, Choe débuted a newfound commitment to emotional health, with a fervor that felt familiar. In July of 2020, he made an appearance—his fourth—on Joe Rogan’s podcast. He wore a shirt that he had hand-painted, and he sported long, home-dyed hair and a beard. He talked for nearly four hours about his therapy, his meditation practice, his struggles with addiction; he wept openly discussing Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. A year later, this fresh, New Age Choe launched a self-funded TV show, “The Choe Show,” which aired on FX and Hulu. He shot it partly in his childhood home in Los Angeles, whose rooms he had painted with a kaleidoscope of colors and filled with papier-mâché constructions. The show consisted of interviews with celebrity guests—Rainn Wilson, Will Arnett, and Kat Von D all made appearances. Choe painted their portraits on canvas and pressed them to talk about their trauma and their dreams, often dramatizing their responses with his own psychedelic animations. A viewer might reasonably imagine that Choe was searching for answers on his own journey and bringing others along on the way.

In the spring of 2022, Choe’s interest in self-examination took a new turn. He posted to social media an eighty-one-minute audio track about the strange origin story of Munko, a buck-toothed cartoon whale figure that he’d been tagging on walls for decades, since his early days as a graffiti artist.

Millions of years ago, Choe says, a Munko left his herd of identical gray Munkos to go on a quest. He befriended a series of characters who each gave him a red item to wear, and returned home clad in color, only to be eaten alive by a mob of his fellows who did not like his refusal to conform. In memory of the murdered Munko, some kindred cetacean spirits started wearing a red thread: “a beacon of light, of hope, of change, of something different, of creativity.”

For much of the rest of the track, Choe seems to be talking with himself.

“You are amazingly talented and gifted,” he says. “No one in the universe can do what you do.”

“No, I’m not,” he continues. “I’m so petty. I catfish people. I bully people.”

“That’s all in the past,” he says. “Today you uplift. . . . I’m telling you, I see you. And you are enough.”

He published similar posts on Instagram and Twitter. It was his first public invitation to a Discord server called Munko, an online community that would immerse users in an ever-evolving version of Choe’s world.

My friend Steven Carbajal has been a fan of Choe’s art and provocations for more than a decade. He first encountered the artist in 2008, when he watched him paint at a group show in New York City hosted by the London gallery Lazarides. Steven was struck by Choe’s energy and his confidence.

Steven is outwardly unassuming, but, as long as I’ve known him, he’s always craved a challenge. The quirkier and more onerous the undertaking, the better.

In 2016, he entered a contest posted on Instagram by René Redzepi, the avant-garde Danish chef, to re-create a recipe from 1669 titled “To Pickle an Old Fat Goose.” In order to follow the recipe as faithfully as possible, Steven persuaded a farmer upstate to sell him a six-year-old gander, which he slaughtered by hand, plucked, and placed in an earthen pot filled with wine; after sealing the whole thing with bread, he cooked it for six hours and then pickled it for three days. He won the competition, which meant a free meal at Noma, in Copenhagen, then lauded as one of the best restaurants in the world.

By late March, 2022, Steven was between gigs as a location manager in the film industry. He was parenting two school-aged kids while his wife worked out of town for months at a time. After seeing Choe’s posts about Munko, he logged onto Discord. It reminded him of the chat-only bulletin boards popular in the early nineties. Munko, he found, had hundreds of members and was adding new users every day. Steven was intrigued to see that Choe was regularly present in the chat, and he was drawn in by the positive tone of the other fans: “U R ENUF,” participants, known as Munkos, told one another.

As he scrolled, he found that users were choosing fanciful names for themselves, like Mocha Munko or Penny Munko. Steven chose the screen name Pinka, which is what he called his childhood imaginary friend. The Discord server also asked users to choose a color to indicate their level of receptiveness to communication on their profiles: red (“I’m just here to hang out”), yellow (“Ask First”), green (“I’m open for interaction”). Steven chose a white flag, the highest level, meaning “I surrender, I want ‘the full Munko.’ ”

Munko was advertised as a non-fungible-token, or N.F.T., project based on Choe’s art. In a practice common on Discord servers hyping N.F.T. launches, buyers of the tokens were granted access to V.I.P. areas on the server, behind the virtual velvet rope. But Choe’s N.F.T.s had an additional feature: each whale image—a melting Munko, a Munko with a fedora and a microphone—was generated by an algorithm that incorporated the owner’s answers to a questionnaire about their aspirations in life.

