By day, Paul Choi works as a freelance graphic designer and art director. But he’s fast becoming a household name in Asheville, thanks to the insightfully hilarious portraits he draws from a sidewalk setup in warmer weather, and in bars during colder months and late at night — not your typical caricatures, but something more intimate and jarringly recognizable. Choi brands the sketches, which he executes in about three minutes flat, “Bad Drawings.”
Your portraits are refreshingly unpretentious.
Thank you. That’s what I’m going for. I try not to be serious if I don’t have to be. I believe levity is stronger than gravity.
What’s the history of Bad Drawings?
I was living in downtown Asheville, and the weather was gorgeous, so I borrowed a couple of chairs from the bar downstairs.
That’s such an Asheville way to begin a story.
Then I set up outside with my drawing pad, some Sharpies, and some Mr. Sketch scented markers. They smell great and are part of my childhood. And I made an intentionally crude little sign: “Bad Drawings — Pay What You Wish.”
How did people react?
When people walk by, I ask, “Would you care for a bad drawing?” The funny thing I’ve noticed — and I’ve been doing this now for four years — is the responses are always one of only about a dozen. I can almost predict what they’ll say.
You mean, like, “How bad is it?”
Yeah, that’s a really common one. If they ask that, I say, “It’s badass.” I have great lines for every reaction and always get a good laugh.
You could have a menu of the predictable responses, and after they answer, show them how what they said is on your list.
I should totally do that.
And if they want a portrait?
They sit down across from me and I ask them questions.
“Where are you from? Do you have a favorite food or hobby? Are there any symbols or themes you’d like to include? Do you live here or are you visiting? What’s one word to describe your job? Life? Lunch? Significant other? If you could be drawn anywhere, where would you be? Would you like me to draw you nude?”
I guess that could offend them. Or maybe they’d be more offended if you didn’t ask?
That question kind of peels off the veneer. I go to bars late at night, and instead of calling them Bad Drawings, I have a little sign that says “Nude Drawings, Pay What You Wish.” I’ve had long lines waiting to get a nude drawing. It’s super fun. I always tell people disrobing is optional, and most people elect to keep their clothes on. I’ve had, however, numerous people take their tops off, and sometimes bottoms, too. I’ve had one guy pull his shorts down, though it did nothing for the drawing.
We all want to have ourselves creatively interpreted, don’t we?
Yeah, I feel like my drawings have a certain honesty, and many people mention that. A guy with a receding hairline said he appreciated that I included it in the drawing.
That’s what friends do … reflect you back to yourself in a gentle but honest way.
It’s nice when a person recognizes themselves in the drawing. They really enjoy it. Some people who are in transition and looking at different sexualities and identities will ask me to draw them to what they want to be. They love it when they can see something about themselves they’ve always wanted in a portrait. It has happened multiple times, to my great delight.
Do Bad Drawings pay the rent?
It’s good beer money. Some give 50 or 60 dollars, and lots give five.
How many portraits have you drawn?
Over 5,000. That’s a conservative estimate. Just this year alone I’ve drawn about 1,000.
What other kind of art do you do?
I do some illustrations, and have created stickers and postcards with those.
What kind of illustrations?
I’ve always loved Lionel Richie’s lascivious, languid, beckoning pose from inside his debut album. I was looking at Michael Jackson’s Thriller cover and didn’t realize the album cover expanded into a full-length pose as well. Coincidentally, they were posed at opposite angles. Suddenly an image of the two scissoring each other flashed into my head, [and I drew it]. In the past year, however, both Lionel Richie and Prince’s estates sent a copyright takedown notice.
Did that nix your project?
I’ve expanded the idea to include Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton and Prince/David Bowie. I’m working on more, of Dennis Rodman/Kim Jong-un, and Sinead O’Connor/Pope John Paul II.
Paul Choi’s portraits can be viewed on his Instagram account (@baddrawingsok). During October, he will be downtown, especially on weekends, but doesn’t have a routine schedule. He says, “Perhaps it’s best to leave it up to serendipity to find me and get a drawing.”