Friday, January 8, 2010
The 38-year-old, Puerto Rican man has light traces of dark facial hair that accent the sharp features that define his expressionless face – a face that may be confused as apathetic – but the man, Justin Bua, has more character than an NBC sitcom cast. Running through the streets of New York City (“Being a teenager in New York – when you grow up in New York, in my era, where I’m from, you’re going to get in all kinds of crazy chaos, because the city was chaos. I’m running with the wolves, basically,” says Bua. He explains that several of his childhood friends are dead, incarcerated or successful) in the 1970s and 1980s makes Bua an authority of hip-hop culture through experience, participation and inclusion of hip-hop culture, at its birth.
The 1980s New York City is a war-zone that Bua describes as the “wild, wild west.” Although Bua’s Harlem and Brooklyn upbringing is no mid-1990s Kosovo, the odds of crossing a Black Spade is as threatening as being an ethnic Albanian crossing a trigger happy Serb. And it is easy to typecast heroes and villains into what society considers appropriate, but Bua, even as a child, looks for deeper meaning in his surroundings – “People are complicated. People are complex. It’s real easy to say, ‘He’s a pimp so he’s bad,’ or ‘He robs so he’s bad,’ or a horrible person,” says Bua, adding that, in his youth, pimps, drug dealers and hustlers were celebrities on his block, “there was human side of them and I saw that side. I wasn’t really previewed to their criminal side, I was more previewed to the fact that I was a kid, they were cool people and they were really nice to me.”
It is in the chaotic beauty of a lawless New York City that Bua transforms into an artist, a b-boy and a man. Bua’s book, The Beat of Urban Art (March, 2007), is an intimate look into the art and life of Bua.
“Being a teenager in New York – when you grow up in New York, in my era, where I’m from, you’re going to get in all kinds of crazy chaos, because the city was chaos.”
Format: Please explain how and why you titled your art distorted urban realism.
BUA: It’s the way that I see the world. Distorted, because that’s where I’m coming from with my distorted sense of boundaries and my childhood memories – it was a very distorted, chaotic childhood that I lived through and I kind of see the world through a distorted eye. Urban, obvious, because I’m from Harlem and East Flatbush, Brooklyn, I was raised between both. Realism, because I don’t really consider my work cartoony or abstract, it’s kind of a more observational eye, so it is realistic in that term.
Format: When did you start visually expressing yourself?
BUA: When I was in kindergarten I did a book with a bunch of different kinds of illustrations. There was a character that made rainbows and all these different characters that have these different professions. I realized that I wanted to draw and paint all these crazy characters. I started interpreting all the people in my neighborhood, like the guy in the welfare hotel or the guy down the block that sold drugs and carried a gun. These are the characters in my world and these are the characters that I started drawing at a very young age.
Format: How long was The Beat of Urban Art been in process before being picked up by Harper-Collins Publishers?
BUA: Technically, my whole life, because all the drawings and paintings were born since I was about 24-years-old, the work is from, well I was 24, I’m now 38, so 14 years and I’ve actually been working on the book, itself, for seven years. The book has many incarnations and this is the fifteenth iteration of the book. This is the final iteration of the book and it took me about seven years for this book.
Format: Please explain the challenges you faced in the making of The Beat of Urban Art.
BUA: Shakespeare says let me count the ways; endless, endless challenges. The book is about 170 pages, now, and it was, at one point, 400 pages. The hardest part of writing the book was rewriting the book and the hardest part with the paintings is taking out painting. There is so much personal stuff that I put in the book and then I realized that this is less about me and more – even though it’s through my eyes – about this little street culture, growing up in New York during the birth of hip-hop. It’s really about hip-hop and it’s really about the birth of the greatest culture of our time. The biggest challenge was editing the book.
“James was this crazy Brooklyn head that was, actually, a crack addict, but a really cool guy and he was just bananas…”
Format: In your book, you mention that you never had a father, but you had neighborhood males to look up to, your heroes. Please describe these men and how exactly they effected your youth.