At first, Steven maintained a hint of skepticism, having bought into earlier, ill-fated N.F.T. projects. This server, however, seemed to go far beyond N.F.T. trading. Choe invited participants into social experiments, and encouraged them to “surrender” and to share personal fears, failures, and successes in the chat.

By late April, Choe was posting new prompts almost every day: “Draw a circle.” “Make an artwork out of only green materials.” “Tell the story of your birth.” Each post would receive a few dozen responses, sometimes documenting elaborate projects that people worked on for hours or days.

Steven started spending more and more of his time on the server: he was shooting and editing short films, uploading videos of himself dancing, making sculptures. He cut back on Instagram, Facebook, and reading the news. Posting up to forty times a day on Munko, he disclosed personal thoughts with what came to feel like a valuable new community. He asked his wife to join the server, too, and she did, though she spent far less time on it. (Steven’s wife declined to be interviewed for this article.)

On May 25th, Steven posted:

I truly believe deep in my heart Munko is meant to grow and help heal the wounds of society. Maybe this view is too lofty, and the task too difficult for us to tackle, but this space is an incubator for the type of thought and healing the world needs.

Steven wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Many Munko users were pulled ever more tightly into its world. David Roa, a.k.a. Mocha Munko, is a thirty-three-year-old coffee roaster in Bushwick. One day, while driving to work, he tuned in to an audio channel on Munko designed to connect two users at random. The first person to arrive was instructed to stay silent while the second person talked. Roa, the first to log on, listened as another user spoke at length about personal conflicts at work and at home. “Towards the end, he was, like, ‘Oh, my God. Thank you. It was so relieving, so therapeutic,’ ” Roa told me. “And all I did was listen. That was the first time that I was, like, Oh, there’s something interesting here. You have this artist, but he’s kind of removing himself from this and saying, You’re the art.”

The Munkos I spoke with were mostly men, white or Asian American, ranging from their twenties to early forties. Most were artists, former artists, or aspiring artists. In conversation, they seemed bright, self-aware, more or less financially and emotionally stable—and very eager to speak to a reporter, in the spirit of vulnerability and surrender that Munko exhorts.

I was able to reach Choe only through the Discord, in a channel open to the whole community. There, he declined to be interviewed, writing, “I’ve never done a print article that I felt captured what I was trying to express.” He also suggested that he would give me more creative leeway by refusing to comment: “What works best for you as an artist? Writing with negative space and the freedom to interpret—or ‘facts’ from me?”

Those who went for the “full Munko” described the server to me as: Choe’s personal art project; “A bunch of artist/art lover weirdoes who are seeking connection”; an open casting call for Season 2 of “The Choe Show”; a supportive, pro-mental-wellness community; and, repeatedly, “not a cult.”

Like Steven, most had been Choe fans through “DVDASA” or all the way back to the Vice years. And many saw their own journeys mirrored in what they viewed as Choe’s transformation from a gonzo, punk, train-hopping artist who tagged buildings and courted outrage to a grown man seemingly striving for maturity and spiritual growth.

“It’s an inside joke that we all recognize it’s kind of culty,” Ross Newman, a thirty-one-year-old day trader and artist, told me. His chosen name on the server is Numero Munko. In his other life, he lives with his parents in San Diego.

“I think the term ‘cult’ has a bad reputation,” Newman said. “There’s Potterheads, Disney adults, Marvel people, whatever political group you’re aligned with. ‘Cult’ isn’t necessarily a negative.”

