While urban art takes many forms, I am not talking here about large sculptures neatly arranged in public places by bureaucrats. I’m also not referring to decorative art in shopping malls and centres, enhancing the thrill of the consumer experience, or gallery and living room displays of works by former street artists risen to commercial fame. When I think of urban art, I mean the artforms of graffiti, stenciling, poster bombing, music, breakdancing, skateboarding and even surfing, which have infiltrated the urban environment not by sponsored invitation but through subversive action. Their function is not to cater for a commodity market but to respond to the concrete estates, pain and poverty that characterise living at the social peripheries in our cities. Sure, even being poor can be a stratified experience, between destitution and more upper levels of material deficiency, and the artistic expressions of people living in spaces of different degrees of privation will reflect these disparities. At the same time though there is of course the overall similarity of experience of social, economic and cultural inadequacy, and it is this shared experience which has created and maintains the urban artforms I value higher than the polished performances of the market.In terms of influence on urban sub-cultural expression, it is of course hard to draw lines between what is more powerful: the raw expressions of portrayal of and social resistance against living in run-down impoverished and despondent neighbourhoods, or the songs and colours produced by those who have escaped these vicious circles. I can only speculate and theorise here, but I assume answers lie hidden on the one hand somewhere in the complex relationships between authenticity of the artists’ voices and the branded illusions sold by multi-billion dollar dream industries to beggars, struggling recipients of social welfare benefits and romanticising middle classes. On the other hand, hip hop and graffiti are not just about politics; there is also a historical dimension to them (where the artist is part of cultural traditions reaching back at least to the itinerant performers traveling the fair grounds of Europe in medieval times), and there is an emotional and aesthetic articulation where the artist is the skillful communicator of the personal: her or his sensibilities, thoughts, emotions, beliefs or ideas.With blurred boundaries around what is still grassroots authenticity, and faced with the impossibility of determining what effect individual artists might have not just on the consciousness of the individual spectator but also of society and culture at large, I simply gonna retreat to a position of personal preference when it comes to Justin Bua. Although my personal experience has not included living with concrete, basketball courts, breakdancing b-boys, graffiti tags, and the pain, the poor and the flavour of the 1980s New York City’s Upper West Side, I’d like to credit him at least with having the roots for what what I define as urban art. And when I look at his pictures (through probably romanticising senses), I get a feeling of an authenticity that I can also seesm to be reflected in his words: “There’s a hardness to urban art. I think it really echoes the architecture of New York City, all of the really harsh gates, undulating terra-cotta of new york,” Bua says. “The square, the cement, the projects, the fences, the basketball courts – it’s got a very similar rhythm. It’s a concrete city.”Bua, a hip hop artist, breakdancer, skateboard and CD cover designer, creator of Comedy Central’s animated series “Urbania” and music video artist for Slum Village’s “Tainted”, creates striking paintings. He describes himself as a “distorted urban realist” and (in hindsight not surprisingly) sees his work in the tradition of some of the old masters: “I paint the underclass, like Rembrandt or Bruegel. They painted the poor people of their culture, and those are the kind of people I emulate, too,” Bua says. “I like to paint the heroes of my day and the people I grew up around next to this welfare hotel.”Here we’ve got a good example for historical tradition I mentioned earlier – it makes urban art not just a child of today’s rough, jagged skyscraper-scarred cityscapes; urban artforms from the edge are about people populating urban fringes, and as such they have walked these paths for centuries. Genuine graffiti and hip hop are about the lower classes, about the images of its people – and in this regard Bua’s work is truly arresting. He seems to capture street culture vividly in all its diversity, richness and intimacy. And not only that: the Michigan Daily described his work as ‘visual hip hop’: “There’s a beat and flow to his paintings, as if any second the sub-woofers will kick in and the canvas will shake and rattle to life”. You get this feeling when looking at his characters who all are tall, thin and kind of awkwardly built, and who seem to bring together both, the rhythms of rap and the swooping forms of graffiti. And the awkwardness expressed in these lanky bodies probably reflects issues around self and identity, arising from growing up in these harsh and jarring neighbourhoods.
For Bua, street art is more than graffiti, breakdancing or hip-hop music – it is the means that holds them all together, it is the way in which the street affects life, experiences and expression: “Street art is a way to pose and gesticulate that you are art, and no matter what is going on around you, you’re standing strong,” he says. “And you know, even though I’m poor, I’m proud.” In this intimate and powerful sense, he capture, as the Michigan Daily puts it, “people in their element: musicians plucking double bass strings with spidery fingers, the air hung with Chinese lanterns; wool-capped graffiti writers slouching in the train yard, wielding canisters of spray paint.” No one is posing here.
“I started painting things that people told me not to paint,” Bua said. “I’m painting MCs and b-boys and break dancers and graffiti writers. People asked, ‘What the hell you painting that for? No one cares about that!’ I said, ‘I hear you, I respect that, but I’m a do what I wanna do.’ ” Forgotten by mainstream are also the people re recently started painting, like pimps and neighbourhood hustlers. For Bua though “they’re the people who made New York what it was, and they’re just as important, just as much a part of the New York City skyline as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building … these are the people that I say, ‘Hey, this is what gave New York City its flavor,’ ” he says.
“I think that art is tremendously powerful, and it can move masses. When you say a picture speaks a thousand words, it really speaks more than that to me,” he said. “Art and hip hop are about gratitude and hope and bringing together people from all walks of life.” There’s nothing I could add to that.
[This is a post I wrote last year for my previous blog; it is part of a number of posts that I want to salvage before closing down the old one forever]