Artist Justin BUA in his painting Studio

 

SIGN OF THE TIMES
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Hip-hop as we know it is not dead, instead it is aging.  IT sits behind its desk in a comfy art chair with salt-and-pepper hair and a look that only comes with the wisdom of decades.

Justin Bua has long established himself as the visual arts manifestation of hip-hop as the distorted beauty of his paintings captures urban realities.  He is arguably the founding father who set the template for urban art.  Best known for his collection of fine art posters, Bua’s distinct and recognizable art can also be seen in works for MTV’s “Lyricist Lounge Show,” Slum Village, PF Flyers, and skateboards to name a few.  Everyone wants a piece of “the streets according to Bua.”

I met the accomplished 38- year-old USC professor at his fancy digs in the downtown LA arts district.  It was hard to imagine his as a skinny kid in the late seventies navigating the streets of New York with ghetto blaster on shoulder and Puma on foot…looking for a break battle.  Instead, as a teenager, Bua served as an ambassador from the New York Streets, as he toured the world with legendary break dancing crews.  He even busted a few rhymes as an emcee.

Even so, the Bua we know honed his craft in hip-hop through street art and graffiti blasting the New York subway.  For Bua, graffiti art was more than another tie into the hip-hop movement.  It was a beautification project for the city of New York.  “In the ‘70s and ‘80s the city was a dump!” Bua says, “some of the nest young artists got together and painted beautiful art on subway cars and buildings; I don’t see that as a crime.”  Unfortunately, the anti-graffiti movement brought criminal charges for the possession of a spray can and graff-proof subway cars.  In this, much of the expression was lost.

Bua has long ago turned his spray can in for a painter’s canvas, but his first book, “The Beat of Urban Art” reminisces on the rise of hip-hop that grew out of the gritty New York concrete in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This coffee table art book chronicles that adventures of a young Justin Bua and the colorful characters in his hood while growing up.  “The Beat of Urban Art” is both honest and humorous about the chaos and pathologies that plagued the inner city during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  According to Bua, the politics of the time was the hotbed in which hip-hop and its urban artforms flourished.  As gentrification pushed the poor out of the city and into Brooklyn, Reaganomics guaranteed they stay poor and resourceful.

Beyond the criminal element of the time, Bua explains the streets of Brooklyn became literally crazy, as budgets for psychiatric care were cut, and the mentally ill were shuffled to poor neighborhoods such as his own.  This created the makings of our modern day homeless issue.  As a kid, Bua lived next door to the long-term hotel in which they all congregated.  “We all shared the same space,” Bua explains.  “During this time, you would have working-class families living on the same block as mental patients; it was nuts.”

The Beat of Urban Art shows vignettes of these characters and the other wildlife that roamed Brooklyn’s concrete jungle in Bua’s caricature style.  From your run of the mill Brooklyn stick up kids, street hustlers and Mafiosos, to the café dwellers and jazz cats, The Beat of Urban Art reads like a beautifully illustrated comic book, or urban dictionary of the time.  “…and that beat of the street became hip-hop…”

It was in this setting that survival, poverty, poetry and art became hip-hop.  According to Bua, the social dynamics changed the artistic beat of the city among the youth from the carefree “disco era” into something more substantial.  This change was inevitable considering the gritty reality of the city at the time.  “Times were hard; punk culture and hip-hop rose out of the post-disco era, the city needed a youth culture that would make a change,” Bua says.

Bua looks at hip-hop as something beyond that which brought us the expressions of the JF, emcee, graff artist and breaker.  He believes hip-hop unified the streets and became the cure for the racial divide.  In the first pages of his book, he explains the street concept o “oneness.”  “I can’t define myself as any one race, I am part of an urban race unified by the city.”  Bua writes, “Urban life challenges us to thrive amongst diversity and vibe off one another in a positive way.”

With the proliferation of street beefs and regional rivalries, it is hard to believe hip-hop was once an urban unifying force. The Beat of Urban Art: The Art of Justin Buatakes us back to when the culture was rooted in the power of people and art.

Hip-hop is not dead, it’s simply pushing 40 years old.  Justin Bua and the The Beat of Urban Art take us back to the golden age of the culture.

 
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