Let’s set the stage: New York City, 1980s, the Upper West Side. We’ve got your cement, your balla courts, your breakdancing b-boys, your graffiti tags, and the pain, the poor, the flavor. And from these roots we’ve got Justin Bua.
“There’s a hardness to urban art. I think it really echoes the architecture of New York City, all of the really harsh gates, undulating terra-cotta of New York,” he said. “The square, the cement, the projects, the fences, the basketball courts – it’s got a very similar rhythm. It’s a concrete city.”
Bua is giving a lecture titled “The Identities and Ideologies of Hip-Hop” at 6 p.m. next Thursday at the Biomedical Science Research Building and will also conduct a painting workshop the next day at the same location.
Bua is an artist – a self-described “distorted urban realist.” His paintings are striking; they mix all aspects of street culture, creating vivid portraits of the streets and intimate images of life. His work is visual hip-hop: There’s a beat and flow to his paintings, as if any second the sub-woofers will kick in and the canvas will shake and rattle to life.
Bua is not limited to one medium. He’s flourished artistically, overwhelming the public eye and the mass market with his own brand of hip hop. He’s a breakdancer, a skateboard designer and a CD cover artist for Sony Music and Atlantic Records. He created Comedy Central’s animated series “Urbania” and designed the music video for Slum Village’s “Tainted.”
He currently teaches classical figure drawing in the Fine Arts department at the University of Southern California. But Bua is a New Yorker. He bleeds for the city.
Stylistically, Bua’s images are indeed “distorted” – his characters are long and lanky, rhythmic and angular, their bodies capturing the swooping rhythms of graffiti. But his vision of street art isn’t just graffiti or breakdancing or hip-hop music, it’s the thread that holds them all together as a unit. It’s how the street affects life, experiences and expression.
Most of all, urban art is about the self, about the harshness of living, growing up and finding your identity in a jarring environment.
“Street art is a way to pose and gesticulate that you are art, and no matter what is going on around you, you’re standing strong,” he said. “And you know, even though I’m poor, I’m proud.”
Bua grew up in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a rough patch of city where it wasn’t an easy (or safe) task to get to the subway station. Many of his paintings are untraditional portraits; you won’t catch any flat, statuesque poses here. His art features people in their element: musicians plucking double bass strings with spidery fingers, the air hung with Chinese lanterns; wool-capped graffiti writers slouching in the train yard, wielding canisters of spray paint.
“I started painting things that people told me not to paint,” Bua said. “I’m painting MCs and b-boys and break dancers and graffiti writers. People asked, ‘What the hell you painting that for? No one cares about that!’ I said, ‘I hear you, I respect that, but I’m a do what I wanna do.’ “
He’s recently started to paint pimps and hustlers, people from the neighborhood. “They’re city-dwellers. They’re the people who are forgotten by the mainstream,” Bua said. “They’re the people who made New York what it was, and they’re just as important, just as much a part of the New York City skyline as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building.”
The tradition of urban art is not necessarily about hip hop and jagged, skyscraper-scarred landscapes. It’s about the lower class, about the images of the people.
“I paint the underclass, like Rembrandt or Bruegel. They painted the poor people of their culture, and those are the kind of people I emulate, too,” Bua said. “I like to paint the heroes of my day and the people I grew up around next to this welfare hotel.”
Bua’s life in this environment created the experiences he would draw upon as an artist. “It was just this cesspool of drug dealers and crazy people. But these are the people that I say, ‘Hey, this is what gave New York City its flavor,’ ” he said.
Bua moves urban art in new ways, connecting Rembrandt and graffiti in the same way art unites people.
“I think that art is tremendously powerful, and it can move masses. When you say a picture speaks a thousand words, it really speaks more than that to me,” he said. “Art and hip hop are about gratitude and hope and bringing together people from all walks of life.”
Bua’s got the booming sub-woofers behind him, shaking it up, lending that bounce to the bass player, to the graffiti writer in the train docks and to that artist on the streets.
The Identities and Ideologies of Hip-Hop
Next Thursday at 6 p.m.
At the Biomedical Science Building