The Beat Of
Justin Bua

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Justin Bua was raised in the urban jungle of New York.  He navigated this world not by fighting, but my dancing, acting, and painting a way out.  When I arrive at Bua’s studio, nestled above a coffee ship in the industrial district of Downtown, L.A., he immediately give me a tour.  On the sofa, his two-year-old daughter Akira lies fast asleep.  Hanging from the walls, the characters of his life and mind are immortalized in his drawings and painting:  “Blues Man,” “Father Butterfly,” and “History,” among others.  “Most of my characters are urban characters from my world, according to my imagination,” he says.  Bua creates a vibrant and colorful urban landscape; moody with a hint of playfulness, lie his undulating buildings, whimsically skewed perspective, and eccentric characters.  The realm of his paintings has a distinct aesthetic, a style he has named Distorted Urban Realism.

Portriat of painter Justin BUA The artist of New Urban Realism

“I call it distorted because m point of view of life and my childhood memories are very distorted; urban, because my experiences are all urban; and realist because my work is steeped in realistic, naturalistic drawing,” he explains.  “So that’s what I practice to keep my tools sharp and articulate myself visually.

Part of this collection will soon be dispersed for exhibition in Denver and Seattle, being held in conjunction with the release of his new book, The Beat of Urban Art: The Art of Justin Bua More than a book of paintings, it is an illustrated storybook of his life and the rise of hip-hop, graffiti, and break dancing in New York during the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Raised by a single mother, Bua grew up in Harlem and East Flatbush, Brooklyn, as these movements were emerging and that culture strongly influenced his artwork.  In his book, Bua recalls that break dancing was often called “physical graffiti,” and in turn, his art captures the rhythms of break dance and the raw energy of the streets.  One feels the music of hip-hop and jazz in his lines and characters, which seem to dance off the canvas.

Bua first studied visual art at the High School of Music and Performing Arts and on the streets of New York, as graffiti artist began to display their art via subway cars and building walls.  A young graffiti artist and B-Boy (i.e., break dancer), he initially became a professional dancer. Performing worldwide

with The Magnificent Four, The Dynamic Breakers, and New York Express, he opened for James Brown and danced with Rudolf Nureyev at the Spoleto festival.  He left dance to study literature at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, then came to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena where he earned a B.F.A. in illustration.

A pen and ink drawing by artist Justin BUA  

Since Art Center, Bua has forged his career on the streets, television, alb um covers, video games, sneakers, and college campuses.  He began by designing slick bottom paintings for skateboards, CD covers, and fine art posters.  In 1999, he animated the opening sequence for MTV’s “The Lyricist Lounge Show” and has since created “Urbania,” an animated series for Comedy Central that is currently in development.  He also developed characters and backgrounds for the video game, “NBA Street.”  In 2004, Bua created a limited edition shoe line in collaboration with PF Flyers that sold out within hours.  His posters, particularly “The DJ,” are very popular on college campuses, such as the University of Southern California where he teaches Figure Drawing in the Fine Arts Department.

Venice: As a teacher, what are the main artist principles that you convey to your students?
Justin Bua: Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.  If you want to be great at anything, you need a foundation.  You’re a writer; so you have to read a lot, study the classics.  If you play basketball these days, you have to lift weights.  You have to have a certain fundamental program of exercise.  It’s the same thing with drawing and painting. You have to have the basics, and so I teach the foundation of classical figure drawing because figure drawing is the hardest thing to do in the world.  I really stress gesture, the action of the pose, which basically develops the story of the pase.  From your pase, the way you hold yourself, you can tell the difference a

mile away between Joe from Christopher Street and Ronnie the taxi driver from New York.  Kids these days want to skip the basics.  They feel like they should be great because that guy on “Real World” got recognized, those girls on “the Hills” are famous; they should be famous too and they should be rich.  Everyone’s trying to do the fast track.  It’s the complete opposite of my grandfather’s generation.  I was instilled with (a nonstop) work ethic.  It’s a 24/7 hustle, and you’ve got to pay dues.

Were you classically trained from a young age? I was actually very un-classically trained.  I had an appreciation for classical training, but I was very creative.  I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t knoew what the path was.  I really trained at Art Center and afterwards, I studied with some of the best draftsmen alive.

