.David Choe /5 Color Cowboy

David Choe 5 Color Cowboy Mural

Best Hair Salon Mural

David Choe /5 Color Cowboy

Before he did cover art for Jay-Z, before he gained fame painting naughty murals in Facebook’s first office in Palo Alto, before his portrait of Obama was hung in the White House, David Choe painted possibly his best work on the wall of a hair salon on The Alameda.

Choe was a long way from fame back then; he had done an exhibit at a Double Rainbow ice cream parlor and painted a mural on a Chinese restaurant before moving from Los Angeles to San Jose. But Johnny Granado, the future owner of 5 Color Cowboy salon, was already fascinated with his work. The two had met a comic convention in the mid-’90s, and Granado began filming footage of him that would eventually become the 2008 documentary Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe.

When Granado was getting ready to open 5 Color Cowboy in 2001, in a spot on The Alameda formerly occupied by Cafe Leviticus, he asked Choe to paint the particularly wretched north wall. Appreciation for Choe’s work aside, his motivation was fairly practical. “I knew he’d be able to turn this wall that looked like an outside wall into an interior space,” says Granado.

The piece was a staggering 48 feet across and 18 feet high. Choe first laid down a slate of black paint, then covered that with acrylics, then oil sticks, then stencils. The end result was an intricate and complex mishmash of themes, far beyond what they had discussed.

“There were things we talked about,” says Granado, “but I’ve got nothing to do with the twins or the robot. That’s just Dave. It was letting him create. I was like, ‘Just go for it.'”

The salon opened just five days before 9/11, and afterward some patrons saw an eerie prescience in images like an airplane and burning cityscape. But Granado has heard a thousand different interpretations over the last decade—even varying, sometimes, by where clients are sitting in the studio—and he thinks that’s part of the magic of the piece. “It’s completely layered,” he says. “Dave’s complexity hasn’t been done justice.”

The two are still friends, and Choe is scheduled to appear when 5 Color Cowboy celebrates its 10th anniversary in September. Choe is now a bona fide art-world sensation, fetching prices exponentially larger than the small fee he took for the mural.

“I couldn’t buy a watercolor by him now for what I paid for that,” says Granado. “But he would have done it for free.”

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