A foodie, a photographer, an artist, these are all words that Choen Lee encapsulates. At the age of 43, he has managed to capture nostalgia incorporating a relatively young art style referencing pop culture icons.
JUICE talked to the emerging Malaysian NFT artist in an exclusive interview where we dived into his humble beginnings as well as his plans for the metaverse…
How did you get started with photography?
It was in architecture school when I got interested in photography. I went to a school which program was created by Peter Salter, and his philosophy was that everyone who wants to become an architect should master every aspect by hand, and so it was very immersive learning experience where everything was hands on – from feeling the literal soil of a place to smelling the layers of a dwelling to seeing how something really is beyond the facade to drawing to concrete pouring to wood working to dark room arts.
A combination of the magic of seeing black and white images coming into form on a piece of paper sitting in a chemical bath really hooked me in and the smell of the dark room chemicals became addictive.
One of my first published photography work was based on the work we did – I titled it ‘Yuppification of Landscapes’. I stumbled into the world of commercial and fashion photography and I got stuck in that for quite a few years. It was a strange time, looking back.
This body of work was a rejection of mankind’s destruction of nature to build more concrete. It was a rejection of myself as somebody working in architecture and construction. Identity and integrity crisis.
What inspired your shift from photography to digital art?
My main interest as a kid was comic books. I subconsciously decorated my text books with drawings. My math tutor gave me advice about not wasting my parents hard earned money. I won’t forget that sit down, but I couldn’t stop doodling during classes.
Up until I got into architecture school, I didn’t like the idea of photography. I thought it was too easy to create images without needing to really look at something and draw it.
After many years, my physical health was in decline, messed up by the photographer lifestyle. During all these down times, I doodled. Drawing never left me throughout the years as I had used it as a basis for my photographic work.
A friend suggested that maybe it’s time for me to go back to the thing I really loved doing as a kid – drawing comics. That may or may not have been a passing remark, but the thought really nagged at me. That’s how I got back to drawing (thank you friend, you know who you are).
As an emerging NFT artist, what has your experience been?
It is pretty expensive to get in! I am very fortunate and grateful to have friends who helped me. We thought that it’s akin to traditional gallery sales, but so far that wisdom doesn’t apply because of the barrage of fees.
What I really do like about putting up artwork on the blockchain is the proof of creation. It doesn’t matter whether you are going to sell the piece or not. It’s a gallery with a receipt of proof of creation and ownership which cannot be faked or altered.
I’ll recommend other artists to put their work up on a blockchain first before sharing them out anywhere else.
What inspired your current pop culture collection?
Comic books and TV shows. Nostalgia. It’s a love letter to all that. Some may have been forgotten. Some may be obscure.
My personal Instagram revolved around home cooked food. The sudden change to showing drawings of people eating something, was a choice I made. Some of the drawn food are real, some are made up even if they might resemble something we might have eaten growing up.
Ahah! So there, food and pop culture – comfort food for the soul.
Do the characters in your NFT collection hold a special place in your heart, were they characters you grew up watching?
The collection is an homage to the characters I grew up on, but they’re not exactly those characters. They’re reimagined, but without going too far away from the source.
For example, there is one piece, in which there are two characters. They look like they might be in a gym, working out. The focus is on the guy wearing a skull mask, chugging down a drink from a bottle. Irman Hilmi (a great art director and an artist), who bought this piece, described them as Skeletor and He-man.
The title of the piece is ‘Protein Shake Day’.
I am still trying to avoid doing the obvious references through my future pieces. What you see in the collection on OpenSea is just a fraction of what will be put up eventually.
How has cryptocurrency impacted your life?
I’m still new to it so I can’t say for sure but I am learning every day.
One needs to generate quite a lot of value first before making the conversion of crypto to real world money as there is a wall of bureaucracy. As I am learning the hard way right now, it doesn’t pay the bills. You’d have to deal in really huge numbers for it to work.
Do you have future plans for NFT and crypto?
The Pop Culture Consumption (PCC) collection is hand crafted very slowly, with each piece being unique. 9 pieces are added periodically. When I started on this project I targeted to release 27 pieces, but the more I worked on it, the more I produced, surpassing the original plan. I won’t say how many until the final two updates are about to be added.
I might just use the analogy of TV shows having different annual seasons. Meanwhile, I am also busy working on other unrelated series which are turning out to be even more time consuming to create.
But here’s the reality about NFT. It’s new. It seems like magic. News headlines have been heavily sensationalised by spotlighting on million dollar sales of terribly drawn pixels.
And so, most people are in it to make money. Us, artists and creatives are most likely not though.
I’m excited about exploring entirely different universes in the meta verse. The first 18 of this collection is priced to help the early adopters to make money.
I am listing the pieces for a price that’s below my actual time cost, but the idea is to get people to buy into them. The early adopters will stand to benefit as subsequent pieces will be priced higher than right now. The early adopters can flip the pieces they’re holding for more than what they’ve paid for.
It’s interesting and exciting to watch this from the perspective of a collection creator.
To view more of Choen’s work, head to his profile on OpenSea.