June 1, 2004

Justin Bua: an artist for a new generation
By Canyon Cody
Published in The Heights

On Wednesday nights, Justin Bua teaches a basic drawing class (FA 207) at the Univerisity of Southern California in Harris Hall, room 210.

Outside the classroom, Bua is the best-selling living artist among college students and the pre-eminent visual artist of the hip-hop generation. In his spare time he's making music videos, starting his own shoe line, and trying to change the way America views art and treats our artists.

"It's unfortunate, but to a lot of people, art is associated with wealth. People think you need lots of money and education to go to an art museum, but my stuff is different. My art is rooted in street culture," explained Bua in an interview with The Heights.

Like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Bua's artistic world of colorful magical realism, seen in paintings such as The DJ and The Piano Man, reflect the racially diverse reality in which he was raised, interpreted from the distorted memories of his childhood.

"Forever, artists have been painting kings and military leaders. I am also painting the heroes of my time, whether the DJ, the graffiti artist, the baller, or the piano player," said Bua. "Growing up in New York in the '80s, I looked up to these people."

Despite his unconventional themes, Bua's art is structured in remarkably traditional methods. His class at USC teaches the basics of drawing the human body, and since attending the prestigious High School of Music and Performing Arts his own education has focused on classical techniques.

At 16, he took a year off from school to perform with a professional breakdancing crew, The New York Express, in over a hundred shows all over the world. Later in life, his passions for art and hip-hop culture collided to produce his urban-themed paintings.

"What we were doing in New York at the time, I mean, we weren't defining it as hip-hop, it was just our life," explains Bua.

"There was no real need to name it. Yeah, I was b-boying and emceeing and all that stuff, but I wasn't going around thinking, 'Yeah, this is hip-hop,' because it was all I knew."

In addition to his unique and immediately recognizable artistic style, Bua is most notable for his keen entrepreneurial business sense. He has made a name for himself in music videos, most notably Slum Village's "Tainted," and television commercials such as his recent campaign for the video game NFL Street.

Bua has recently expanded beyond the canvas into designing his own shoe line called the PF Flyer, which will feature his artwork. Only 1,008 pairs of the three different designs will be available, but Bua plans on expanding in the future.

There are also plans for an upcoming line of hats and a book of his paintings. "I didn't always have a good business sense, but it's a hustle and you learn along the way," said Bua.

Though this sort of business ambition is commonplace among musicians such as Jay-Z, Bua laments the fact that artists so rarely make money from their work. "I think artists aren't taken seriously in our culture and it's because our values are all f- up. I'm trying to open up the possibility for artists to be respected and appreciated like musicians or actors are. Part of that includes being able to make money."

Once someone starts making money from selling hip-hop culture, some will inevitably label the artist a sellout, something Bua promises he could never be: "You have to worry whether kids think you're selling out, but really that's not a really concern for me, because there are some things I would never do. I'm a vegan, so I will never do anything for McDonald's.

"It is simply not an option, not for a million dollars," he continued. "I would like to move into hemp shoes, but even now I know I would never use leather."

To Bua, there is a clear distinction between selling art and selling out. He said, "I am respecting and exalting my heroes, not just using them to make some money. I plan to keep being entrepreneurial and I don't think there's anything wrong with that, because I plan on changing the industry.

"I want to be a pioneer that changes the way people buy and sell products. I don't want to just put more crap in the stores and make a dollar."