Did you study art at Hampshire College? God, you had to bring Hampshire up.  That really takes all the street cred away.  I didn’t study art.  I was in English major.  It was bad and it was good—I wanted to study classical art, and they were like: that’s dead, this is the new abstract post-modern movement, what you’re trying to do has already been done.  Of course, I didn’t know what I was trying to do, except learn.  I wanted to learn the basics.  I studied with a famous illustrator named Leonard Baskin, it was a good experience because I got into James Joyce and many great philosophers and writer, who colored my imagination with a whole other world that I wasn’t familiar with; that ultimately lent itself to my work.  My third year there I left.

So you have a literary background. I’ve written a lot for my Comedy Central show (“Urbania”), screen plays, and other TV.

What’s “Urbania” about? It’s about four guys from the inner city just trying to survive’ kind of like “South Park” is a commentary on suburban life, this is a real commentary on city life.

Tell us about growing up in Harlem. I’m 38, so when I was growing up in the ‘70s it was really crazy.  There were more homeless people there than anywhere I’ve ever been in my life.  It was really, really hardcore.  Then I moved to East Flatbush in Brooklyn, so I got a big spectrum.  Plus, I went to school at 137th Street and Convent Avenue. I was in Harlem most of the time and had a really interesting 360-degree experience in New York City.

Art work by artist Justin BUA  

Now that area has completely changed. Oh, it’s a strip mall now. Gentrified, homogenized, the identity of the city is lost.

Describe what in New York was like during that time period. – the people, the culture. It was chaotic; I could describe it though the first time I was mugged.  I was eight years old walking down to P.S. 75 at 96th Street and Broadway, and this big guy came up to me and said, “Yo, Give me your money.” I said, ‘I don’t have any money, but I have these two Tootsie Tolls,’ I looked to my left and saw two cops watching me get mugged and laughing, like that was fun for them to see that situation.  Then the mugger said, “Yo, kid.” I turned around, and he gave me one back.  I went, ‘Man, thanks.’ Like he did me a favor for robbing only half my stuff.  But that was New York City. Everywhere was like a jungle. I had to travel this journey of survival every day.  As a child, that’s how I saw the city. It was like a maze of insanity.  But at the same time, it was really fun and crazy.  We surfed the subways and roof hopped.  It was like crazyland.  It was a lawless playground.  It was like an adventure.  My life was like a movie.  One thing happened every day. Everyday there was always a great story to be told.  That’s book two, by the way, all my stories.

How did you navigate that world? With fear.  I mean you survive.  You’re from the city, you learn how to do whatever it takes to survive.  I wasn’t a great fighter.  I became a great dancer and actor to survive.  I pretended like I knew how to fight.  If I was lucky enough not to get called on it, I could survive.  But you have to learn. Like Mark Wahlberg, I guarantee he’s from South Boston because in Southie you learn how to act; that’s part of what you do in the city to navigate your landscape to survive.

You write in The Beat of Urban Art that you acted crazy to avoid getting mugged.And the truth is, truth is stranger than fiction, because I did that.  I once took a hairnet full of saltines and hit myself in the head.  I had to come up with really weird, sketchy, homeless type of shit.  So a hairnet full of saltines was really weird.  People just left you alone when you hit yourself in the head with a hairnet full of saltines.

As someone with is obviously very influenced by New tork, what brought you to Los Angeles? Art Center College of Design in Pasadena; it’s considered the Harvard of art schools.

What made you stay? The weather.  Seriously.  The weather coupled with my work.  The Entertainment industry is here.  I started making inroads into record covers and book covers and magazine covers.

Has urban life in L.A. influenced your art, or does it come from your upbringing in New York? It mostly comes from my upbringing in New York, but I’m definitely influenced by life here because characters are characters.  Wherever you are there are always characters.  New York City’s got great characters, but so does L.A.  Is the architecture in Paris more inspiring than most other places in the world? Absolutely. But that doesn’t’ mean that you can’t be inspired in the suburbs.  My personal visual story definitely came form my experiences.  It will never not be New York-edged, but I think L.A. has a lot of great characters that I draw from.

Your drawings of buildings have a more surrealist aesthetic than your figures, as though they are personifications of buildings.  Where do these emerge from? Well, I think you said it right there. I think they’re very figurative.  I think the buildings are alive.  I say in the book that Goethe, the scientist and writer, said that architecture is frozen music.  If that’s true, by buildings are defrosted because they move to their own funky beat.  They have a rhythm and energy of their own.

