Justin Bua
captured the beat of the Big Apple streets
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When people meet Justin Bua, the artist behind paintings and psters celebrating New York hip-hop culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s, they usually get around to asking this questions:  “What are you?” Bua’s answer? “New Yorker.”

Born of mixed heritage, the 39-year-old artist also has a mix of experiences that make him the perfect ambassador for his art.  In addition to painting, he teaches classical figure drawing at the University of Southern California.  He has worked as a professional breakdancer, skateboard artist, graphic artist and apparel designer.  His studio is in a gentrifying part of downtown Los Angeles where homeless people and rich loft-dwellers frequently cross paths.

Print of DJ by painting by artist Justin BUA  

His New York is a bubbling mix of hip-hop, jazz and Spanish guitar; ethnically diverse, economically estranged characters, some of whom are as hard as pigeonhole as Bua himself; and grimy buildings that seem to be in constant motion. Twistingly dancing across the landscape.

Bua’s most famous painting, The DJ, features a caramel-colored, ethnically ambiguous character with long, knobby limbs, his fingers dominating the foreground as they reach to scratch a record.  Done in the artist’s trademark style that he calls distorted urban reality, The DJ has become a dorm room staple.  The work earned Bua recognition as a leading artist in the movement known as urban contemporary, which celebrates city living and street culture in a variety of styles and media.

The DJ is also the cover of Bua’s first book, The Beat of Urban Art: The Art of Justin Bua The book is an illustrated autobiography of his childhood in Harlem and East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and uses his sketches and paintings to introduce the people who influenced his art: a motley posse of heroes and hustlers, vagrants and nine-to-fivers.  It is also rooted in Bua’s experiences as a hip-hop head.  “I grew up two blocks away from Rock Steady Park where breaking really was born, so when it hit Manhattan, I was there. I saw it and I knew I had to be a part of it.”

He captures the scene in 1981, a signature piece.  “I had to show the early attire, savoir-faire flavor of the culture,” says Bua, “the Adidas, the Lees, the windbreakers, the Cazals, the gold, the Kangols, the Puerto Rican belt buckles, the cardboard, the pigeons.  All these walks of life coming together. Super, super styling.”

The history in the art appeals to collectors like Michael Brams, a 33-year-old real estate businessman and filmmaker who has been collecting Bua’s art for almost a decade.  “A lot of the stuff he paints resonates with me because it’s from a time period I grew up in,” says Brams, who lives in New York but insists Bua’s appeal is wide-ranging.  “I grew up in the Midwest, I still connect with the work.”

Another love, jazz influenced Trumpet Man, in which an afroed stylist lulls himself and the neighborhood with his horn, and Piano Man II, a cool, timeless cat.  “I really like to show the characters in their urban environment doing their thing for their own reason,” says Bua.  A Bua musician, he adds, “is not entertaining. He is not playing for anyone but himself.  IF anything, he is playing for the city.”

The Beat of Urban Art: The Art of Justin Buahas led to wider recognition and he ahs a lengthy, diverse celebrity following, from Bill Clinton, Robert De Niro and Whoop Goldberg to Eva Longoria, Will Smith and Savion Glover.  Dionna Warwick, also a fan, says Bua has “an artistic flair for capturing the energy and spirit of the urban music scene.”

New York itself lives on in The Block, an urban landscape of buildings and lives devoid of privacy and greenery.  “You got the brownstones, the classic water towers, the steam, the streets,” says Bua. “In New York, you always have atmosphere.”

It could be said that Bua is painting for the city, although he says she didn’t fully realize he was chronicling his early life until he was putting the book together.  But now that he does, he’s become more purposeful.  “I need to stay there longer in order to capture some things, even subject matter,” he says.  “I haven’t done the boom box painting that I’ve always wanted to do.  I haven’t done that guy with the enormous radio.  You look at all of that history and it brings you back.

Trumpet Man by Justin Bua
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