Justin Bua - Hip Hop Art
2/5/05 - LatinRapper.com exclusive interview
Only a handful of artists
have truly captured the essence of Hip Hop in their work,
and Justin Bua is inarguably one of the most recognized in
the world. 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. He studied visual art at the High School of
Music and Performing Arts before attending the Art Center
College of Design in Pasadena, California.
From skateboards to Hip Hop CD covers to his now-famous prints
and sneaker lines, Bua is truly the artistic voice for the Hip
Hop generation. We find out how Hip Hop gave birth to one of
the most recognized artists in the world in this exclusive
LatinRapper.com: You're obviously well known as a graf
artist, but didn't you also get involved in hip hop as a
Well I wont say I was well known as a graf artist, I'm well
known as a painter. I wrote graf when I was like 12 to 16
growing up in New York. But I was definitely more of a b-boy,
a popper like Wiggs (Mr. Wiggles), I actually danced with
Wiggs as a kid. That has more influence on my style than the
graf, the b-boying has a certain rhythm to it. The rhythms of
graffiti play into my work, but its not as influential. 'Cause
you know, I danced for years, I was on tour in Europe for
At 16 you were already going on tour around the world with
New York Express, what was it like to experience that at such
a young age?
It was cool, you know. Definitely gave me a much more well
rounded education. Being from New York, it's pretty
educational being a mix of people, but Europe... When you walk
through Paris or Italy, its like walking through a museum. I
think it ages you culturally. It gives you a less myopic
perspective, Americans tend to have a myopic perspective of
the world. Like its just English, some know there are English
and Spanish, you go to Europe and they're speaking 50
languages. Different culture, different rhythm, slower but
How much influence did the New York hip hop scene have on
your artwork as a whole?
Huge. Huge. That's the era of Hip Hop, where I'm from. So, the
characters that I paint are kind of the iconographic heroes of
my time. Whether it's the DJs or the MCs, they are the
underground icons of our generation. The artists throughout
history have always painted the heroes, painting popes and
kings, I paint DJs and b-boys, those are the people I really
emulate, who I look up to.
Some of your pieces like Guitarrista and Como No have Latin
themes, how important was it to you that you worked that
aspect of your background into your art.
You gotta have a true voice. And I think that I grew up in a
highly Latin community. I'll say the same thing about my
paintings, you're just speaking the truth. I haven't seen many
really good Latin painting, certainly Diego Rivera and Diego
Velazquez were representing their time and place, but it's a
New York Latin feeling and not just a Latin feeling. 'Cause
Diego Rivera is synonymous with Mexican muralism. La
guitarrista is the guy I saw doing it for the love of it and
not the money of it. It's a huge world, the Latino population
is growing three times faster than the others.
The purchasing power is huge. They are becoming a viable
Besides being the largest minority in the U.S., I believe
Latinos contribute something like 500 billion dollars annually
to the U.S. economy, yet many advertisers fail to acknowledge
No. I think that they are not acknowledged but they are
getting more recognition, 'cause I'm meeting with a lot of
companies and its getting brought up more. So el Guitarrista
or Como No, there is definitely an audience for that. I'm
working on another of a drummer, its Latino based, I wanna
represent it. I don't wanna give the name 'cause someone
always rips it off, (laughs). It's a conga player, but its got
a Latino title.
You eventually ended up on the West Coast where you earned
an illustration degree, what led a East Coast b-boy out to the
(Laughs). Art center was the best school for me for what I
wanted to do. It was one of the few places where I felt I
could get a classical education. Even though I had some
classical training, I felt that in order to articulate my
vision more, I needed a classical education. They don't really
teach it that much anymore, its hard to find. So when I had
the opportunity, I went. I didn't know anyone out here, I was
a fish out of water. Guys walked up to me, "hey how you doing
dude!" I was like, what, why you talking to me for. I had a
very New York attitude. But I softened up a bit, less angry.
And you cant beat the sunshine out there. Cant compare Cali or
New York, New York is more cultured and gritty, but I'll be
back in New York in march for the New York expo, and then fly
out to Montreal to do an art show at a gallery.
You started out doing skateboard art, but how did you end
up doing CD covers for the music industry?
