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.


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
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.

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.

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?

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

You can find more of Boey's art (and buy some of it) here.

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