BUA: It was every hustler, pimp, drug dealer. I was next to a welfare hotel and those kinds of cats became role models for me. They were looked upon by society as criminals and people that shouldn’t be a part of society, but there was human side of them and I saw that side. I wasn’t really previewed to their criminal side, I was more previewed to the fact that I was a kid, they were cool people and they were really nice to me. Even though they had that other side that society deemed inappropriate, they were, for me, very good people. People are complicated. People are complex. It’s real easy to say, ‘He’s a pimp so he’s bad,’ or ‘He robs so he’s bad,’ or a horrible person. That movie Crash, Matt Dillon’s character, he was a fucked up guy, but he had that other side and that’s what the director was showing, Paul Haggis, he was saying that people are very complicated, and from a kid’s point of view that is what I saw. The beauty and the ugliness, which is really a lot about what my characters are, I like to see the stuff that most people can’t find in people.
Format: Please explain the transition from your upbringing to college.
BUA: When first went to Art Center College of Design, I was like a fish out of water. It was really a different world. It was tough, `cause I had my Puerto Rican mustache going on and my friends were like, ‘Yo, you got to shave that, man,’ even on that level. It was just really different. A different group of people, a different class of people and it was really, really weird for me – challenging.
Format: Please explain how you created the 135th Street and Convent Avenue ditty bop.
BUA: Well I created the 135th Street and Convent Avenue ditty bop, which is my strut, my steez, the way that I had to walk to survive in my neighborhood, `cause I wanted people to think that I was tough. I emulated the hardest, hard rock ditty bop anyone had ever seen, which is really by this guy, John, this real crazy hard rock from the Boogie Down Bronx that used to come to my school and I just emulated his walk, because he was the toughest guy in my school. I felt like if I could adapt his walk, I would be the toughest guy in the neighborhood, but what I didn’t realize is that I might have had the toughest walk, but I wasn’t the toughest guy. That was a conflict when I was in a fight, because John could actually fight. He would walk, people would beef with him and he would fight. Me, I would walk, people would beef with me and I would run. Then my real walk came, which is called my run.
BLEN A generation of 20-something-year-olds can read Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, and try to understand 1970s, `80s New York City and the birth of hip-hop, but you lived it. Please describe era in New York City.
BUA: That to me was happening, it was all around me. It was very visceral, very lawless. I kind of akin it to what the wild, wild west was, because the cops weren’t really doing shit, they weren’t coming to the hood. There was a sense of – like if you had a block party you could take your DJ equipment and plug it into the lamp post, you don’t need a permit, no one was going to shut you down. There was lawlessness, but it also bred a lot of fighting and crime. To protect yourself you had to know how to fight, or write graffiti, rap, DJ or do something that makes you a ghetto celebrity to keep you alive in the hood. It was a very lawless, wild, wild west time where there wasn’t a lot of boundaries and limitations, in terms of safety, but there were also not a lot of limitations on creativity, so it gave birth to b-boying, emceeing and that whole rise in hip-hop culture. Reagan, they shut down a lot of mental institutions – Willow Creek and Creedmore were shut down – they took those mentally insane people and dumped them on the streets of New York. There was no one helping them out, it was an every man for himself situation. It was a real time of chaos and beauty.
BLEN In The Beat of Urban Art, the character Tippy acted crazy in order to survive in Brooklyn, please explain that character.
BUA: Well Tippy was a Brooklyn character that kind of I grew up with, he was this guy, James. James was this crazy Brooklyn head that was, actually, a crack addict, but a really cool guy and he was just bananas, he was this bananarama character. So I started taking his, once again, John’s walk turned into a ditty bop, I take James’ personality, this kind of crack crazy personality and used to adapt it to myself so I could survive New York, because when you were crazy people would leave you alone – for the most part, not always.
“To protect yourself you had to know how to fight, or write graffiti, rap, DJ or do something that makes you a ghetto celebrity to keep you alive in the hood.”
