Joseph Lee: Bridging Identities Through Art


Joseph Lee, the Artist

Joseph Lee, a Korean-American artist and actor residing in Los Angeles, has emerged as a significant voice in the contemporary art world over the past eight years. As a self-taught painter, Lee’s large-scale canvases are distinguished by vibrant, abstract strokes, often obscuring the faces of his subjects. This style has not only garnered him a cult following but also positioned him as a unique storyteller in the art scene, particularly in light of the recent rise in hate crimes against the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders community​​.

Lee’s upbringing in Indiana as an only child, particularly as an Asian-American, was marked by solitude and creativity. He credits his mother, who would often work with her hands sewing and making clothes, as an inspiration for his own creative pursuits. He recalls spending time alone, building forts and making toys, which he sees as an early manifestation of his artistic talent. This childhood, filled with self-entertainment and crafting, laid the foundation for his future in art​​.


Despite his parents not being inherently creative, they saw his artistic activities as a positive outlet. Lee’s early inclination towards painting, drawing, and doodling was encouraged as it kept him engaged in a safe environment. This support played a crucial role in nurturing his creative journey from an early age​​.

Lee’s artistic philosophy has evolved over time. Initially focused on imitation and technique building, his art took a significant turn during a brief work stint in Korea. In Korea, confined to a hotel room without access to large canvases or materials, he resorted to painting over magazine pages and photography books. This shift in his artistic process was not only a result of logistical constraints but also a reflection of his emotional state during this period​​.

Lee’s time in Korea was pivotal in shaping his identity and, consequently, his art. Growing up in the United States, he had always felt a disconnect with his American identity. However, upon moving to Korea, he was confronted with an unexpected realization: he felt more American in Korea than he had anticipated. This experience of feeling like an outsider in both countries led to an identity crisis, which deeply influenced his artwork. He began to strip away the recognizable features in his paintings, making them more ambiguous and reflective of his complex sense of identity​​.

Joseph Lee, the Actor

Lee’s acting career is marked by notable roles in both film and television. He appeared in the 2011 movie “Nerve” as Eric and played Ken in the 2015 film “Lion”. In 2018, he had a role in “Searching”, portraying the character Peter. His television career includes appearances in popular shows like “Rizzoli & Isles” in 2014, “NCIS: Los Angeles” in 2016, and a main role in the South Korean drama series “The Miracle We Met” in 2018​​.

Lee’s most prominent acting role to date is in the Netflix comedy-drama “Beef”, released in April 2023. He portrayed George Nakai, the sculptor husband of Amy Lau (played by Ali Wong). Lee found the show uniquely refreshing for its nuanced portrayal of Asian-American life. His performance in “Beef” earned him a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie at the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards. Additionally, in 2023, he took on the role of Lt. Mura in the popular series “Star Trek: Picard”​​.

Through his art, Joseph Lee explores themes of identity, belonging, and the human condition. His work is a powerful testament to the idea that art can be a medium for understanding and navigating one’s own experiences and cultural heritage. Lee’s journey and his artistic expression serve as a reminder of the ever-evolving nature of identity and the profound impact that personal experiences can have on creative expression.

Photos: Instagram @joeyunlee