Steven and the other Munkos I talked to insist that Munko has made them more creative, more confident, happier, more vulnerable. Herman Kwong, a fifty-year-old math teacher living in Sacramento, said that with the encouragement of other Munkos, he reconnected with his teen-age son, and he found so much support in the community that he was able to go off antidepressants. Mirina Kim, a thirty-six-year-old former Apple Store employee in Hawaii, said that the confidence she gained through the “communal love” on the Munko platform helped encourage her to commit to marrying her partner, which she did this past summer.

As the weeks and months passed, some of Choe’s most avid fans rose within the ranks. Some were appointed moderators—they were known collectively as Choes—while others, including Newman, were named helpers, a.k.a. Hongs and Lees. (The titles were chosen, Munkos told me, simply because they’re common Korean last names.)

Munkos introduced live-streamed figure-drawing sessions, writing workshops, and real-life meetups. They adopted words and phrases from Choe’s posts and videos: “dosume” (originally derived from “Don’t sue me”) as a greeting or for “thank you,” “GLUWI” for “love,” “shikoba”* *for “hello,” “ahm brev” for the mantra “I am brave,” and a Smurf-like use of the word Munko in phrases like “Gmunko” and “That’s very Munko of you.”

Choe himself continued to post videos and audio tracks, and hung out in the chat daily. Over time, he began to issue challenges, dangling thousands of dollars and free travel if users met the brief, giving people mere hours or days to say yes or no. He’d alter prompts on a whim, and when participants failed to meet his expectations his mood could darken.

In May, my friend Steven was chosen to compete in the Trash 2 Treasure competition, a contest with a ten-thousand-dollar prize. Choe mailed him and a dozen other people boxes of junk—things like CDs and old appliances. The assignment was to build a personal idol of creativity, dubbed a Yimmy.

Steven’s box included a pile of pennies. He brought them to zoos and an aquarium to put them through penny-press machines. He visited a friend at a train yard to crush others on the tracks, in homage to Choe’s rail-riding past. He worked on his construction after the kids were in bed, sometimes until two or three in the morning.

Late on the Friday night that the project was due, with an hour to spare, he submitted photos of his Yimmy, which had two heads and butterfly wings cut from a computer circuit board.

He had plans to take his two kids, along with my daughter, camping on the beach at Fire Island the next day. But, while he was there, he received a new prompt: sell your Yimmy. So Steven shot a video on the shore as the sun came up, “shirt off, ashes on my face, all over my body, from the campfire,” he remembers. The next day, he gave a live presentation and answered questions within the Discord about the Yimmy. Exhausted, he fell deeply asleep right after dinner. His wife, who had checked on the server from work, sent his daughter into his bedroom to try to rouse him, knowing the announcement of the winner would come soon.

At 11:28 P.M., Choe came on the server and announced that Pinka—Steven—had won the contest and the ten-thousand-dollar prize. Steven’s Munko friends started lighting up his phone, but he didn’t log on for at least twenty minutes. He was late, and Choe was unhappy. He accused Steven of self-sabotage.

“@Pinkas why am I trying to honor you and you aren’t willing to honor yourself?” Choe posted.

Steven apologized. His fellow-Munkos spoke up in his defense. Just after midnight, Choe gave him a new choice: “@Pinka I would like to give you the opportunity in lieu of receiving the 10k dollars to collect 60 MUNKO tokens that you can gift to anyone in the community you like. @here.”

Steven hadn’t worked consistently for months. He knew that the ten thousand dollars would go a long way for his family, but he was torn by his desire “to give back to the community,” he told me. “I felt so honored to be chosen.”

“This is a no brainer,” he replied to Choe at 12:13 A.M. “I accept this offer.”

In some ways, the Munko Discord is characteristic of many online communities: they provide just enough deconstruction of reality for users to believe they’re forging something new and special—something only group members have access to. Amanda Montell, the author of “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism” and the host of the podcast “Sounds Like a Cult,” told me that a shared lingo, particularly the selection of a new name, has a great deal of power. “It’s doing real religious work to separate a person and their identity from their former self,” she said.

