Don Chooi is one of the most celebrated artists in the bear community and it is not hard to understand why. His depiction of big, beefy, masculine bears strikes that magic balance of eroticism and playfulness that drives so many of us wild. He is also a pioneer in the sense that he is one of the first artists to incorporate bears of color into his work.
As he celebrates 20 years of creating art, we here at Bear World are thrilled to sit down with this amazingly talented man and learn more about him and his prolific body of work.
John Hernandez (JH): Tell us a bit about your background, where you’re from, how you started creating art?
Don Chooi (DC): I was born in Malaysia in 1973, out in the rural areas where acres and acres of rice paddy stretched out as far as the eye can see. I learned to draw through my own observations and curiosity for the world around me. It was in these formative years that my imagination began to flourish; and through drawing, I built my own little worlds to entertain myself. I moved to New Zealand in 1996 to complete my education. Little did I know how much my life would change. Being in a more sexually liberal place allowed me to find myself and become more comfortable being a gay man. This was reflected in the art that I would produce.
JH: What is it about bears that makes you want to incorporate them into your art?
DC: There are a few layers to unpack about my fascination with the bear subculture, especially when regarding my art. Firstly, the notion of a bear is to be comfortable (and confident) with being themselves. In my opinion, the freedom in identifying as a bear, regardless of social status, religious affiliation, ethnicity or body type, is highly erotic. Secondly, the sense of masculinity. To me a bear just exudes an aura of confidence. Lastly, this bear is highly sexual. These traits are what I try to capture in my art.
JH: What initially drew you into the bear community? And what keeps you there?
DC: I started being fascinated with the bears in my earlier years living in New Zealand. We had a small gay community in the city of Auckland, where I resided and there was this group of men who were burly, husky, cuddly, BBQ loving beer drinkers. They didn’t feel out of place at all, amongst the twinks and the muscles, as New Zealand’s landscape was populated by farmers – sheep and cattle – and they were comfortable being ‘manly’ and essentially, themselves. As I was still finding my place in the community – being an immigrant and Asian – I found myself drawn to the bears as they made me feel at home by welcoming me into their fold. These bears became my community and muses, fueling my sexual fantasies.
JH: Are you professionally trained or self-taught? Tell us about that.
DC: I would consider myself predominantly self-taught. There were a few art classes that I attended during my schooling years, but it was mostly learning to draw like how they did in the comics, the characters, the human form. I have to admit that I suck at technical drawing – can’t draw a car to save my own life – but I find comfort that I am able to draw human expressions and motion (and dicks) Hahahaha!
JH: Who are some of your artistic inspirations?
DC: I find inspiration mostly from the mainstream comic genre – DC and Marvel comics – talented artists such as John Byrne, Arthur Adams, Alan Davis, Jim Lee, and recently, Pepe Larraz, give me the inspiration and spirit to build my own artistic style. I cannot ignore the other fellow bear (and bara) artists that I encounter from the ephemera either – such as Mancerbear, Jiraiya, Cauro Hige, Go Fujimoto, Bill Ward, and Charlie Hunter, among many more.
JH: How has the artistic landscape changed in the past 20 years?
DC: I feel that the gay erotic art style has evolved in the past 20 years. I believe that this is due mostly to the internet and how it has allowed artists such as myself to look beyond my locality and geography, in terms of talent, skill and styles. This landscape has become more diverse and more nuanced. Back in the late 90s, it had been so difficult to obtain gay magazines, let alone gay art books. There was the mode of ordering or viewing (in the back aisles of the local mag store) that made it so clandestine. Nowadays, I can google to see what my favourite artists are producing, as well as find new artists.
Then there is image generation by AI. I agree that there should be serious debate regarding image legitimacy with mimicry and copying, but I cannot ignore the fact that it has also allowed for representation – especially for gaydom. I see now the prolificity of digital artists readily exploring gay erotic art and putting it out there for all to view, to be appreciated and debated over. This includes gay bear art. As an artist, I mustn’t ignore the presence of AI in the landscape – but I am also vigilant to its potential as a tool and as a thief.
JH: How has bear culture changed in the last 20 years, in your opinion, and has that influenced your work?
DC: Oh this is a topic that I feel I must tread with care. I am hardly the academic representative to discuss how bear culture has changed over the years, but… as a personal observation, bear culture has grown and adapted. In an evolving and connected world, bears are now pan-global – they exist in every part of the world. The gay bear ideals of ethnic background, body and gender type, as well as masculinity are expanding, challenged and adopted. In short, the bear identity is more fluid and dynamic than ever. My art (I hope) is all about this dynamism, exploring this change and evolution.
JH: Where can we see/ purchase your work and find you on social media?
DC: For the moment, I am not selling my work on a commercial basis. I am still open to commissions but am only working with bear runs, organizations and events. Hopefully, I will be able to give the time and care toward private, and personal commissions in the future. I am on Facebook, Instagram and X / Twitter under the moniker ‘dchooidoodles’. I have just subscribed to BlueSky so you can also find me there.
JH: What big projects are you working on? What is coming next?
DC: There have been a couple of big projects that I worked on this year, namely for Harbour City Bears (Sydney, Australia) and their campaign in Worldpride 2023 as well as for their HiBearNation 2024. I also completed my graphic novel, “Conversations with my Ghost” last year, but am currently looking for a publisher. I don’t really know what’s to come next with my art, as I am quite focused on my fulltime job as an educator, but I am open to possibilities and opportunities… so, who knows! Send me a message and let’s see what we can do!