Chances are you may have seen or even purchased one of Justin Bua’s creations and not even know it. If you’re one to browse any poster store you’re likely to have seen copies of his famous pieces like ‘˜Piano Man 1,’ ‘˜Piano Man 2’ and ‘˜The DJ.’ Right off the bat you can tell much of Bua’s art, what he calls Distorted Urban Realism, is inspired by the characters of hip hop from the DJ to the emcee to the breaker.
A former b-boy himself, Bua is a true hip hop head who represents the culture through his work. Throughout his 10+ years in the art game he has gone from doing slick bottom skateboard art to developing characters and backgrounds for NBA Street to releasing limited edition kicks. In early March he will be releasing his magnum opus, an autobiography complete with his entire collection of work including early sketches, studies and more while giving you a glimpse into the birth of hip hop through his stories and art.
Halftimeonline.com: What is your definition of hip hop and how would you say your work embodies or represent hip hop culture?
Justin Bua: I think Hip hop is hope. It’s a spiritual revolution. It was the consciousness of a new generation. Unfortunately, it’s different today but that’s what real hip hop is. It’s about self discovery, change, and in its purest form it’s about positivity. My art reflects the characters from that world. Artists in the past painted popes and kings to represent the important figures of their time and that’s what I do. I paint the characters of my world in an iconographic way to represent the important figures of my time.
Halftimeonline: What are your thoughts on the hip hop scene today? People are saying it’s dead but I think those same people only focus on emceeing and ignore every other element.
Bua: I think that’s a good point. [The whole ‘˜hip hop is dead’ thing] is definitely in relation to emceeing. Even with rap culture are people like Nas really seeing all the things going on at the grassroots level? Probably not. So we don’t really know what the next iteration of hip hop is gonna be all about. In terms of b-boying it’s really gotten way more sophisticated. It’s gone from the ground to flying to incorporating a lot more elements that we never thought it could be. So b-boying has grown and graffiti has gone to another level. When they both manifested themselves in the European landscape they took on another form. So ‘˜hip hop is dead’ is a very linear point of view because it doesn’t take into consideration the other elements of hip hop. Once money is involved it changes everything and it definitely changed hip hop’s parameters but because of the outlets and vehicles for hip hop it’s been accepted and transformed. It’s probably good that people are saying hip hop is ‘œdead’ because then there will be another counter revolution to that culture.
Halftimeonline: Beyond just emceeing who are some people you feel represent true hip hop?
Bua: Mr. Wiggles is a popper who’s been doing his thing for a long time and has taken his art to a really high level. He should be as famous as anyone but the culture doesn’t really accept that as an art form. Steam, a Danish popper in Denmark and Rubberband are other ones. I’m just talking about dancers now but these people are not getting their props for what they are doing for the culture. There is another kid named Salah from France and he is incredible. He is the Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton of our time. If people were really tuned into him he could be huge. In terms of emceeing no one is really hitting me. I like a lot of DJs like Q-Bert, Cut Chemist and Z-Trip who are taking the art to another level. Graffiti writers too but emcees I can’t think of anyone.
Halftimeonline: A lot of people assume your art work is mainly inspired by graffiti but I read you say it s closer to the art of b-boying. Can you explain what you meant by that statement?
Bua: It’s more influenced by the rhythms of breaking than by graffiti. Graffiti is very flat and graphic and some of my pieces like ‘˜El Guitarrista,’ ‘˜Blues Man’ and ‘˜Piano Man 1 & 2’ are very painterly and the way that the compositions flow are more influenced by breaking and popping. There is a certain kind of rhythm to the way that I paint. A lot of characters look like they are in mid dance. It’s a snapshot of a certain dance in a frozen moment of time and they happen to be in this popping posture. It’s one of those things that is very hard to articulate because it’s dance. It’s abstract. With graffiti the bold outlines and the very flat structure influence my work but dance influences my work first.
Halftimeonline: Do you have any actual music or background noise going on while you paint?
Bua: Well, I’m in my office a lot. So I have three people running around all the time or I’m at home with a two year old. I’m always painting and drawing but I’m easily distracted. Sometimes I’m having a conversation about business while other times I’m lucky enough to be listening to music. Most of the time I’m listening to a commercial but I’m too lazy or in the moment to change it until something makes me realize how irritated I am because the commercial has been on for 48 hours. Then I may change it and find myself listening to some republican station or listening to jazz, a leftist talk show, then to nothing and finally I’m on the phone for an hour. It’s really everything. It’s not like I only listen to jazz when I paint jazz or when I do my b-boy thing I only listen to break beats. That’s the answer everyone wants to hear but it’s so much more practical than that and if you have kids all you do is end up listening to your kid. I happen to have a hyperactive, verbal two year old that is very articulate. She always draws and paints and I have to tell her how great she is all the time. So what I do is really relative to my surroundings.
Halftimeonline: You went from breaking all over the world to having your paintings everywhere. What has been a consistent theme that you attribute much of your success to?
