Choen Lee is a multidisciplinary creative NFT artist from Southeast Asia. Choen Lee's works are presented at various international exhibitions and art fairs such as ArtBasel HongKong NFTNYC and Malaysia's 1st NFT ConFest and CREO Gallery.
Can you tell us a bit about your artistic career and how you came to create NFT art?
I’ve been a multidisciplinary creative since the 90s, doing a bit of cartooning at first, before somehow getting into architecture. While doing that I got hooked in the art of the photography dark room, and made the jump into photography from there. I spent many years in this field, doing editorials and commercials. Some of my works won awards too. I’ve never stopped drawing in all those years, and always did them even as sketches before we did shoots so that the team gets a common vision to the goal we are going for.
When the pandemic lockdowns came I went back to drawing a lot more again. It was my friends who encouraged me to sell my artworks as NFT.
But before something else did happen. An old contact asked if I want to produce some cartoons for a defi trading platform. I didn’t know what crypto or blockchain was so I didn’t give a definite yes or not, and then I spent a few months studying about it.
When did you decide to establish yourself as an NFT-artist and what type of artwork do you most enjoy creating?
I wanted to be an inventor when I was in kindergarten. I thought it was just like the cartoons. Reality is something else.
I was never smart enough to be one so I just drew a lot about imaginary things (and getting into the world of architecture was as close as I could get). Growing up my friends always called me the artist because I always decorated my school text books with doodles!
I’ve always been very influenced by pop culture- manga and comic books. That’s how I learned to draw as a toddler- by copying what my older cousin did, who also had a lot of manga lying around. Later I’d just see what the artworks in comic books looked like and copied those.
Throughout my life I’ve done a lot of different kinds of work, but ultimately I’d still fall back to the basic drawing with pencil/pen on paper. These days for NFT I draw digitally using a crappy tablet hooked to my computer. It’s so slow and inaccurate that I’d have to redo the lines over and over again. In NFT art world, my style is known to be very comic book/ manga but that’s just the superficial side of it. It’s the narrative that’s important. I always start off something with a premise, which could be just a word or one line. Then I illustrate it.
I like to do stuff that poses questions, that makes people think a little bit. I am not here only to do pretty decorations.
Altered Reality. Who’s the machine? (2023)
Have you also gained experience in the classical art market?
I rarely exhibited in the past as I was mostly too busy with the photography business. During that period in time, seeing my work in and on commercial platforms was to me a form of exhibition already. I did do some, of which two I definitely remember but I don’t know if you can call it a classical art market as I chose to stay independent.
I remember one quite fondly, as it was to raise funds for the cleaning up of rivers. This one was a rather huge group show. I remember that one scathing review from an art critic that said something about how superficial the artworks are and that the artists were too concerned about how water looked like, except Choen Lee who was the only one who explored and successfully depicted how water feels like.
Now, in this NFT market I’ve exhibited around the world in just a year! It’s so crazy how intense and compressed the time line this culture is. I even curated a big art show for the first international NFT convention in Malaysia.
Can you share with us a special project or piece of art that inspired you or that you recently created?
Oh yes! But I have more than one thread I am working on right now.
I am very excited that one of my artworks is going to be on the biggest LED billboard in Hong Kong during Art Basel Hong Kong in March 2023. It’s almost 72m (230 ft) wide, or about 6 buses tip to tip.
This artwork is called ‘Follow the Black Rabbit to the Far End of the Metaverse’ and it is like the first in a series of works about someone exploring different worlds through portals.
I composed it like a wall mural except it was all done digitally. I basically custom made this piece to fit into this aspect ratio.
This is a mock up preview of the artwork ‘Follow the Black Rabbit to the Far End of the Metaverse’ in Hong Kong.
How do you assess the value of your works and how do you set pricing?
Hmm. Maybe I just make it up. When I first got into this NFT scene and set my prices relatively low my real life supporters were horrified. They thought I should be charging at least near to how I charged for my photography work. It’s hard to answer this. I’ve managed to sell 1/1 at 1eth, but struggle to sell editions at 0.01eth.
And honestly I could probably make more money in the real world but in NFT nobody’s my boss and I can do whatever I want to do.
What challenges have you experienced so far as an NFT artist and how have you overcome them?
Find the right audience... I learned not to listen Cryptobros even though they’re the main drivers of the nft economy. They know the regimented nature of pfp stuff, but know too little about art to tell you what works or don’t.
How did you sell your first NFT artwork and how did you establish yourself in the NFT market?
It was the last quarter of 2021. My friends and supporters who got me into NFT market were my first buyers. ‘Pop Culture Consumption’, a collection of comic book style art is an homage to the inner nerd in all of us, depicting characters from pop culture but who are reimagined as cosplayers who are too out of shape. The first batch was almost totally sold out before I could even list them.
And then I realized I had no one else to talk to and no one else to show my art to, and so I joined the wider community in spaces and learned to talk a lot of rubbish haha.
I ended up creating an entire series of works called ‘Late Night Twitter Spacing from the Other Side of the World’ based on this experience. It resonated with a lot of people. (The cartoonist and photographer in me is always keenly observing things and I can’t stop making commentaries on them.)
What role do collaborations and partnerships play in your NFT art career?
I’ve only collaborated with musicians and an abstract painter (they’re very important people to me these days). I really enjoyed the experience. It’s so different from traditional art and design world.
Ultimately we have to be our own marketing agent and talk hell a lot about the works. Nobody cares who you used to be or what you used to do ‘in real life’.
How do you find buyers/art collectors?
Wow I don’t know. I just talk to everyone like anyone else.
I’ve had artwork collected from me on the back of my bantering and talking rubbish in Twitter spaces.
Oh yea, you always have to talk about yourself and your work, because of the amount of noise in the market. You always like to think that your work will do its own talking right? It won’t be talking to anyone if nobody sees it. You have to talk talk talk talk until it can get to that level.
I am still working towards that goal. And hey, talking to you guys is part of the process!
How do you see the future of NFT art and what do you think will change in the future?
It’s just digital art with a verifiable receipt ‘stamp’ (or a certificate of authenticity) on a blockchain, and should be the norm of doing things in the future, whether in the current form or something evolved from this. I really like how no one government owns the currencies.
What is your goal or vision as an artist?
To steal a smile, and/or to challenge your perception of how things are.
What advice would you give to newcomers to Space or new NFT artists?
Get onto spaces and talk about yourself and your art. Repeat. Do this until you are visible to the public. Don’t just think that your art will do the talking. They won’t, until they get seen and people are familiar with your narrative.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
I may be entirely fictional. Or not. GMGM ;)
It has been widely speculated that ‘Are you going to be naughty or boring? (2022) is a self portrait. I will not confirm or deny and will gladly keep piling on the confusion hahaha.