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Simplicity Belied: Cheeming Boey


Cheeming Boey is one of those people who make significant achievement look effortless.  Using nothing more than everyday Styrofoam coffee cups and black Sharpie pens, he creates intricately detailed works of art that have generated lucrative attention, both around his home of Newport Beach, California and globally via copious internet buzz.  With the same seeming nonchalance, Boey accomplishes things that most people only dream about:  he crossed an ocean to a foreign land to follow his dream of making a living as an artist, created an online blog with hundreds of followers, completed an adventurous road trip across America, and self-published a book funded entirely by fan donations.  To quote Boey himself from a Sharpie web ad, “If you want to get something done, or if you have a dream…just go for it.”  He certainly seems to practice what he preaches.

Boey is originally from Johor Baru, Malaysia where he was raised on a dove breeding farm, and also studied in Singapore.  He didn’t excel in standard school subjects but always enjoyed drawing and reading comics.  Due to the comparative lack of opportunity for artists in Asia, and in order to best utilize his natural talents, he came to San Francisco initially to study advertising, later switching over to computer animation.  Subsequently, in typical Boey style, he handily landed a job as a video game animator – an opportunity that many budding artists would kill for.  A few years later, just as fortuitously, he unintentionally stumbled upon his talent for coffee cup art while sitting at a café, wanting to doodle but lacking paper.  A discarded cup suggested itself as canvas, and the rest is history. While still working as an animator, Boey began using his free time to seriously illustrate cups that he eventually presented to a gallery for display.  They sold well, and are now priced up to $1400 in his Etsy store, clearly proving wrong the friend that once told him no one would ever buy his cups.

One of the most common reactions when people see his art, after appreciation, seems to be “why Styrofoam cups?” – ranging from admiring curiosity to outright hostility around their environmental associations.  Boey gives several reasons for sticking to Styrofoam:  the cups are artistically challenging in terms of shape and the fact that mistakes can’t be repaired, ink flows well on their surface, though marketed as disposable they are paradoxically permanent in that they don’t degrade, turning them into art keeps them out of landfills, and he enjoys putting to creative use something that others see as nearly worthless or even unacceptable, showing that good art doesn’t require expensive supplies. 

One cup can take him up to several months to complete, and he goes through a pen every couple of days.  Boey incorporates a wide variety of illustration styles and influences, including pointillism, graphic novel and manga, western-style cartoons, Greek and Asian mythology, Japanese tattoo and woodcut art, and even themes based on traditional Malaysian shadow-puppet theater.  The results have gained him such notoriety that the Sharpie pen company has featured him in their ad campaigns, most notably winning a 2012 TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) “Ads Worth Spreading” award for the web ad Coffee Cup To Canvas.

However, there is much more to Boey than coffee cup art.  Besides computer animation, he also paints and sculpts, and has even been known to draw on banana skins.  He maintains an online journal/blog illustrated with minimalistic cartoon sketches of himself, his dog and friends, updated every day with the possible exception of a Saturday or Sunday.  Just last month he featured a contest for fans to submit illustrations using characters from his blog: My fanart > Your fanart  His 2011 road trip across the U.S. and into parts of Canada was documented in the blog and with some videos posted to his YouTube channel.  Most recently Boey produced a book entitled When I Was A Kid: Childhood Stories, which he was able to accomplish thanks to over $8000 in fan donations raised on Kickstarter.com.  The book is written in the same cartoon style as his blog.

Although Boey uses simple materials and makes his achievements look easy, it doesn’t take much observation to realize that a lot of hard work and perseverance underlie both his art and his life accomplishments.  He may have had a few lucky breaks along the way, but it’s his willingness to seize opportunities as they present themselves, and to do the legwork required to expand upon them, that has made for much of his success.  In this way, Boey shows us how a simple coffee cup can inspire not just fellow artists, but anyone with a dream.

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