From Murals to Skate Decks, Jeffrey Cheung’s Art Celebrates Queer and Trans People of Color
Portrait of Jeffrey Cheung by Dongyi Wu. Courtesy of the artist.
Oakland-based artist Jeffrey Cheung’s hairy and intertwined figures have become vibrant markers of the Bay Area’s enduring arts scene. Whether prominently displayed as a street mural or briefly flashed on the bottom of a skateboard, Cheung’s work centers and celebrates queer and trans people of color.
Recently, his joyful scenes of ambiguously gendered characters have caught the attention of the art world. Fellow artist Nina Chanel Abney included Cheung alongside other leading figurative painters in “Punch,” the 2019 exhibition she curated at Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, Cheung participated in a two-person exhibition at Bim Bam Gallery in Paris and mounted a solo show at New Image Art Gallery in Los Angeles. Still, Cheung stays close to his roots, using his art and platform to support the LGBTQ+ community in his hometown.
Within his work, themes of queer love are prevalent. “When I was younger, I tried to process my queerness by making images and drawing,” Cheung said in a recent interview. “It used to be more about exploring and uncertainty, but now I find that most of my images are celebrating queer identities and sexualities, and depicting positive images of queerness.”
These shifts in Cheung’s mindset can be directly traced in his oeuvre. His earlier works, such as Bath and Team (both 2016), depict playful moments of domestic bliss between two men. In the former work, they squeeze into the same bathtub, smiling with a sense of ease and comfort together. By 2018, more figures populate Cheung’s picture plane. For instance, Around (2018) shows seven figures with hairy limbs and flopping bits, dancing with encircled arms and tangled legs. Pear (2019) features four nude men of varying complexions swirling around one another in a tender embrace.
While exploring communal acts of love in his more recent works, Cheung has also expanded his color palette. In his first solo exhibition with Hashimoto Contemporary in January 2017, nude figures rendered exclusively in peach and pink covered the gallery walls. The 2017 Women’s March and ubiquity of pink pussyhats have since laid bare that the aesthetics of pink flesh signal not to a racial neutral, but to whiteness. Cheung’s solo exhibition at Hashimoto in 2018, in contrast, showed a diversity in subject matter. On brightly painted canvases, individuals of varying skin tones embrace in numerous stages of sexual play, complicating his work to consider sexuality with race. The Chinese-American artist reflected, “Celebrating all bodies, especially those of people of color, is what I am excited to depict; images of human connection, unity, and love.”
Jeffrey Cheung, installation view of “In Unity” at Hashimoto Contemporary, 2018. Courtesy of Hashimoto Contemporary.
This transitional period in Cheung’s oeuvre occurred around the same time that he co-founded Unity, a two-piece music group–turned–publishing and skateboarding project, with his partner, Gabriel Ramirez. Unity Press began when Cheung started creating zines of his artwork under the same name, then expanded the project to become a publishing platform that centers queer and trans folks, and people of color. Cheung and Ramirez have brought Unity to Printed Matter’s Art Book Fairs and engaged their community through free and donation-based Riso printing workshops. “Art spaces can be predominately white and don’t always seem available to BIPOC,” Cheung said, “so we hope to provide a creative art space and a print resource that is more accessible.”
The latest branch of Unity is Unity Skateboarding, which regularly hosts skateboarding meetups for queer and trans folks, creating a welcoming and inclusive space in a community often experienced as cis and heteronormative. “Skateboarding was my main outlet when I was a teenager, but I fell out of it shortly after high school,” Cheung said. “If there was a skateboard company or project with queer and trans people in it, it would have been very validating and I might have even come out in high school.…I don’t think I would have felt as alone as I did in my teens.”
Portrait of Jeffrey Cheung by Dongyi Wu. Courtesy of the artist.
Through Unity Skateboarding, Cheung and Ramirez have held queer skate days from New Orleans to Paris, with Cheung designing the posters for each event. “A big part of why I started Unity was so the next generation of kids could see that there were queer and trans people in skateboarding, and that they could hopefully find inspiration to be themselves,” Cheung explained. Incorporating his art practice into this community building, he started hand-painting skate decks in small runs to gift to queer skate friends. After painting hundreds in the first year of launching Unity Skateboarding, Cheung now gets them printed and gives them out at Unity events.
Soon after starting Unity, he noticed that a majority of the queer skaters he knew and met were white. “I realized that the people who had access to skateboarding and were accepted in these spaces were mostly white and/or cis-passing boys, regardless of if they were gay or queer,” Cheung remarked. “We must all do the work that we can in our own communities to dismantle white supremacy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and any forms of bigotry, so most of our efforts through Unity Press and Skateboarding have been to center and prioritize Black and non-white queer and trans people.”
Jeffrey Cheung, mural outside of Starline Social Club, Oakland, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Although COVID-19 has temporarily paused queer skate events, Cheung continues to seek opportunities to support the LGBTQ+ community beyond the artist studio. In recent weeks, he’s donated his art to fundraise for Lyon-Martin Health Services and Women’s Community Clinic in San Francisco—a medical care provider for low-income, uninsured or underinsured trans folks and cis women. The nonprofit that manages Lyon-Martin, HealthRIGHT360, informed staff in February of its plans to permanently close the community clinic and consolidate services, maintaining only 10 percent of Lyon-Martin’s capacity at a different location.
“Health care should be free and accessible to everyone, especially during a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and Brown trans people,” Cheung said. “When trans people’s rights to health care are being taken away from them, we need to make sure a space like Lyon-Martin keeps its doors open.” The artist has donated two designs that have been made into T-shirts available for purchase for $35, with 100 percent of profits going towards saving Lyon-Martin.
Portrait of Jeffrey Cheung wearing one of his “Save Lyon Martin!” T-shirt designs, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Cheung offered Riso prints of his work to those who donated a minimum of $30 to bailout funds and organizations in support of the movement. While he acknowledges that people shouldn’t need an incentive to support Black communities and organizations, he collected donation receipts totaling around $10,000, over half of which came within the first hour of Cheung’s post announcing the initiative. “We need to continue to do the work in ourselves and in our communities and to continue to support Black liberation,” Cheung said. “This is not a one-time thing.”
While expanding upon representations of queer and trans people of color in visual culture, Cheung actively engages in community building outside of the studio. Unity Press and Skateboarding have become extensions of Cheung’s artistic practice, demonstrating the boundless impact artists can have in shaping and supporting their communities.