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Why BUA Believed in the Power of the DJ Before Anyone Else In the Art World Did

By Alec Banks

BUA's work is unmistakable.

The 53-year-old artist has an uncanny knack of not only making his work feel nostalgic, but also that it's brimming with youthful energy. His most ubiquitous work, The DJ, has sold over 13 million copies to date. While the artist cracks, "But who's really counting," the sheer amount of prints he's moved is quite staggering. For context, that 13 million is larger than the countries of Ireland, New Zealand, and Uruguay...combined.

"I just feel like I was at the right place at the right time," he says. "When I did it, everybody said, 'That's a terrible idea. Don't even do it.'"

BUA's journey from a single parent household near Rocksteady Park – to internationally recognized artist — is one that speaks to an intoxication with Hip-Hop which he says began when he was still a pre-teen.

"I had a bunch of aha moments," he admits. "Definitely one of the most impactful ones was that I was down on West Fourth Street, and I just saw a guy doing a bicycle float — which is an old-school move — when you look like you're riding a bicycle, but you're just popping. I was like, 'I don't know what that is, but I know I need to be a part of that.'"

A painting of Justin Bua's DJ

Credits to: Justin Bua

"It didn't matter if it was the older B-Boy, or the older graph writer. Sometimes it was the older pusher, and the dude at the welfare hotel or the SRO. There were a lot of different characters who were father figures in many ways."

"'Yo, B, let me show you this, let me show you that. Let me show you how to brawl. Let me show you how to do whatever.'" - BUA on the neighborhood guys

Justin Bua's B-Girl on paper

Credits to: Justin Bua

Names and styles from writers like LEE, ZEPHYR, FUTURA, and LADY PINK eventually became something that he aspired to do himself. However, he cites a specific work — Ernie Barnes' Sugar Shack painting in Good Times — as a real source of inspiration when it came to defining his own style.

A portrait of artist, Justin Bua.

Credits to: Justin Bua

I was already drawing my characters in my neighborhood," he says. "You can see early drawings of mine, there's guys with guns, afros, and dilapidated cityscapes. This is when I was 10 And then to see [Barnes' painting], it kind of reinforced the idea that you could do that. These were people enjoying the dancing hard, going hard. Just like I did in my 1981, where they were celebrating life hard.

BUA is a classically trained painter who has tried to create a world where the sensibilities of Ernie Barnes, Thomas Hart Benton, Peter Paul Rubens, Francisco Goya, Rembrandt, and Hip-Hop can coexist.

"I was the first person to paint any of these narratives in a classical way, and get it out to the people," he says. "And I said, 'Well wait a minute, why am I not doing Tupac? Why am I not doing Guru? Why am I not doing Dilla in the vein of the masters? Rembrandt is painting an ode to The Night Watch. Velasquez is painting an ode to the Cardinal. Michelangelo is painting for the Medici family, and for Pope Julius II."

Justin Bua's Artist writing graffiti on the train

Credits to: Justin Bua

It's the same thing. I'm just doing it with the heroes of my time."

Rock The Bells partnered with BUA for a limited capsule collection to celebrate the unnamed — yet important figures in Hip-Hop — not unlike his DJ work which continues to resonate today.

It's really the purity of the culture. A lot of the messaging with the writing is imagined, gratitude, these words that were key phrases in our minds during the day, when LL was free styling. When it was just the early days of doing it. Not thinking about, "Oh, how many..." I never thought about how many DJs I would sell. I did it because I loved that painting. It sold 13 million? I think it would be the same for LL COOL J, and Run DMC, and all the early people before they knew that that was even possible. They were just doing it because it's just like broken glass everywhere people run the streets, people just don't care. I'm just a social commentator, singing about the poetic injustice in my neighborhood. That's kind of how I was. I'm just painting about the time and the place of my people. The DJs, the MCs, the B-Boys, the graph writers, and the unsung heroes in many ways."

It's the same thing. I'm just doing it with the heroes of my time."

Rock The Bells partnered with BUA for a limited capsule collection to celebrate the unnamed — yet important figures in Hip-Hop — not unlike his DJ work which continues to resonate today.

It's really the purity of the culture. A lot of the messaging with the writing is imagined, gratitude, these words that were key phrases in our minds during the day, when LL was free styling. When it was just the early days of doing it. Not thinking about, "Oh, how many..." I never thought about how many DJs I would sell. I did it because I loved that painting. It sold 13 million? I think it would be the same for LL COOL J, and Run DMC, and all the early people before they knew that that was even possible. They were just doing it because it's just like broken glass everywhere people run the streets, people just don't care. I'm just a social commentator, singing about the poetic injustice in my neighborhood. That's kind of how I was. I'm just painting about the time and the place of my people. The DJs, the MCs, the B-Boys, the graph writers, and the unsung heroes in many ways."