Paint the Beat 

Hip-hop inspires and infuses Justin BUA's art.

In his painting "The DJ," yellow light from a single overhead bulb bathes a slender figure who stands alone, eyes shut, one hand working the controls while another — elongated, backlit, cinnamon-brown — manipulates a vinyl LP on a turntable in a room packed, floor-to-ceiling, with records. Popular in poster form, it's the work for which Justin BUA is best known, and it typifies the Manhattan-born artist's fascination with city life, hip-hop, and the underground. The style he likes to call "Distorted Urban Realism" permeates BUA's new book, The Beat of Urban Art, which he discusses at Moe's Books (2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley) on Tuesday, July 14. Further examples illustrate this narrative of his life —from his 1968 birth "in NYC's untamed Upper West Side" through his years at the prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts and into a burgeoning career in illustration, music videos, and fine art.

"My mother and grandfather were both artists who had a great appreciation for the visual arts," explains BUA, who began drawing at around age five. "Therefore art was around me all of the time. All through my life I continued with my art — and even though I became intensely absorbed in the hip-hop culture, with rap, breaking, and graffiti, art was always the one constant in my life." Honing his graffiti skills on the exposed surfaces of New York City, he gained an admiration for others in the field — "Doze, Twist, Revolt, and Zephyr," to name a few. He also performed widely with break-dancing crews.

"Those activities actually inspired my paintings," he remembers. But so did the Old Masters and their modern counterparts, such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Kathe Kollwitz, George Bellows, and Honoré Daumier. "I also love the more contemporary American illustrators like Dean Cornwell, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and J.C. Lyendecker," enthuses BUA, whose art adorns his own clothing line

Because of his penchant for rich colors and soft edges, "most people make the assumption that I paint with oils," BUA notes. Yet "the truth is that I paint exclusively with acrylics." He gives three reasons for this: "I'm incredibly messy when I paint. I throw paint around the studio like a madman and get it all over my clothes." Acrylics, which are water-based, can be laundered out. Moreover, "I find oils to be toxic and a health hazard and acrylics to be the less hazardous of the two." Best of all for a man who loves fast beats, acrylics dry quickly. Their only downside, BUA laments, "is that the colors of acrylics don't hold a candle to the colors of oil paints." When you're at the top of your game, he explains, such drawbacks don't much matter. "It's not the medium you use," the artist asserts. "It's you. There are a few artists out there who use acrylics amazingly well: Sebastian Kruger, Ruben Hickman, Barry Jackson. ... There aren't many, but the ones who use it well — they're amazing."

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