Justin BUA is known as one of the most important urban and hip-hop artists of our era. He has been making a mark in the art world with his unique style of Distorted Urban Realism, spearheading a new genre of art.
Born of a single mother in New York’s Upper West Side, Bua experienced Hip Hop at its purest before the rest of the world caught on to the four elements. His work captures the underground urban world; its music, dance, politics, history, emotion, and cultural importance. He moved to LA at the age of 21 to study at Art Center College of Design in Pasaden, California, where he earned a B.F.A. in illustration. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches at the University of Southern California and continues to be a leading innovator in the fine art and commercial art worlds. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches at the University of Southern California and continues to be a leading innovator in the fine art and commercial art worlds.
AP: What initially drew you into the world of Hip Hop and the graffiti culture at such a young age? BUA: I was raised by a single working mom who had to hustle the 8am-9pm job to keep the lights on so I did what most NYC kids did at that time which was run with the wolves. My mom wasn’t around during the week days and I didn’t have a father or any brothers and sisters so my family became my friends on the streets. Out in the streets were the great graff murals of Legends like Lee, Lady Pink, Futura, Dondi and Revolt. It was on the streets that I was exposed to these great works of art. The subway cars that these guys did was awe inspiring and really influenced my vision of how colorful the world could be. NYC was predominantly grey’s, browns and earth tones. These paintings gave fresh colors to an otherwise monochromatic city palette. At home I had great paintings (reproductions of course) of wonderful artists hanging on our walls like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gough and Kollwitz. These artists had empathy for the working class and this made sense to me since we (me and my mom) were “those people”. New York City was going through a renaissance of change and I bore witness to the social and political changing climate. I was fortunate to be there at a seminal time in history where the energy of the streets echoed that change and was positively channeled into dance, rapping and art.
AP: You got schooled in NYC/Brooklyn during the early days of Hip Hop culture, gaining graffiti skills in your early teens. Who were some of your peers at this time and who would you say had the most influence on you? BUA: I ran with a few different crews BUT in terms of gaining skills in graff I would have to say West was a big influence. West and I were partners in a crew—TCA where I was the president of the “popping” division and he was the president of graffiti. He later on rolled with Flight and became a big part of FC. However I wasn’t really as good as a lot of my peers like Serge, West and many others. I was really into characters and never took graff to a high level like many of my peers did. I became more of a social commentator painter. I painted my friends and my people.
AP: You must have had a few run-ins getting up in the NYC, which was the most frightening? BUA: I had a few run-ins BUT nothing compared to the amount of times that I got jumped out of nowhere in the city. I think the most frightening was the time that I got mugged twice in one day… wait no, no it was definitely the time that I got stabbed on 94th st…. wait no it was definitely the time at the Douglas projects when I had a gun pulled out on me in the middle of a cypher and the trigger was pulled back then… I don’t know there were many crazy times growing up in the city in the 70’s and 80’s… Good times! AP: What was the largest and greatest street piece that you felt encompassed your personal style the best, and where did it live? BUA: I never was proud of any one piece that I did and I was too self critical to even call myself an artist at that time. I rarely did large pieces but rather watched the greats like Bill Blast and Doze do their art. I learned a lot by studying others works. The best paintings that I did really lived in my blackbooks.
AP: Did you continue to do graffiti once you moved to LA, and what did you write? BUA: No never. Not in public. Did some wheat pasting stuff but the majority of my works started to really live on canvas and in my sketchbooks. AP: Did you find much of a difference in NYC vs LA style at all at the time, and what do you think of the current two scenes? BUA: Both scenes were incredible. Completely different styles. When I came out here, in LA, I saw the works of Hex and my mind was blown later I became friends with the likes of Mear and Cisco and really enjoyed their work a lot. Mear in particular is to this day not only one of the great graff legends but also the quintessential artist.
AP: Your work is heavily influenced by the DJ and MC Hip Hop culture and you’ve painted many of the icons of this genre, who are your top five favorites and why? BUA: That’s one of the hardest questions to answer because you have to take into consideration individuals? Groups? DJ’s? Mc’s? It’s too broad of a question and therefore an unfair one but if I had to say the 5 greatest Hip Hop GROUPS of all time they would be and not necessarily in this order. 1-NWA 2-PUBLIC ENEMY 3-BEASTIE BOYS 4-WU TANG CLAN 5-RUN DMC
AP: You have a degree in illustration and have worked on many amazing commercial projects including; doing album covers for Warner Brothers, BMG, and Capitol records. What has been your favorite project to date and why? BUA: Probably the one I’m working on right now. My next book entitled, The Legends of Hip Hop. This is an opportunity of a lifetime wherein I can immortalize the greats of our generation. AP: What medium do you prefer to work in and why? BUA: Acrylic because it’s clean and quasi non-toxic and because I have been using it for so long that I have great control with the medium. However I do paint in oils sometimes because it’s straight up sexy!
AP: Your audience is made up of a diverse group that ranges from; street kids to former U.S. Presidents, graffiti writers to fine art connoisseurs, rap fans to jazz aficionados. Who are some of your favorite people in your audience? BUA: I love all my people.
AP: Your work features a lot of musicians playing classical instruments like the piano or acoustic guitar and jazz-styled lounge lizards smoking long skinny cigars. What kind of Jazz do are you into, and who are some of your all time favorite jazz heroes? BUA: I am into the greats. Miles, Coltrane, Billy, Bill Evans, Canonball. There are so many greats I could go on and on. But I’d have to say it really depends my mood. If I’m feeling blue—Chet Baker is the man.
AP: What shows do you have lined up for 2010, and what projects can we look forward to seeing from you? BUA: I am so looking forward to getting my work out on many different products so I’d have to say my collaboration with Zazzle/Artsprojekt. I always feel like my work is for the people, by the people and of the people so what better way to get my work accessible to the people then being able to put in on everyday things people use. Skate decks, mouse pads, stickers, binders and the list goes on. This is going to be a fun one! AP: I have to ask what current Hip Hop artists do you listen to when working? BUA: Lady gaga… oh hip hop… come on Jay. Jay Z. Right now I just have it to Jay-Z radio on Pandora.
AP: Thank you for taking the time to share with us the insight into your world.