Justin Bua on the connection between hip-hop and MMA: "They are both irreverent cultures"
For Justin Bua, painting is about documenting moments in time that reflect an era. Hailing from New York, Bua's work has examined the urban themes of hip-hop, jazz, break dancing, and the countless threads that continue to sew the fabric of the entire culture. Since the early '90s, Bua has also passionately followed mixed martial arts fighting. Going as far as pretending to be a journalist to interview the UFC founding creator and producer, Art Davie, Bua's love for fighting is now blending with his passion for art. Catching up with the artist in preview of his live-painting/interviewing at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom with Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest and DJ Z-Trip, we spoke about how fighting and painting are essentially the same thing, and how capturing the moment is more than just a snapshot in time.
Last year, we spoke with Bua about his portrait paintings and about documenting the culture when he came to Denver to lecture before the Nas appearance at Cervantes. This year, though, is different. Before his show at Cervantes, he is doing an event at Cold Crush -- a once-per-year occurrence -- where people can purchase his art at the most affordable price it will ever be.
"Once a year -- my work can be pricey, some go for $80,000 or $20,000 -- so once a year I do Art for the People. The common man is my fan, and I consider myself an artist for the people, by the people, and of the people," Bua says. "My main consumer is someone who doesn't make a lot of income; The working class hero. Once a year I like to do something where people can afford my canvasses. It's my work made affordable. When I say affordable...it's considerably less." Prices for the canvasses start at $50 and go up to $2,500.
For art of this caliber, that's a steal, but Bua chooses not to concern himself with that side of the business. "My pieces are my pieces. Value of art is controlled by auction, and I'm not in auction. If you like my work, great, but if you don't, keep moving. My work is not a Banksy, or a [Willem de Kooning.] I live in my world. I stopped caring about that a long time ago."
Not caring about that has allowed him to stay focused on his personal interests, rather than attempting to create something simply so it will sell. In doing that, he has developed an often mocked style, but an original Bua always stands out from the rest.
However successful his work has been in the field of urban culture, Bua has really delved into the world of UFC by documenting it the way he did with hip-hop. Having been a fan since it started, and a part-time practitioner himself, he figured the best way for him to get involved is through the canvas. "When I see someone go out there to fight, they lose because they defeat themselves," he says. "The other person is just a body. It's what their mistakes are. When you approach a canvas that's blank, if the painting turns out bad, it falls on you. It's not a team sport. It's you and yourself naked, alone. I feel like that is how a painter feels when he stands naked and alone in front of his canvas."
But how did he make the transition from hip-hop to fighting? "The obvious interest is there for me," he says. "They are both irreverent cultures. They both started in the underground then became mainstream. They are cultures you have to work at really hard. If you want to be the best b-boy in the world, you have to practice. The same goes for fighting."
His MMA paintings present a new side of Bua's work. Leaning more towards the impressionistic style, he captures the moments of grappling, wrestling, and the various poses in the octagonal fighting ring. "That's the single most important thing in painting: When you are doing that, you want to capture that moment, the essence of the gesture, in that fight." Whereas his older works are more illustrative, his shift in painting style falls perfectly in line with his shift in thematic focus.
Impressionistic style varies, but essentially it involves capturing the movement in painting by incorporating brush strokes to emphasize the motion, or action, in the image. For Bua, he takes it one step further by working alla prima, (Italian for "at first attempt") which is painting new layers over the initial strokes of the not-yet-dried paint. It also means having to work very fast, which is exactly what Bua will be doing at Cervantes when he does another live painting during the Phife and Z-Trip sets.
Live painting isn't easy, although it's exhilarating for Bua. "I'm just trying to have fun. I'm rushed, but having fun," he says. "I think I'm going to be stoned. I don't smoke weed, but people don't understand that. People are like, 'yo BUA!' and I'm like, 'JESUS!' I don't like it. I used to smoke so much, but now I don't like it. They throw weed at me. There is no choice, but the weed is metabolized into each brush stroke."
Bua will also be interviewing both Phife and Z-Trip prior to their sets. At the 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. time slots, he will be speaking with each legend about how they fit in the context of modern hip-hop and how they have contributed to the music world as a whole.
April 25, 2014 | DENVER, COLORADO BUA Art Exhibit (Art for the People Sale - ONCE A YEAR EVENT) 7 - 10 p.m. Cold Crush 2700 Larimer St. Denver, CO 80205 303-292-1906
April 26, 2014 | DENVER, COLORADO BUA Live Painting and interviewing Phife Dawg and DJ Z-Trip - Phife and Z-Trip performing as well 7 p.m. doors 8 p.m. show 8-9 p.m. BUA interviews Phife and Z-trip Cervantes Masterpiece Theater 2637 Welton St. Denver, CO 80205 303-297-1772