Do you feel that is something particular to New York architecture? I think the New York architecture feels alive—the undulating terra cotta, the enormous stoic nature of how monumental the buildings are, how old they are, how much history is in those buildings.  They’re characters. They’re like trees that have been around for thousands of years; these are the same kind of relics.

What inspired you to create The Beat of Urban art"as an artistic memoir? I had a lot of fans saying, “I want to get a collection of your work.”  As I realized that I should put a book together, I started to put down on paper what I wanted to say, what story I wanted to tell.  Then, as I was telling my story, I started to realize how my work actually evolved and why I paint the things I do.  Because it’s one of those things that I took for granted.  I didn’t know why I painted these characters until I started to uncover and unravel the onion.

So it was a process of self-exploration for you. It was definitely a self-exploration, not only inn terms of my narrative but also in terms of the technical history of my art, like why I do these things that I do.  It’s like teaching. You don’t really think about why you’re making a stroke.  But when you teach it, you have to think about it.  It becomes like the third consummate triangulation in the experience of an artist.  One is doing it, one is studying about it, but teaching really gets you analytical about it.  It’s like to get to A, you go to B, and then you go to C.  It makes you slow down, get really analytical, and really think. I think that’s what this book did.  This book was a very intense analytical unraveling of my life and my art.

Do you feel having this consciousness has changed the way you approach your art? Yes, definitely.  I think that my drawings that I did for the book made me feel like they were more fresh, raw, and visceral than my paintings, which were more studied, thought out, and maybe contrived.  They weren’t as spontaneous as my drawings.  I realized that I really wanted my paintings to feel more spontaneous and impetuous, just spit out like it was this experience.  So that’s what my new drawings and paintings are all about.  They’re very quick, they’re very spontaneous, and they catch the essence of these characters without planning it out and losing that initial gesture—going back to gesture of motion and character.

I could see that in your new paintings. Your drawings have a real vibrancy.They’re fast.  Those drawings are anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours, nothing more.  They’re very fast, and I said: how can I capture that in my painting?  Obviously, I can’t do that in twenty minutes or two hours, but how can I do that where it’s not premeditated.  Most masterpieces have to dine that way; “The DJ” took months.  But it was important for me to really capture that energy that I wasn’t’ able to capture before.  So that definitely changed my art.

Jazz and hip-hop clearly play a role in your artwork. Hip-hop and jazz are very similar in terms of they are both very improvisational.  They really are born on the streets in a lot of ways.  Jazz was born in the South, but it’s street; it’s born from the culture of hardship and the blues.  Real hip-hop is really about a call for change and thee is that energy of street culture and improvisation.  So they are very similar in that way.

In your book, you say hip-hop is mis-understood.  How would you define hip-hop? Hip-hop in its pure form is an inspirational movement that calls for change, a movement that supports a counter-cultural idealism.  It’s about positivity, not negativity, and if it’s negative, it’s just because it’s realistic.  It’s a hope that things can be better and there could be peace and equality.  Hip-hop was a very interesting mechanism to call people from all walks of life, blur color lines, and bring people together, regardless of ethnicity, color of skin, background.  It was about the art and not about the individual.  The essence of hip-hop is positive.  A lot of hip-hop heads are vegan, like myself.

Are there particular musicians or artists who have influenced you? Well, jazz influenced me, old school hip-hop influenced me, and then classical painters influence me.  I’m not that keen on contemporary art at all.  I like Diebenkom, David Levine, and Hirschfeld.  But I really like Degas, German Expressionist Kathe Kollwitz, Monet,. I love the classics.

You call your painting style Distorted Urban Realism.  Do you paint in other styles? You know what, my style is my style; that’s the Bua stamp.  But when I draw from life, even though it feels maybe a little like me, it’s pretty classical.

With your Distorted Realist style, you tend to exaggerate your character’s heads and gestures. Is there a reason for that? I’m really into expression in the face, and when you see a story you see a lot in the head, you see a lot in the face and the hands as well, the gesture and then the story of the eyes and even the mouth, the way someone holds themselves.  You see a lot of history in that.  So I think that has probably (something) to do with it.  I don’t really thing about it too much, but it looks cool, straight up.

Have you noticed others picking up your style? Oh, definitely. It’s not contained. There are definitely a lot of people being influenced.

Is it strange to see your style adapted? Aristotle says that imitation is the purest form of flattery, but at the same time, there are some people that just imitate because they don’t have a voice. I think everyone has their own story, and it’s important for them to tell their story.  For me, this is my story.  So you don’t need to bite the story, just get your own story.

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