A New Documentary Tells the Troubled Story of Mega-Pop Artist Mr. Doodle

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the artist, known for intricate drawings and an equally intricate legend.

Ed Perkins, Mr. Doodle aka Sam Cox, and Jaime D'Cruz at South by Southwest, where the filmmakers' documentary The Trouble with Mr. Doodle was screened. Photo: Joanna Brooks.

If you live in a certain sector of the museum-and-gallery art world, you could be forgiven for not knowing the fanciful creations of English artist Mr. Doodle, who compulsively covers every surface around him with dense, Keith Haring–like designs. But his 2.9 million followers on Instagram and 1.3 million on Facebook certainly do. Though he didn’t go to a prestigious art school and hasn’t nabbed any Artforum reviews, the artist has risen to such fame that he was the fifth-biggest-selling artist at auction in 2020, amassing nearly $4.7 million in sales.

Now, his story is told in the documentary The Trouble with Mr. Doodle, which traces his arc from humble beginnings to global star status. All may have seemed idyllic as he doodled to his heart’s content, wedded a beautiful wife, and even bought a mansion. 

But there was indeed trouble. As the film sympathetically conveys, his rise to fame was accompanied by delusions and a psychotic break, leading to a spell in the hospital. His unconventional life is conveyed through the documentarian’s conventional means: interviews with the artist and those close to him, contemporaneous footage, and animations telling his story by the artist himself, whose given name is Sam Cox. 

A man doodles over every surface in a bedroom.

Still from The Trouble with Mr. Doodle, courtesy Lightbox.

A heavyweight team is behind the film. It is co-directed by Ed Perkins and Jaimie D’Cruz (the latter produced the runaway 2010 hit Exit Through the Gift Shop). It was also produced by Lightbox, the company founded by cousins Jonathan Chinn, who won an Emmy for the 2000 Fox/PBS show American High, and Simon Chinn, who produced Man on Wire (2008) and Searching for Sugarman (2012), both of which won Academy Awards for best documentary. The film premiered at the SXSW festival and is currently in search of a distributor. 

“Mr. Doodle is a unique example of a person who is fascinating as a character and doing something quite odd and interesting in its own right,” D’Cruz said over a Zoom call. “There are better known artists, but art is a really hard thing to make a film about. Sam gives you a way into an art story through someone who is not a serious intellectual pondering the meaning of life in a studio but is out in the world doing interesting things.”

Still from The Trouble with Mr. Doodle, courtesy Lightbox.

An inveterate doodler from childhood, the artist created his alter ego in 2014, when he was so dubbed by an art school professor after showing up to class in an outfit covered in his trademark designs. He tells an origin story that has him being banished from Earth to Doodle Land; his evil brother, Dr. Scribble, sends him back to Earth, after which he has to sell new works to raise funds to return to his adopted home.

The artist’s rise started in 2017, when a video of him doodling the interior of a vacant London shop went viral. A 2018 solo show at Ara Art Center in Seoul helped his rise to superstar status in Asia, where he is represented by the dealer Pearl Lam (who appears briefly in the doc). He has undertaken collaborations with Fendi, Puma, MTV Europe, and Samsung, as well as corporate commissions and public projects. Auction houses took notice, and in 2019, Sotheby’s Hong Kong mounted a selling exhibition and then an online-only sale, followed by a rush of his works selling very well at auction. 

In 2022, as we see in the doc, he acquired and doodled a mansion in Kent, inside and out, after completely ripping out the interiors and having it painted bright white, so that it served as a blank canvas.

An artist in a white jumpsuit stands in a vacant white room

Still from The Trouble with Mr. Doodle, courtesy Lightbox.

“When I met Sam, he was still trying to grapple with what was happening to him,” said Perkins over Zoom. “He was still trying to balance out Sam Cox and this crazy character. When you have a retrospective story, you pull it into the present tense if possible, so someone is grappling in real time with something profound.”

“Any decent story has a protagonist and an antagonist,” Perkins added, “but with Sam, the components of a traditional story both exist within him. In his head he has Sam and Mr. Doodle, and they’re constantly walking a tightrope.”

It was a challenge to know how to convey the story of a troubled subject, the directors acknowledged, but they feel confident in their approach, partly because they solicited Cox’s own participation, by inviting him to tell parts of his own story with the animations. While the process of making a documentary can be “extractive,” said Perkins, they tried not to be exploitative or manipulative. 

A man and a woman brush their teeth in a bathroom covered in doodled drawings

Still from The Trouble with Mr. Doodle, courtesy Lightbox.

“I think we took the right ethical steps to make sure Sam was on board with what we were doing,” said D’Cruz. “He would suggest further ways of exploring even the central conceit of a film about the struggle between Sam and his alter ego.”

They were also mindful of Cox’s vulnerability, they said. “We were very concerned that the consequences of exploring this could be serious, up to and including the possibility that it could trigger another episode,” D’Cruz added.

In making the film, they say, they had two major questions, one medical, one artistic. Firstly, why did he become ill? According to the filmmakers, Cox and his family explained it away by saying it was all the travel and jet lag; the overwork and the stress. “We didn’t feel like that was the complete reason,” said Perkins, while admitting that they never quite answered the question to their own satisfaction.

Second, asked Perkins, “Why does Sam draw in the first place?” They were “trying to find a really obvious answer for someone who does something really unusual. I never found an answer.”

“Jamie is probably right to say some people are just born that way,” Perkins added. “Some people are born different.”

“Mr Doodle! Museum Mayhem” will be on view at the Holburne Museum, Great Pulteney St, Bathwick, Bath, May 3–September 1.

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