I don't know, I kind of got into it because I needed to do
more commercial work. One thing led to another. Sincere, Hobo
Junction, I did the cover for them. He actually got my
painting tattooed on his chest. I actually did the graffiti
piece for that and the name, after that I started doing covers
for Warner Brothers, BMG, Capitol. One thing leads to another
in this world, in any world.
Who are some of the people you've done work for as far as
album art, or consulting and design work for video sets?
Well, recently was NFL street, I was visual Consultant for EA
sports, I was the star of the intro sequence for it, and then
I hired a bunch of people to do the paintings for the screen
savers. It was the highest grossing game in EA sports history.
I did NBA street, I did the characters and the backgrounds. In
terms of CDs, I did that big album Quad City DJs. Remember
that song? (Laughs) Ride the Train. I've done a lot of CD
covers for a lot of less known people.
Your PF Flyers shoe line sold like hotcakes last year,
selling out hours witin being released. And the big news is
that you have more coming soon, tell us about how you got the
shoe deal and what we can expect from the 2005 line?
Last time I did 1,000 of each, 3000, so [this year] I'm only
doing 500 of each style. They aren't coming out until May, I
believe, its up to the people to pick them up. Get on it,
order them quick. 500 of four different styles. The MC, the
B-Girl, Old School, Hustling.
What about the 2004 line? Can people still find them?
Whew. I don't know, maybe if you call up PF flyer or
something. They may have a couple hundred stashed.
There's probably not a poster store or sale in America that
doesn't have some of your better know prints like Music Man.
Did you ever expect your art to take off the way that it did?
No. Not really, but I think that people are feeling the vision
for their generation, you know what I'm saying. Its very
lucky, its timing. Right place, right time, very lucky, in
Who are some of your other noteworthy clients?
President Clinton, he's got my stuff. Cristina Ricci, she's
got Piano Man, Como No, believe it or not. Wiggles, Crazy
Legs, Q-Bert, all the underground heads for sure. Lotta people
man, Gregory Hines, Ted Danson, lotta heads. I went into
Interscope and I saw my stuff everywhere. Went to Motown, saw
my work everywhere. I don't know who the clients are all,
except for the originals.
What painting of yours has the most personal significance
Right now probably the DJ. 'Cause I worked for so long on that
piece. But Trumpet Man has its own meaning to me. El
guitarrista has its own meaning to me.
You teach figure drawing at USC, do you find that you get
more hip hop heads interested in taking art courses because
you're someone that they can identify with on some levels?
Oh definitely. I have a class that I'm teaching here in my
studio and I have a lot of hip hop heads, representing a new
generation of artists.
Crossovers, too, they know nothing about art but they want to
study with me, Business students.
What would you say has been the most gratifying moment of
your career as an artist?
Heh heh. I don't know, maybe my one man show. I do a one man
show of my art and talk about my life story, and how I grew up
before definitions. Hip Hop. The response I get from the show
is unbelievable. So it's not just like a signing. Its not one
moment, any time I do a signing or any time people tell me
about my work, they make it worthwhile. People feel its real,
its not bullsh*tting or me pulling any punches. I tell my
story and people relate to that. A generation of kids that
don't really have an artist representing them. So they feel
like I'm the voice of that generation so that's cool.
What do you have planned for the future?
Well, I'm doing my t-shirt line, which is out on my websites
but coming to stores around Mayish. I'm doing the cover for
MGM the box collection for Beat Street coming out in Europe,
Asia and North America, a lot of publicity. Taking over my
business, being a business man. Dealing with the shirt company
too, it's a lot of work, I wanna do it right.
Do you have any suggests for the aspiring artists who will
read this piece and want to make a career out of doing what
I would say, get an education. You don't have to go to class,
but get an education. Like Wiggles would say about dancing,
you can't dance without fundamentals. Really see the big
picture, you'll be more articulate with a finer understanding.
I have a teacher that says the more skills you have, the
greater variety you'll know how to play. If you know how to
play one side of the piano but not the other, that should be
based on choice and not limitations. It's a deep thing, a
complex thing, probably harder than anything else in the
world. Everybody wants to do it, not everybody can, most
people are hacks, but such is life in every art field.
Any last thoughts you want to share?
Just be true. Its like KRS-One says: what does it mean to be
underground, you have to be real to be underground. I think
that people can smell bullsh*t from a mile away. So don't
copy, don't bullsh*t, be you, and work hard. Be blue collar
about it, put in the hours. The harder you work, the luckier
you get, right?
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