In the realm of cryptocurrency and N.F.T.s, an antiestablishment ethos prevails that is as bombastic as it is idealistic. Crypto bros, Munkos, and many other Internet subcultures share the belief that, by making their own rules, they’re building their own path to a better world. But, although forging a community based on the rejection of proscribed limitations can offer freedom, it comes with the potential to careen out of control. And embracing a new world sometimes means leaving your old friends and family behind.

Josh Wygergangs is an exuberant red-bearded man in his late twenties who lives in Seattle among an “acquired family” of twenty or so people whom he calls brothers and sisters. Just before he found the Munko server, he had quit his job as a tow-truck driver to focus on his painting. By July of 2022, he was down to fifty dollars in his bank account, and Choe made him an offer: to walk across the United States to New York City. Wygergangs wasn’t allowed to accept any rides. He could wear only green “because it’s the color of growth.” The prize offered was twenty-five thousand dollars. He left within five days.

He planned an extended route to meet as many Munkos as possible along the way. As he was struggling along the shoulder of Interstate 5 near Wolf Creek, Oregon, braving a historic heat wave and a thunderstorm, he spoke with a fellow-Munko who grew concerned for both Wygergangs’s physical safety and his mental state. Wygergangs insisted that he was prepared for whatever came. “I was trying to tell him my truth, that I was totally mentally sound,” Wygergangs told me. He was checking in with his mom by phone every day, and posting updates to the Discord. But dozens of people who were following his progress on the server began buzzing with concern. Choe, who had been messaging privately with Wygergangs, decided to cancel the challenge, paying out the twenty-five thousand dollars despite the fact that Wygergangs hadn’t completed the trip. While Wygergangs, who had already walked about five hundred miles, feels the way it ended “robbed me of a certain level of agency,” he’s come to accept Choe’s decision. One day, he says, he’s going to go back and finish the journey.

For some perspective on the group’s dynamics, I shared the story of Munko with J. Gordon Melton, a retired Baylor University professor and the author of forty-five books on cults and alternative, minority, and new religions, including the “Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America” and “Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions.” “All leaders influence the behavior of people who accept their leadership,” Melton told me. “This is certainly outside the norm, in terms of the things he’s asking people to do. But he’s putting people in a situation where they can say yes or no.”

They can. But it’s clear that Choe exerts significant pressure, albeit at a distance.

On August 16, 2022, Choe invited Steven and two other lucky Munkos to the Philippines, all expenses paid. The trip would last seventeen days, Steven was told. At the time, he was supposed to be packing up the family’s rental house, saying goodbye to his wife, who was wrapping up a project, and taking his kids back to Brooklyn, solo, so they could start school. Still, Steven felt the trip was a singular opportunity. He asked relatives to step in last-minute to look after his children, who were starting fourth and sixth grade. Steven flew to Manila, where he and two other Munkos went on food tours, made art, and starred in a telenovela titled “Todo Es Munko.” Choe wasn’t there. While he courted intimacy online, he was still keeping Munkos at a physical distance.

Some members of the server, like Steven and Wygergangs, have robust support systems offline. Others may not be so lucky. Newman, a.k.a. Numero Munko, and Marjorie Owen, a Hong known as Penny Munko, both told me that, as Hongs, they’ve seen people display signs of poor mental health. Those who are clearly spiralling are referred to professional help, but, if they persist, they are banned. Though the Discord server provides its own form of community, membership is far from unconditional.

Willie Mayoral, an English teacher in Los Angeles, overstepped when he started designing writing assignments for fellow-Munkos that he dubbed “missions.” Some of Choe’s designated moderators pulled him aside in a private chat, “stating that I was creating ‘alternative programming’ and I was ‘playing with power dynamics,’ ” Mayoral told me. He defied their requests to stop. Then, one day, in 2022, Choe banned him from the server permanently.

“I had a panic attack,” Mayoral says. “It was a place that said all the time, ‘You’re enough.’ ” After this, he says, a new message came through loud and clear: “You’re too much.”

In November, the Discord became populated by “huts,” themed chat rooms, each with a designated guardian. Roa, the coffee roaster from Bushwick, was put in charge of a coffee hut; he often logged on to share his expertise.