BLEN Please explain how your break-dancing crew, New York Express, was created and some of your experiences with NYE.
BUA: New York Express was created by a choreographer by the name of Julie Arenal, she is a famous choreographer that did Hair on Broadway. She wanted to take dancing from the street and turn it into an art form. She brought her ability as a professional choreographer and changed our dance into an actual theater performance. We danced all over Europe to South Carolina, to Italy and basically took us and turned us into a theatrical performance. It was the first time it has ever been done.
BLEN Who or what was your introduction to b-boying?
BUA: Ken Swift, the all-mighty prince Ken Swift, my hero, that guy is incredible and Mr. Wiggles, he was my favorite popper. Once I saw them dance it was ridiculous, it was on. And Ken Swift is the greatest b-boy of all time, still – you can quote me on that.
BLEN In The Beat of Urban Art, you mention that 1981 was a monumental year for hip-hop, what were you doing in 1981?
BUA: I was breaking and popping. Let’s see I was 13, I was in music and art going to school on 137th and Convent Avenue, cutting school a lot, dancing for money down on the deuce, dancing for money in front of Rockefeller Center, dancing for money in front of Radio City Music Hall, cutting school, getting arrested, just being silly. Being a teenager in New York – when you grow up in New York, in my era, where I’m from, you’re going to get in all kinds of crazy chaos, because the city was chaos. I’m running with the wolves, basically. I’m running with a lot of kids that later would be dead, in jail or incredibly successful, those are the kids I was running with. A lot of them became criminals, because they were crazy. You could either go the crazy way and keep doing it or just go, ‘Jesus, what was I doing?’ and shun that whole world.
BLEN: In 2007, do you feel that hip-hop is still used as an alternative to gangs, drugs and violence?
BUA: No, the game’s changed, it’s different. It’s about money. It’s all about money, period. Only b-boying is still about b-boying, because you can’t make a living at it. Once you start capitalizing on it, it’s over. B-boy will always be b-boying and that’s why it’s going to be pure, and is still pure – and graffiti, too.
BLEN You have several jazz inspired pieces – Piano Man, Midnight Solo, Jazz Trio and Sax man, Trumpet Man – what was your introduction to jazz music and how does jazz music affect your art?
BUA: Jazz, to me, is freeform, it’s like b-boying and writing graff. It’s real spontaneous and impetuous, and that’s the whole rhythm of the moment, it’s very akin to the rhythm of break-dancing and graffiti. It’s off the cuff, it’s improvisational and that’s the beauty of the art. That’s the same thing with my culture, with hip-hop, it’s improvisational.
“It’s real easy to say, ‘He’s a pimp so he’s bad,’ or ‘He robs so he’s bad,’ or a horrible person.”
BLEN You have several gambling inspired pieces – Poker Game, Behind the Eight Ball, Four of a Kind, Green Street – describe how you gained access to those situations in your youth.
BUA: That’s really from my grandfather, my grandfather was a hustler, he played poker a lot and craps. He grew up in Brooklyn and he was kind of a hustler, a street hustler. He would play dice on the corner or stoop. That’s where that comes from, more than hanging out with my hustler friends, it was really from my grandfather, because I used to navigate these landscapes with him. I used to go sneak into the pool hall and the ping pong parlors, and watch all the hustlers hustle. That used to be my world. It was a bunch of hustlers.
BLEN Your prints are readily accessible to the public, for example, 2001’s The DJ is on walls across the world, how does that feel?
BUA: It’s cool. My work is really out there. A lot of people know my work, but not a lot of people know my face, that’s just the way it is. The book is an insight, not only into my work, but the process of my work, which is really cool. Everyone has the DJ and now they can see me painting the DJ, and they can see the color key of The DJ, and they can read the story behind The DJ. Don’t you wish you could get the story of The Starry Night by van Gogh, not equating my work to van Gogh, but wouldn’t it be cool if we could get some insight into that painting and see what he was going through or thinking.