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Justin Bua - Hip Hop Art Icon
2/5/05 - exclusive interview

artist Justin Bua

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 interview. You're obviously well known as a graf artist, but didn't you also get involved in hip hop as a b-boy?

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 year.

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 cool (laughs)

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 community.

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 Latinos.

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 Sunshine state?

(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 that respect.

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 to you?

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 they enjoy?

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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