I remember the first time I saw a painting by Justin Bua. It was the beginning of the fall semester at USC, the time when campus sidewalks were lined with poster sales. I got past the shoddy college humor, Bob Marley and Tony Montana, and found myself staring at an image of a distorted piano player. His face was narrow, his body shaped like an A, his cuffs too large for slender fingers. Behind that piece was “El Guitarrista” - another musician with similar hands; he was strumming in front of the setting sun. I purchased both of those prints, put them up in my dorm room and admired them for years.
Bua is best known for these characters, painted under the category of urban art. He calls them ‘ghetto celebrities’ – people who reign from neighborhoods, people who impact their communities by means of their craft, people who each had a hand in inspiring Bua’s work. Their stories have originally been told on canvas, and then reprinted for paper, apparel, and more recently for technology. Though most of his work is rooted in the New York City culture, Bua now resides and paints in Los Angeles, opening a whole new world of characters.
Has LA been able to inspire you as much as NY has?
NOT AT ALL. That’s why my subject matter will always be NY. So much of what my own art is based off of are my own experiences growing up as a kid in NYC. Moving to LA as an adult I had a strong sense of perspective instilled from my NYC childhood, so I experiennced LA in terms of NY. NYC will always be more of an interesting city to me.
How are characters in Los Angeles different from those in NYC?
There are characters everywhere in the world, in NYC and in LA. The difference is that in NYC, because of how populated the city is, you have homeless people next to barbers, next to aristocrats. In LA you don't see classes mingling like that, so it's a world very stratified. It's a city full of characters but they are all spread out. Its harder to study someone from a car window than it is when sitting next to them on the subway.
You derive a lot of your roots from hip hop. I fell in love with music because of hip hop, but I can’t ever give it a solid definition. How would you define it?
Hip hop was a movement that really defined itself as we grew up through it. It is traditionally defined through the four pillars: break dancing, dj’ing, MC’ing, and graf writing. But these were all just four art forms we embraced as kids and used to get us through the days. We never called it hip hop, we just danced. This was a time before definitions. Real hip hop is a creative expression for the rhythm of the streets. That’s why its so compelling because it is so REAL. Hip hop is a reflection of history - about the social and political climate of this generation. Good or bad, real hip hop tells the truth.
With that, is hip hop dead?
Hip hop was less about the music than it was our culture. It was our youth growing up, and as any other movement like Rock and Roll, it fades and dies as the group that embraced it grows older. The popularization/exploitation of hip hop is really what produced the gangster rap that most people consider “hip hop” music. (Although groups like NWA and Ice T in my opinion were as real as it gets…) However, that era is dead. The hits on the radio today vaguely resemble the movement I grew up in. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing artists today capable of producing hip hop. It’s just not the popular focus anymore. “Blame it on the Ahh ahhh ahh ahh ahh alcohol, blame it on the Ahh ahhh ahh ahh ahh alcohol!!!!”
Like you mentioned, hip hop was defined by images of breakers, graffiti artists, and the like. What images define hip hop today?
Obama. Though he isn’t necessarily a hip hop artist, his vision and idea of one-ness puts a nice little cap on the end of the hip hop era. I think a lot of people today define hip hop as a Kanye West or Akon type of music, mainly because they don’t have anything better to call it. They are just pop, and hip hop, was never about pop. Hip hop was visceral.
Several years ago, you did a sneaker collaboration with PF Flyers. Those flew off the shelves. Are you planning to do something like that again? Are there any collaborations coming up that we should look out for? (Justin Bua has worked with Lyricist Lounge, Slum Village, EA, etc)
I’m always open to doing collaborations with other companies and or groups. It’s a fun way to see your art and to grab new fans. Recently we just did a line of cell phone and iPod covers with Gelaskins. I thought those turned out pretty great. We’re also are releasing a skateboard line with Tribal of my "Trumpet Man" painting slapped across the deck of the board. Slickbottom BUA.
You recently did a painting of Laker, Kareem Abdul Jabbar. I have to ask - are the Lakers better than the Knicks? Explain.
C’mon. A) that’s a loaded question and B) Although I am a New Yorker at heart the Lakers have the best team in the NBA and the best player in the world—KOBE… The Lakers will win this year and that will answer this question. Now if the Knicks got Lebron then that might shift the paradigm…
Best LA gallery. Why?
Gallery 319 in Santa Monica because they have my art - that’s why.
Where in LA would you like to see your art?
I’d love to see my art hanging on the walls of the LACMA or Norton Simon, or any large institution for that matter. It has been a long goal of mine to be displayed in a museum setting. I consider my art for the people, by the people, and of the people. That’s why it’s important to be able to see my work in museums so that people have access to my work… The average person in the last few generations can’t relate to Monet or Titian because of the subject matter BUT people can relate to art that is about inner city life, DJs, Jazz musicians, people that this generation grew up around.
Your book, The Beat of Urban Art, is heavily focused on your growth in New York. Do you envision yourself releasing another book on LA experiences as an adult?
Maybe, much further down the line. My first book The Beat of Urban Art was a necessary step in getting people to understand where I was coming from, and what contributes to my style. Now that that step has been taken, I’m looking to really explore my style and techniques.
What are you currently working on?
I just finalized a new deal with Harper Collins to release a new illustrated book, much like my first The Beat of Urban Art. However, this one will be focusing on the legends of hip hop, and my personal heroes of the movement.
Can you tag up “Chicharon Adventures” for a t-shirt?
Ha ha talk to my people and if I say no then, “Blame it on the Ahh ahhh ahh ahh ahh alcohol, blame it on the Ahh ahhh ahh ahh ahh alcohol!!!!”
I'm definitely going to work on talking to Justin's people about that, because as much as this Q and A was an honor, the integration of his vision with this brand would be icing on the cake. Though I wish that Los Angeles could be more influential to him, I understand where he's coming from. You never forget where you came from. Kim and I adhere to that principle as much as Justin does.
I could've published this article with images of Justin's work, but instead I chose the raw photos of his studio. More than anything, his work gives off that raw and real feel. He represents everyday people, whether they are rich or poor, hero or underdog. As Angeleno as I am, I will concede and give New York it's props for shaping the mind of one of the most significant artists of my generation.
On June 20th, Justin will feature his work at the 4th Wall Gallery in Dallas, Texas. Both new and classic paintings will be on display. If you can make it there, you should. If not, visit Gallery 319 or start a petition to get his art on the walls of LACMA or Norton Simon.