Sharpies and Coffee Cups and Mr. Boey

​Boyishly grinning in his black hoodie and jeans, artist Cheeming Boey easily blended into the crowd at Laguna Art Museum's OsCene. (Read Dave Barton's review of the whole exhibit here.) Yet, his exhibit--simply titled "Sharpie on Styrofoam Cup"--stole the spotlight. They really are just Styrofoam cups. With Sharpie drawings. Painstakingly intricate Sharpie drawings with names like "Naranbaatar," "Fedor Emelianenko," and "Pew, pew, pew." To him, that his customers can't hang their purchases on their wall is exactly what makes them compelling despite their simplicity. In a culture that eats up any visual media labeled "HD" or "Now in 3D!," Boey's 2D drawings take their revenge by insisting on a 360-degree reception.

Sharpies and Coffee Cups and Mr. Boey

His nine-to-five is in animation for Blizzard Entertainment, though he can't really say much more about it. The inspiration for his after-hours art came in 2007, when Blizzard relocated him from San Francisco's bustle and glitz to the suburban haven of Irvine. Partially to prove a point to a friend, but mostly out of sheer boredom, he took a Sharpie to a cup and started drawing. Though his first cup took him three months to complete, he has since made over fifty more, each of which sell for anywhere between $140 and $540. 

OC Weekly (Sandeep Abraham): So you really drew all this simply out of boredom? 

Cheeming Boey: Yeah, it's like...prisoners are probably some of the most creative people out there just because they can make a shank out of anything. I'm sure the military picks up on all these things, like it's a survival technique. Like if you're trapped on an island with some loose string and paper, you can make something out of it.

Like MacGyver?

Yeah, and it's always fascinated me. I think these were made-up stories that I found fascinating only when I was drawing them by myself. I thought, "this is kind of like jail time." You're just in your room drawing and next thing you know, hours have gone by. Just drawing, though, I never felt time passing.

That's pretty crazy. Looking at your website, it's hard to believe you've made so many cups.

My website has only about half the cups I've actually made. A lot of the others were so rough and inconsistent. I started with a pen and Sharpie, and I didn't like how it looked.

Sharpies and Coffee Cups and Mr. Boey

What about the subject matter though? The more intense ones at the show were of Chinese myths. What encouraged that and your later stuff?

With those cups, I was trying to mimic Japanese prints and also draw things that I haven't drawn before. Like the crocodile, I've never drawn a crocodile in my life. I tested out the sharpie a lot, like how can I make scales look realistic. That cup itself was very experimental. Initially that cup was just a standalone, but it had such an Asian feel to it, that I decided to carry on the theme and draw people battling animal gods.

Your later work has colored sharpie on it, the cup with Daft Punk. Are you moving in a new direction?

I don't think I want to use colors as much, because they bleed too easily. With colored sharpie, when a line ends and you lift the pen, it forms a blotch. With black, it's very hard to tell. Someone actually asked me for the Daft Punk cup. A lot of these ideas were first emailed without a lot of follow-up. I was waiting for this guy to reply to me and he was just taking forever. By the time he did, I had already started on the cup. I just decided "I'm going to make this so awesome that when he sees it, he's going to want it, but I'm not going to sell it." I was actually angry that he wasted my time. Daft Punk is so bold with their blacks and daring with their colors. If there was any cup I would add solid colors to without blending, that was the one.

One of your more intricate pieces was the cup with Fedor. You did that with such detail and you can't mess up or erase Sharpie. Did you do a pencil design and then do that one?

When I went to school and picked up drawing, we were taught to draw the huge shapes first and fill in the tiny details after. I don't have the luxury of sketching out designs. A lot of my work starts in reverse - details first and then they branch out. With Fedor, I started with his eyes, then I slowly worked out. I chose to do pointillism because it's more forgiving. It's actually harder if I were to draw him with a straight line because once you put the line down, that's it.

Sharpies and Coffee Cups and Mr. Boey
Sharpies and Coffee Cups and Mr. Boey

At the end of the day, as I'm sure people have said, it's Sharpie on a Styrofoam cup. They're paying 200 bucks for a Styrofoam cup. You have to consider the idea behind it. The recipe for coca-cola was just probably pen on napkin. It would go for millions now, if not billions. No one's going to not pay for it because it's on a napkin. And I think a lot of people that like my work have been able to look beyond the fact that the cup itself says disposable or recyclable. Just because it's on something cheap, on something disposable, doesn't mean it has to be disposable. If you look at the foam cup itself, it's easily the epitome of 20th century technology. Maybe you don't mock, but you definitely poke fun at the fear that we're building all this stuff that's toxic to the environment. We throw out so many of these cups. On a certain level, I'm sure you speak to the consumerist nature of Americans. I mean, I think everything deserves a second chance. Why not this cup? When paying a lot of people ask "why don't you draw on ceramic or something that lasts longer?" If you drop my cup and you drop a ceramic cup, which is going to break? If you talk about drawing on a flat surface, this thing repels water. Paper, you spill coffee on it, you're done with it. People tend to think of art as something you can hang. Me? I no longer shop at art stores. I go to grocery stores and get my Sharpies there. Tell me about your childhood. What kind of stuff were you into? I grew up in a time when everything wasn't about computers. I like to think that kids back then were more creative, because there were no video games. I made things with my He-Man toys, though I didn't have a lot. I know my neighbors next door had a lot, so most of the stuff I played with were ants and bugs or lizards. I mean, they actually moved, they weren't just plastic toys. I know I had He-Man and Skeletor, but all their minions were bugs and things. I remember you telling me that you're originally from Singapore? I'm from Malaysia, but I was born in Singapore. I came out here in 1997. Growing up in Asia, you probably had a wider variety of critters to play with, like geckos. Back then, we couldn't imagine a world without computers. Even now I can't imagine it. Earlier this year, we had a power outage and I had no idea what to do. What the hell? What did I do before? I know PETA's going to get me for this, but I don't think kids nowadays know how bugs smell when you burn them. I don't think many people have ever - like you see on TV - buried a dead body. It's not that easy. If the ground is rocky, you're going to have a shitty time digging a grave. Like you wouldn't know that. It's not like TV where you dig and everything is just brown dirt. No rocks, nothing. Even if the rock was small, it's in the way of the shovel, you don't how long or wide it is. People don't go outdoors like that anymore. How do you think you are now compared to back then? Personally, I have more toys now than I had when I was a kid. In Asia, my parents couldn't afford everything. Like Street-Fighter, I didn't have street fighter. My dad was completely against me playing video games. So I drew a lot of the moves I saw when I played at the arcade. It was so exciting. I think I can better appreciate my work as an animator now simply because I was drawing so much as a kid.  You can find more of Boey's art (and buy some of it) here.


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