Artists protest David Choe and his Bowery Wall mural that was recently painted over white (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

On Sunday afternoon, 18 artists gathered on the northwest corner of Bowery and Houston Streets to protest the multimillionaire street artist David Choe, who has been given the prominent Bowery Mural as a canvas and whose mural was recently whitewashed over by an unknown source.

As previously reported by Hyperallergic, Choe and the real estate company that commissioned the work, Goldman Properties, came under fire because of statements Choe made on a podcast three years ago, in which he recounted raping a masseuse. Bowery Boogie also noted that of the 21 artists Goldman has enlisted for that mural space, only three have been women. Even before it was painted over, Choe’s mural was vandalized numerous times, including with large letters spelling out RAPIST.

Protesters spell out “NO MEANS NO” on their backs and T-shirts

At the Sunday protest, organized by curator Jasmine Wahi mostly through Facebook, artists lined up in front of the mural wearing white T-shirts. Seven of the artists — whose shirts spelled out RESIST! — carried containers of red liquid, which they poured over themselves. At first, the remaining 11 artists stood facing forward with their hands on their hips. When the RESIST!ers poured the liquid over themselves, the rest turned their backs, with two removing their shirts, and all raised their right arms with their fists clenched. Their shirts and backs spelled out NO MEANS NO!

Before disbanding, the performers left red handprints on the newly white wall — “to memorialize those who might not necessarily have had a chance to speak about their victimhood or their survivorhood,” Wahi said.

Protesters use red paint to make impressions of their hands on the painted-over mural

When the artists lined up, passersby stopped in the late afternoon heat to watch. A handful of people arrived with cameras, ostensibly for the protest, but many who stopped whispered questioningly about the purpose of the performance, and were informed in hushed voices of Choe’s history.

Katie Gray, 30, walked by while the performers were still lined up and leaned in quickly toward two of them to murmur, “Thank you.” She said she didn’t know what they were responding to specifically, but could tell they were protesting rape culture “and that’s something I appreciate very much.”

Wahi said she was not only undeterred by the whitewashing, but pleased. “I think it’s a nice blank canvas for us,” she said after the performance. “I put a handprint up for a family member and I think a lot of other people did the same.”

Though much of the anger has focused on Choe, Wahi said the protest “was never actually about David Choe.”

“He was sort of catalytic in the moment,” she said. “But our aim in doing this was to bring awareness to the fact that rape culture is very real. And this is, we hope, a start to a larger conversation dismantling sort of pervasive and predatory patriarchy and violence, not just against women but against all people — sexual violence against all people.”

Wahi holds Choe accountable because of the power his celebrity status in the art world gives him. “For better or worse, celebrities have the power to either perpetuate [rape culture] or dismantle it,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of them are perpetuating it.” And groups like Goldman, she said, “hat hire celebrities in spite of their terrible behavior and their public personas are as complicit, compliant and also part of exacerbating this culture. You know, how can you just ignore and whitewash — no pun intended — someone’s past when they’re such a public figure? That means that you actually don’t care. It’s beyond not caring. It’s that you agree with their agenda and are pushing it forward.”

Three protesters on the corner of Bowery and Houston Streets

Street artist Swoon, one of the three women Goldman has given the Bowery mural space to in the past, criticized Choe on Instagram, accusing him of thinking “he’s being edgy while he celebrates within the safety of the same metaphorical locker room that has long protected Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, and countless entitled date-raping predators.”

“The dynamics of privilege in these types of situations exacerbates the problem immensely,” said Wahi, who also teaches about intersectionality at the School of Visual Arts. “When you’re talking about a celebrity and just a regular everyday person, you can’t — the perpetrator cannot claim, sort of, like, consensual dynamics because that’s just not — it just doesn’t exist.”

When Choe made his podcast comments three years ago, he responded by insisting the story he described never happened. “If I am guilty of anything, it’s bad storytelling in the style of douche,” he wrote on the podcast’s website. He said nothing further on the issue until Saturday, when — amid news that a protest was planned — he posted a long comment on Instagram claiming he has “spent the last 3 years in mental health facilities healing myself and dedicating my life to helping and healing others through love and action.”

One of the protesters at the protest organized by curator Jasmine Wahi

When I asked Wahi what she thought of the Instagram statement, she laughed. “I have a lot of thoughts on it,” she said. “I think it’s too little, too late. I think when people are under the gun, they often backtrack. That doesn’t necessarily make it disingenuous, but there’s also a lot of self-victimization in the statement. Like, ‘Oh, I’m sick. Oh, I have problems.’ That’s really not what this is about. Whether or not you did it — it’s not irrelevant, but in this context, it’s less relevant to the fact that your persona is perpetuating what is becoming more and more normal in our cultural zeitgeist, which is that it is okay to talk about sexual violence in a joking manner or to make it okay to act that way.”

“People in positions of power can often claim — and this gets into a whole other political issue — claim a mental health issue over just owning up to the bad things that they’ve done and to the violences that they’ve done to other people,” Wahi added. “It’s the same way that we will — and this is tangential, but — that we will take a young white man into custody for a bombing at a church but we will kill an unarmed black man. And the white man, everyone will be like, ‘It was mental health, he has issues.’ With a man of color, he’s a super-predator, or ‘that’s part of the culture,’ or’ black-on-black crime,’ or some other bullshit like that. They’re all — again, speaking about intersectionality — they’re all related to each other.”

I attempted to contact Choe through his website to ask him some questions about his Instagram apologia. I wanted to ask when and how he realized they were, as he now says, “negative words and dark messages.” He did not respond.

I also reached out to Jessica Goldman Srebnick, founder and CEO of Goldman Global Arts, the firm that controls the mural space at Bowery and Houston, to see if she had any comment or could connect me with Choe. She replied: “Take a look at the last Hyperallergic article and tell me if you would respond.” The article in question was an opinion piece that critiqued the company for commissioning work by a sexual predator.

Choe’s Instagram post has nearly 500 comments, which appear to be universally positive. A commenter with the username “sucknut” purported to have “never thought your ethics were messed up.” Commenter “yogaba_gangbang” wrote: “Hey Dave. You’re a beast. We love you dude. Clear eyes full hearts.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated David Choe was a billionaire; he is a multimillionaire. This has been amended. 

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Danielle Tcholakian

Danielle Tcholakian is a freelance reporter and writer based in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Longreads.