Pulling up to Beacon Art, I give a friendly nod to the group of men smiling and jovially playing dice nearby. I pull my jacket tighter as the sharp fall breeze catches me by surprise, mentally preparing to meet someone who has been a staple to the hip hop community for as long as I can remember. By “hip hop,” I mean more than the perception of rap. Hip hop is more than music. Hip hop is a culture that blossomed from unrest; it is a counterculture to the social inequities through break dancing, Graffiti, the Emcee and the DJ—the original four elements of hip hop. It started as a weapon of the oppressed, a fierce opposition to the mainstream forms of dance, art, poetry and music from those who felt forgotten in inner city New York, and Justin BUA witnessed the birth of the movement right from his doorstep.
Justin BUA is a painter whose art reflects the people in his neighborhoods. From the Upper West Side to East Flatbush in Brooklyn, the men he looked up to as survivors in “the harsh realities of the urban jungle” were made immortal through paint and a brush. “My art reflects the characters from that world,” BUA explains. “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.”
Once a year, BUA travels to different cities offering free prints and affordable art as his way of in his words, “giving back to the people.” Seattle’s show was in Beacon Arts, which doubles as Dozer’s Warehouse. Dozer’s Warehouse is every bencher’s (from Urban Dictionary: the time spent photographing or watching graffiti on trains, more specifically passenger and freight trains) dream. It may not be a train yard, but it might as well have been. The air still had the light aerosol bite those familiar with the aroma know all too well, and had the fallen soldiers upstairs to prove it. Spray paint cans in a kaleidoscope of colors filled a small room in one of the warehouse’s upstairs rooms, where over 50 graffiti artists, muralists and painters covered every wall, hallway, ceiling and floor with hard lines—and stronger messages.
The concrete floor of the warehouse was adorned in painted purple flowers, both large and small, leading the way to the gallery area where BUA greeted longtime fans as they walked in. Soon after, a playlist of Golden Era hip hop drowned out the shuffling of feet and lull of conversations of those coming and going. Accompanied by his daughter and partner, there was an experienced system of greeting those purchasing BUA’s art, which was then passed down the row of tables to BUA himself, where he chopped it up with captivated admirers both young and old. One young girl—who her mother said was just starting to pick up painting herself—left with flushed face, smiling ear to ear after meeting someone she admired so strongly.
That’s where I sat, at the end of the row of tables: recorder out and eager to talk with the artist who has been involved in every element of hip hop culture since its inception.
DOPE Magazine: Your art is influenced by hip hop and the streets of New York. What is it about both of these worlds that inspires you?
Justin BUA: Graffiti was really all around me. It’s on the streets in New York, it’s on the subway cars. Art is just prevalent, so art in general in New York is pretty pervasive. New York is a little like Paris, in the way that it’s one of the biggest art communities in the world. We have the Guggenheim, we have the Metropolitan [Museum of Art], we have the [Museum of] Modern [Art], we have the Frick [Collection], but then we have New York City subways. We have rocksteady walls. We have all the murals down on Riverside Park. So you’ve got one of the most artistic communities in the universe. With [all] that and the fact that my mom is a painter, my grandfather was a painter—I’m just submerged.
Q: You’ve talked about hip hop coming from “living in this culture of social despair.” How do you feel about the evolution of hip hop, and do you still think that rings true? Who do you feel still speaks to that culture of social despair today?
A: It rings true to a certain extent in the areas where it’s less affluent, but not anymore, really. Things evolve. There’s a lot of capillaries to the movement, and now what everybody says is hip hop is so subjective and diverse. Everything is influenced by hip hop. Pure culture of hip hop came from a certain place in time, and it will never be the same. That’s the genesis. That’s the wellspring of a culture. I’m not one of those people who is gonna hate on new school hip hop because then you have guys like Kendrick Lamar coming up. You could be from anywhere and be hip hop.
Q: You’re doing a series of parodies featuring iconic shows like Rick and Morty, Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers—what gave you this idea?
A: I just thought it would be really cool to take something that is so current, so trendy and so popular and do my take on it. Put them in my world. I love the energy and the line [drawing], but then you make it three dimensional. You add volume and chiaroscuro to the images, and it makes it different and weird. You know Bob’s Burgers or Rick and Morty, and they’re flat, but what happens if you give them dimension and put them in a BUA-fied landscape? Keep the flavor of the show, but make it your own. That’s why I loved it.
Q: You were awarded on NAACP Image Award, as well as a Telly Award for your work in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s documentary, “On The Shoulders of Giants.” Did it ever feel like that was even in the realm of possibility when you started the project?
A: It was very cool. Awards are just awards. It was just great to work with Kareem, he’s a very interesting person. It was a beautiful project. It was a very hard project to work on, because I had to create the universe, because there was so much missing footage and I’m not a historical reconstructivist. I was recreating buildings and environments and characters, and that was very hard. It was very challenging, so I guess it felt good—but at the same time, I get rewarded just by the work I put in. For the most part I try to just do things that I love to do. That’s the bottom line.
Q: You’ve now lived in both Cali and N.Y., the coastal birthplaces of hip hop, if you will. In your opinion, what are the differences between the two cities?
A: L.A. is just a different animal. It’s much more relaxed. Much more chill. That’s how it’s reflected in the music and the dance styles and the graffiti. Things in N.Y. are just high-energy, high-pace—like you’re on a treadmill and you’re not getting off. I love them both.
Q: You lived a block away from Rock City Park and used to watch Crazy Legs, Kenny and Frosty Freeze dance all the time. What would you say is your most cherished memory during this time?
A: Yeah, it was magic to be able to see guys like Frosty Freeze, Mr. Wiggles, Ken Swift and Buck 4 and Crazy Legs get down. It was like poetry in motion to be a part of that culture. It’s a part of history. It’s like you’re really witnessing history. People write about that shit. You read Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, and I remember a lot of those moments, because I was there. These moments that, even though my name is not recorded…I was there. So that’s super, super cool.
BUA’s art “visually documents the birth of hip hop.” His book, The Beat of Urban Art, is filled with page after page of characters that inspired him. Each pays homage to the D.J.’s, the M.C.’s and the B-Boys in his signature style of loose-jointed limbs, long angles and distorted, accentuated features. “Many artists look for the beauty,” BUA explains. “I look for the ugliness that tells me the story of the street. People with crazy faces. I look for that.” As a professional break dancer for fourteen years, a painter, and someone who has been commended for his emotional depictions of culture, he still has the capacity to bring each of us to the Brooklyn porch of his childhood with the swipe of his paintbrush, whether it’s through his latest take on Rick and Morty or his legendary piece, “The DJ.”