Then there came a server-wide challenge to collectively complete ten thousand pushups. Choe asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to contribute reverse pushups—in other words, every pushup an anti-volunteer did would subtract one from the collective total. Some users warned one another in the chat that the offer was “a trap,” that it was not Munko to pit your efforts against those of other Munkos.

Roa put up his hand to be an anti-volunteer anyway. The next thing he knew, “they banned my I.P. address,” he told me. I was speaking to him the day after the incident, and he was still in disbelief. “They set my hut on fire.”

When Steven got back from his trip to the Philippines, his wife was not happy. He got a full-time job for the first time in his media career. Willie Mayoral still keeps in touch with about thirty Munkos, but others he once considered close friends have cut him off. He says that he has no regrets or bitterness, although his girlfriend, who had to deal with the emotional fallout of his ban, is pretty sick of the whole topic.

“My opinions of David Choe haven’t changed. Looking at it after the fact, at the end of the day, he’s a painter,” Mayoral says. “We are the paint, and I just wasn’t the color for that painting. That’s what brings me peace.”

Everyone on the Munko server calls Choe David or Dave, more with reverence than with familiarity. Many Munkos have Choe’s art hanging in their bedrooms. Most of the Munkos I talked to had long been aware of Choe’s story about sexually assaulting a woman, in addition to his subsequent claims that it was all fabricated, and most saw it as an artifact of the old Choe—yet they weren’t exactly untroubled by it. Part of following Choe has meant not always knowing when he’s serious and when he’s trolling.

Marjorie Owen is one of the few women in the inner circle of Munkos and a longtime Choe fan. Her twelve-year-old daughter has worked on some of the art challenges with her. She remembers Choe’s comments about assault from when they were originally aired, in 2014; she listened to his podcast often. “I remember very clearly—as a young woman at the time—being very upset,” she said. “But there’s something to be said for anyone who can take accountability for their actions and decide to change.”

But, I asked her, did Choe really take accountability if he didn’t admit to anything?

“David does like storytelling,” she said. “He’s been open about the fact that he used to lie a lot. I can’t know if that story actually happened or not.”

Late last year, Choe invited a few dozen Munkos, including Steven and his wife, to come to L.A. for an experience he called a Circle Thing, branded with a red circle to recall Munko’s origin story. Those interested were required to “burn” at least one of their Munko N.F.T.s in exchange for the experience. Steven went eagerly. His wife said no.

Participants say that they were instructed to go to a park or a cemetery, where a silent assistant, known as Mr. X and dressed in black, took them to Choe’s childhood home. There, each put on a garment chosen for them—superhero spandex, a painter’s coverall. They were brought into a room where they could hear Choe’s voice over a speaker, for what one participant described as “shadow work.” They were filmed the whole time; their bodies were 3-D-scanned to be made into art.

At the end of March, about a week before “Beef” premièred, Choe locked the server, barring new members from joining, and made his last community-wide post on Munko to date: “You all have everything you need and have all the answers.” The group, which has more than twelve thousand members, continues without him. There are still about a hundred posts a day. Josh Wygergangs is currently taking a break from the server, but he hopes to return someday soon, when he has more time again. Marjorie Owen has decided to stay. “I think ultimately with or without David’s presence it’s still a community where I know I can be super open and vulnerable and create, and where I‘ve made some friends I can likely be friends with for the rest of my life."

There are some who talk of building an in-person Munko village—off-grid, sustainable. It might be an artists’ colony, or it could host a temporary MunkoFest similar to Burning Man. It might be situated in the Philippines, or in Texas, or in Southern California. Ross Newman is one of several users who told me that they could see themselves living there, as long as there was sufficient Wi-Fi. Although every Munko I’ve spoken to talks about the village wistfully, it’s difficult to tell whether the idea is genuine, a joke, or something in between.

These days, Steven’s trying to keep better boundaries; he posts on the Discord as little as a few times a week. But he stands by his early hope that Munko could change the world. “Art is a powerful force, art is everything,” he wrote to me. “Lofty, but WHY NOT?” ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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