by Marcus Harrison Green
When you know you’re about to meet the equivalent of Jesus with a paint brush, you assume the sky above ruptures open and a luminous glow outlines his frame the second your feet occupy the same room as him.
Obviously, neither happened when I walked through the door of Beacon Hill’s The Station Coffeehouse on Friday morning to interview Justin Bua. What greeted me instead was my favorite artist sitting on a stool near the entrance sketching the faces of unassuming patrons in his notepads as they worked intently on their laptops. A jokester at heart, Bua occasionally snapped a clip of a surprised customer on his smart phone with a funny quip written over it, to later post on the treasure trove of amusement that is his Instagram account.
I first discovered Bua’s internationally-acclaimed paintings as a teenager when my friend Jerron introduced me to the New York-born artist’s work. It was Bua’s exaggerated drawings of the Jazz Age, with the elongated faces of trumpeters and saxophonists that caught my curiously. It was his super heroic illustrations of the hip-hop icons who provided the soundtrack for much of my early life that made me a fan. It was his ability to capture street life that seemed to convey more reality than any photograph that earned my life-long respect.
The teacher, entrepreneur and painter, who has inspired everything from the animation of the Boondocks, to video games, and won a Telly award for the art direction in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s documentary film On the Shoulders of Giants, is boycotting traditional galleries on his latest tour. In a move to make his art readily accessible to the lay person, he’s visiting venues such as The Station, where he’ll be giving a Q and A about art and life, and showcasing original work not seen anywhere else.
I spoke with Bua about the transformative power of art, why he feels South Seattle is rife with talent, and why he and every artist has room to grow.
What brought you to South Seattle?
Justin Bua: I needed to get some air because in Los Angeles I was suffocated. I have a lot of fans up here in Seattle and I’ve been doing this kind of anti-gallery campaign, this anti-gallery tour. The gallery world can just be so insular and ivory tower, that I felt like it would be really cool to start a tour, where I felt like it was art for the people, by the people, of the people, brought directly to the people because that’s what I’ve always done with my work. So one of my collectors said you should come up and do The Station. I said I don’t know what the station is. I was thinking like a train station, but then I found out it was a coffee shop. He said: it’s small but let’s do it.
What was behind the decision to intentionally make your show accessible to the layperson?
Bua: It’s for the layperson that I do what I do. I realized I’ve always been sketching. I sketch the common people, the average person, the b-boy, and the D: the heroes of my world. I paint celebrities too, but I’ve always painted people who were marginalized. People from my neighborhood in New York City, up in Harlem, there’s a lot of drug dealers, junkies, all ethnicities – black, Latino, Cuban, Puerto Rican, everybody – so I’ve always been attracted to painting the everyday person. There’s so much character with the everyday person. That’s what I still do and people love that. I’m not just painting the voices of hip-hop and the culture, but I also paint the voice of the streets – the average people.
What’s your take on how your artwork has inspired movements, from Black Lives Matter to other civil rights stuff?
Bua: There’s been so much artwork around stuff like Black Lives Matter. For me, we live in such a despicable world sometimes it’s hard to paint that so I like to paint the beauty in the ugliness. I just feel like there’s a lot of ugliness, and there’s a tightrope walk between beauty and ugliness. Rembrandt painted so beautifully but he also painted a lot of the ugliness too. Rather he painted the aristocracy as ugly like he did in The Nightwatch, or whether his technique was so beautiful in his self-portraits. It was really ugly but it was painted beautifully. There’s a close relationship between that. There’s a close relationship between love and hate. I like to paint the ghetto beautifully. I like to paint the ugly beautiful. I like to depict with insight the emotions of the human condition. Sometimes the straight political subjects are not what I’m great at.
So what is the role of the artist in today’s world?
Bua: An artist is really reflecting the times. A really great artist really reflects his times, more than television, more than film. It really depicts a time and space. When I learn art history, I usually learn it through art. I feel like you can learn a lot about a time and a place through drawings. Drawings speak more volumes than words often times. It’s our first language. It’s our deepest language.
You’ve been creating art since you were a child. What phase of your career would you say you’re currently in?
Bua: I’m in seeking phase. I did the hip-hop thing. I did the celebrity portrait thing. I’ve done two books. I’ve done TV shows, movies. I’ve had my own TV Show. I think one of my goals is just to become better as an artist, to grow. I want to challenge myself with deeper problems of painting and drawing.
Michelangelo was 81 and he said, “I’m just beginning to learn how to draw.” Art is never ending. There are so many gradations of art. You can be great at light, but not great at value. You can be great at value but not great at color. You can be great at color but not great at line. You can be great at line but not great at composition. You can be great at composition but not great at tone. You can be great at tone but not great at atmosphere and it just goes on and on. The depth of painting and drawing is ridiculous, and there’s always going to be someone better than you at painting and drawing in some area. You can do art until you’re dead. It’s not like gymnastics or basketball where you have a small window.
This is your first visit to Seattle in over a decade. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed to our city since you were last here?
Bua: Well, it’s definitely more gentrified, but I think anywhere I’ve gone in the world is more gentrified. That’s pretty much the key word. But, I love it here. It’s clean. The air is great. The people here are very nice. Everyone here is saying “hi.”
How would you describe the arts scene in Seattle, being someone who regularly travels to the world’s art meccas and is also an art instructor?
Bua: It seems rife with talent and it’s one of those cities where you see art everywhere. I love seeing art everywhere because it kind of defines and individualizes public space so that it’s less homogenized in a day of everything being generic. I think street art very much gives architecture a mark of personality. I see that a lot here, and a lot of art everywhere. We’re sitting at a coffee shop and I’m seeing a painting behind me, paintings on the outside and inside, and ceramics everywhere. This is a city where people need to create, and maybe that’s because it’s so wet and damp that it makes you internalize creatively. In Los Angeles things are so externalized, not that there’s not a thriving art scene there, but the motivation is different.
What’s your advice for young artists who possesses the compulsion to create, but are faced with the reality of having to support themselves with one and sometimes two full-time gig?
Bua: Hey, that’s okay. You gotta pay the bills. You’re not going to just jump off the bridge and try to be an artist. By being a working artist you’re jumping in the grid anyway, just by the very nature that you’re making money by making art. You just have to keep at it and be aware of your weaknesses and your strengths, so that you can improve your weaknesses. The biggest complaint I have with artist is that they’ve arrived, and they don’t want to hear anything. Everyone always needs work, and that’s something that people don’t want to always sharpen. Can you imagine in basketball or fighting not sharpening your skills? Because artist can get away with it at times they don’t do it, and that’s a lazy mindset. Picasso said a lazy artist has never produced a great piece of work.
What can people expect from your show on Saturday?
Bua: There going to see work they’ve never seen before. They’re going to see prints that are very reasonable. Everything is 50 to 80 percent off. If they can’t afford anything they can take a print. I’m going to give prints away. I want to make art accessible. I want to make it so everyone can enjoy it. You can’t afford it, take a mini-print.
Justin Bua will be showcasing his work at The Station (2533 16th Avenue South Seattle, WA 98144) from 12:00 pm to 5:00pm on Sat, 9/24. Bua will also be giving an art lecture at The Station from 11:00am to 12:00pm.
Featured image courtesy of Justin Bua