Bua: Hard work, dedication, discipline, being persistent, and staying true to my values and what I believe. I think it’s like the saying goes ’99 % perspiration, 1% inspiration.’ You also have to know your weaknesses. You can’t be delusional like, ‘œI’m the greatest artist ever but I refuse to draw and paint from life.’ That’s just a recipe for disaster. You have to realize you have to know the fundamentals, study the fundamentals and stay academic. At the same time you’ll go through phases. I’m in a phase right now where I teach figure drawing at USC but I prefer not to do figure drawings at this time. I guarantee that I’ll go back to drawing figures three days a week. It’s about knowing your limitations and how you can expand upon them like, ‘œWhat’s gonna make me better at doing this?’ You need balance because sometimes you lose your focus in too much study so that makes you not do what you love which is art. My two year old loves art like I don’t love it anymore because it’s so new to her and the colors are amazing. I have that but it’s not consistent like it is with her. Sometimes you have to do it because you love it. When you can look at a piece and say that guy really loved what he did that’s a nice feeling. That’s great art.
Halftimeonline: I know you went out to Cali for art school. What happened following that? Did you get a big break or did your success come mainly from a steady grind to get to the point where you are today?
Bua: I think it was a little of both. I was very consistent and persistent about putting out work and I got lucky enough to do some storyboards for entertainment and then I got into doing movie posters which was very academic. After that I got into a skateboarding gig where I was doing slick bottoms of skateboards. I got $500 a deck which to me back then was huge. It was enough money to survive and people were seeing my work. Then I got opportunities for record covers, book work and magazine stuff. I started getting stuff like that so it was a very laborious process. Then around ‘˜92 or ‘˜93 I started doing posters. It wasn’t until around ’96 that I started realizing a lot of people had my posters. It took me a long time to figure that out and even after that I didn’t get online until 2000 and started being like wow people are actually writing me fan mail. It was a very long process.
Halftimeonline: How does the poster game work? Do you get a percentage like music albums?
Bua: You get royalties but now I’m publishing and distributing my own posters. I put the money up, I put the money in and I get the money back. If you can do it, it makes the most sense but it’s expensive.
Halftimeonline: I heard you had a lot of ill hip hop stories and you’re working on a book that will be coming out. One of the stories I heard you mention was how Slick Rick and the Kangol Crew used to rhyme in your lunchroom. What’s the story behind that?
Bua: Well when I went to Music & Art I used to be in a crew with my friend Ali and this kid named Mailbox. We called him mailbox cuz his head was shaped as a mailbox.
Bua: Mailbox was older but he was an ill popper. He was amazing. So the Kangol Crew used to drum on the table and beat box and we would always be the dancers b-boying and popping at those lunch room moments. Just being a fly on the wall it was great to experience that. Sometimes I would get on the mic and just be real careful so I wouldn’t get booed. It was funny but that’s what hip hop was. It was people coming together from all walks of life. You knew it was something amazing but you couldn’t really express it. Those were the nathan moments of hip hop. At thirteen years old you didn’t even know. It was something that just hit you in the gut like this is incredible. I’m seeing magic. That’s how I felt the first time I saw emceeing and popping. That was it man and I was privy to all of those super grass roots lunchroom moments.
Halftimeonline: So we can expect a bunch of stories like that in the book?
Bua: Oh yea! Very much so. It’s basically the story of my life growing up before hip hop was called hip hop and my point of view on how the culture was formed. The culture was born out of all of these different landmark moments. I go through my whole story as a fly on the wall. On top of that it’s also the collection of all my work. It takes my popular works and shows you my studies, value keys, color keys, and the process of how I work. It shows you everything. I talk about my procedures and show you my studies. Some of my studies are rawer than the actual paintings. I like a lot of my studies better than my paintings. The first half of the book is my story growing up in New York and the story of hip hop, the most powerful movement of our time.
Halftimeonline: So for someone who may not know you or be as familiar with hip hop what does the book offer them?
Bua: They’re gonna learn a lot of things particularly the genesis of hip hop culture because I get into the social and political dynamics of the time. What was going on in the White House had everything to do with what was going on at 125th street and Broadway. It was just everything. Nixon, Reagan, and the closing of the mental institutions where they went and dropped off all the crazy people in the streets of New York and opened up 200 single room occupancy apartments on the upper west side where I lived. It was like the wild, Wild West with no laws and true hip hop was spawned from this lawlessness. People found ways to creatively occupy their time without being destructive.
Halftimeonline: What other projects do you have planned?
Bua: I have a cartoon called Urbania that I have been working on for only fourteen years. We just did a six and a half minute presentation and put together a pilot for comedy central so we’re waiting on it. It’s about four characters navigating ‘˜real’ urban life and that’s all I can say about it right now.
Halftimeonline: At this point in your career what goals do you have?
Bua: I just want to get better, improve, change, grow and learn. I have a lot of work to do.
Halftimeonline: What advice do you have for upcoming artists?
Bua: Just stay with it and be true. Like Maya Angelou said don’t pick it up meaning don’t listen to people who say you’re great, you’re it because those are the same people who will be like what happened, you’re the worst. You have to take everything with a grain of salt. Michelangelo was eighty-seven when he said I’m just beginning to learn how to draw. Everything is a journey and we have a long way to go.