How the New Bowery Wall Commission Puts Rape Culture on Display

The latest artist commissioned to paint the influential Soho wall is a man who has bragged about his predatory sexual behavior.

David Choe painting his mural (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Last week, well-known muralist David Choe painted New York City’s iconic Houston and Bowery wall. Did everyone forget that this guy openly bragged about raping a woman a few years ago? Does that not matter at all?

In 2014, Choe spoke in vivid detail on his podcast DVDASA about an experience he had at an LA massage parlor where he forced his masseuse to give him a blowjob. In his recounting, Choe said, “She has given me no signs that she’s into me or that this is appropriate behavior. … So I go back to the chill method of you never ask first, you just do it, get in trouble and then pay the price later.” After Choe finished his story, his co-host, adult film actress Asa Akira, said, “You raped [her].” Choe responded that he considered his actions to have been “rapey behavior” but not actual rape. “But the thrill of possibly going to jail, that’s what achieved the erection quest,” responded Choe. Akira pressed, “You’re basically telling us that you’re a rapist now and the only way to get your dick really hard is rape.” To this, Choe responded simply, “Yeah.”

While he later claimed that his confession was simply “bad storytelling in the style of douche,” it’s still pretty fucked up. Even if it’s an embellished anecdote, it’s still one about sexual assault that Choe used to show how “cool” he is and to brag about how thrilling the interaction was. Worse, while it was perhaps the most extreme, that wasn’t the first time Choe has done something like this. The artist has an impressive history of making public statements that attempt to normalize or make a joke out of rape. And last week he was in New York City, painting a mural on one of the most iconic walls in the country.

The recreated Keith Haring mural installed at Houston and Bowery in 2008 (photo by Dan DeLuca/Flickr)
Barry McGee and Josh Lazcano’s mural, installed in 2010 (photo by Andrew Russeth/Flickr)

The Houston and Bowery wall is curated by Goldman Properties, which has allowed it to display rotating murals since 2008. Since the passing of Goldman Properties founder Tony Goldman in 2012, the company has been run by his daughter, Jessica Goldman Srebnick, and its art practice has fallen under the banner of Goldman Global Arts, currently curated by Sarah Sperling. Being tapped to paint a mural at Houston and Bowery is a major career achievement for those in the street-art world, and the honor has previously been given to Shepard Fairey, Swoon, Os Gemeos, Lady Aiko, JR, Barry McGee, Faile, Crash, Maya Hayuk, and Futura, among others. Despite the fact that two women run the show at Goldman Global Arts, only three of the 20 or so artists they’ve invited in nearly a decade have been female. And now they’ve chosen a self-proclaimed (and self-congratulating) rapist.

When Goldman Properties sent out the press release announcing that a man who brags about committing rape would be the next star to paint their legendary wall, I had to wonder: Will there ever be a day when things don’t suck?

I shared my surprise on social media and got dozens of private messages from people who had never heard about Choe’s behavior. In the age of Trump, I guess this should all come as no surprise. America was outraged at the Access Hollywood tape on which Trump said “Grab ’em by the pussy” and “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” but the country ultimately decided that sexual assault wasn’t a deal-breaker and elected him anyway. Apparently we’ve moved on with Choe, too. Dangerous rhetoric written off as “locker room banter” is the bedrock of normalizing rape and misogyny, and apparently when they’re “stars,” we let them do it.

The 11th Principle’s Rape Culture Pyramid by Ranger Cervix & Kate Seewald of ActionAid / Safe Cities for Women (via Creative Commons)

The left-leaning arts community considers itself enlightened and immune to sexism. But if you were disgusted by Trump and you’re not pissed about Choe, you’re supporting the same system. Both men use stories of predatory sexual behavior to feel powerful, and Goldman Properties has either ignored Choe’s behavior or bought into it.

Tell me again that sexual assault will ruin a man’s career. Choe being chosen to paint this wall is just one more example of there being no consequences whatsoever for men who glorify predatory behavior toward women. There are hundreds of qualified muralists whom Goldman Properties could have chosen, whose contribution to the art world doesn’t include normalizing sexual violence.

If the past is any indication of the future, the sad truth is that we will quickly forget any outrage over this and move on. Choe has no incentive to change unless he stops getting opportunities or until his fans turn against him, and neither seems to be happening. But as long as his mural is on the Bowery wall, my response will not be to stay silent or to succumb to society’s drive to treat sexual violence like it’s not a deal-breaker. Sometimes your only power in a situation is saying “Fuck you” to the right person. Part of creating a culture of accountability is for all of us to say “This is unacceptable and we must do better,” then taking a stand with a physical boycott or pushing the story out to a wider audience.

So on that note: Fuck you, David Choe. Fuck you, Sarah Sperling. Fuck you, Jessica Goldman. You must do better than this.

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