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By Kevin Burns

If you look at Justin Bua maybe there’s a familiarity. Maybe there’s something in his face that looks quiet and mysterious. Maybe he looks a little magician David Blaine. He could, however, just be another guy you wouldn’t stop twice to look at or even really think about.

And maybe if you see him in Santa Cruz on Sept 7, you will walk right past him and remember that you need to pick up some hand lotion at Longs Drugs or an album at Streetlight Records. Maybe, But if you stop by Picture Appeal, (between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.), and go inside, you’ll see much more than an average guy who looks little like David Blaine. You’ll see one of the most talented artists in the country. You’ll see the delicate detail of his paintings - reminiscent of Dali – and stare in childlike awe, perhaps, pf the time and place he’s recreated with such vivid freshness. A fan from Philadelphia once told him that he “made he ghetto look pretty.”

Artist Justin Bua with spray can in hand  

Justin Bua paints from experience and from his heart. His paintings are nothing less than inspiration. When Bua signs a poser you buy at his show or unveils one of his latest paintings, like “BUA 420,” you will remember him.

He calls his style “Distorted Urban Realism.” It’s a style, he says, “that was born out of my experience from growing up during the birth of the hip-hop renaissance in he early ‘80s. It’s basically my perception of how I see the world with my work.”

He’s from the era that birthed the heroes of hip-hop like DJ Cool Herc and Curtis Blow. It’s the era perhaps spirited by Hanes Brown’s “King Heroin” and the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” His influence, he’ll tell you is “real hip-hop. I’m not talking about the Puff Daddy’s of the world. The commercialized version, I’m talking about the DJs and the graffiti writers and the break-dancers and he MCs and the street poets.”

He’s portraying a group of people , a group of “characters who are not really recognized by the general public in a certain respect,” Bua says. “we don’t really give break-dancers credibility or graffiti writers artistic status or street poets status of justifiable poets, and I’m saying these characters are icons in my mind and the rock stars of today.”

He concedes that there has, of late, been a growing appreciation of DJs in America and he mentions an appearance of Mixmaster Mike recently on VH1. But then he asks, “Is there a growing acceptance of break-dancers? Absolutely not. Break dancers are light-years behind DJs at this particular point.”

“Hopefully through my are and through the message of my art these things will change,” Bua says/

You may notice too , when you see his paintings, what everybody else has noticed and commented on – a conscious rhythm, like a fourth dimension our senses can only detect through his art. If you ask him, he may tell you the rhythm comes from having grown up in Manhattan and break-dancing professionally for 12 years.

“My stuff is kind of break-dancing and graffiti hybridized and comes out on canvas in a very traditional, classical way,” he says.

When you look at his paintings, particularly “Como No?” you might even see his face. That’s because he paints himself into all of his work. Like Rembrandt, he doesn’t have many models to paint so he usually just looks in the mirror to find inspiration. Another reason, Bua says, is “because I want to be my characters in a certain way – they’re cool. I’m not as cool as they are and I think I’d like to be. They’re my projection of what I believe cool to be and I think ‘how can I attain that?’ and I can’t so I might as well live vicariously through my characters. They reflect the kids I grew up with, always looking up to the kid who was the DJ or break-dancer or graffiti artist who was just cool and you just wanted to be them.”

And there’s also an ethnic quality to his paintings, but it’s hard to pin down. “With respect to the ethnic ambiguity in my paintings, I grew up post melting pot,” he says, “I grew up in an era which was a melting pot already melted … in a time when you couldn’t tell if a kid was Puerto Rican, Jewish, Italian, Irish, or Black because they were all the ethnicities wrapped up into one.”

If you ask him if he’s African American, he’ll tell you he’s urban. If you force the subject asking him if he’s Jewish or Latino, he’ll say, “I’m so ethnically diverse myself – if I’m anything I’m a New Yorker. I’m trying to see beyond that, no color lines … why even go there?”

His paintings hold this “urbanity” as the color lines have vanished. And his audience is similarly as diverse.

“I’ve had 80-year old Romanian woman show up and say, ‘I’ve been a fan of yours for 10 years,’ he says. “That’s kinda weird, but totally cool. Then I have 7-year-old kids who say, ‘I love your DJ, I’ve got all your work.’”

He says college kids are the most vocal and correspond with him the most. And it was the college kids who bought thousands of prints of his painting “Green St.” after years of nobody wanting to purchase the original.

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