A student from Oakland School for the Arts holds up a print by artist Justin Bua. The artist appeared at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland for a talk with students. Pendarvis Harshaw
A student from Oakland School for the Arts holds up a print by artist Justin Bua. The artist appeared at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland for a talk with students. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Advice From Justin Bua to Oakland’s Next Generation of Artists

Advice From Justin Bua to Oakland’s Next Generation of Artists

Luis Lopez walked into SoleSpace in downtown Oakland last week with his classmates from Oakland School for the Arts for a brief lecture from renowned artist Justin Bua.

Lopez strolled right past the shoes on the sales racks and the mounted images of Bua’s work and randomly introduced himself to me, an unassuming guy holding a camera in the back of the room. I quickly learned that Lopez is a music producer, and just recently started rapping over his own beats. One of his friends chimed in, calling him by his stage name, “Casso,” inspired by Picasso. Why Picasso?

Because, Lopez told me, he wants to make art that lasts.

Just then, it was time to hear from Bua, the prolific New York-raised painter, illustrator and entrepreneur. Bua was in town for an annual event, called Art For the People; every year he chooses one city in the world and sets up shop, selling prints of his work at discounted prices and donating a portion of the proceeds to a noble cause—and this time, it was Oakland School for the Arts.

Justin Bua talks with students at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland.
Justin Bua talks with students at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

It was a fitting event for SoleSpace, a shoe store that doubles as a community space. Run by Jeff Perlstein, it's located in the heart of where the change is happening in Oakland. The place sells shoes to keep the lights on, but over the years they’ve hosted political rallies, small live performances, movie screenings, and Warriors viewing parties. It’s one of the few spaces in downtown Oakland where artists, activists and creative types gather.

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A middle-aged man who hasn’t lost his cool-kid look, Bua told the students at SoleSpace his origin story, about how he started as a graffiti bomber in Harlem during hip-hop's golden era. After his teenage years tagging trains and hopping rooftops in uptown, he eventually matured into an arts scholar, attending ArtCenter College of Design, what he called "the Harvard of arts schools."

His career took off when he started producing exaggerated images of jazz and hip-hop characters. “At one point I was selling more posters than any artist on planet earth,” Bua told the seated students. Since, he's kept up that commercial momentum with work on video games like NBA Street, as well as music videos like Slum Village's "Tainted." He's done jewelry, phone cases, skateboards, images for films and TV shows.

Having worked as an arts educator, he talked art history through a hip-hop lens, mentioning classical artists, modern artists and graffiti writers in the same sentence. He managed to mix in an S-word here and an MF-bomb there, keeping the young people's attention.

And in the end, Bua had two main points for those in attendance. First, dedicate yourself to art, right now. Secondly, don't confine yourself to one kind of art.

Some of Justin Bua's work displayed at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland.
Some of Justin Bua's work displayed at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

One of Bua's more well-known pieces, an image of a DJ on the turntables, looked familiar. It brought me back to my teenage days—did I have it as a binder folder when I was in school?

He said it dropped in 2001, around the time I was going through puberty and initially committed myself to writing everyday.

Funny, back then, I was like “Casso,” looking to create art that lasts, and going through a pivot—I was growing from a poet to a rapper, and using a “stage name.” All the while, unbeknownst to me, I was sowing the seeds of what would become a career as a journalist: the ability to observe the vibe of my peers, to think on my feet and to ask critical questions that yield fruitful answers. I did in through lyrics then, and to this day, I’m still learning how to move a crowd merely by using words.

Crazy to think of how far one person can go with a simple talent: drawing in Bua's case, storytelling in my case, and hopefully, music making for Lopez.

Justin Bua talks with students at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland.
Justin Bua talks with students at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

To Bua's credit, he didn't get stuck where he initially achieved success. And he had clear understanding of why it worked when it did. He struck gold with his images, he said, because he was at the right place at the right time. “I was painting hip-hop narratives at a time no one thought you could do that," he said. "No one thought that was marketable.”

I couldn’t help but notice the logo for Bua’s company, a silhouette of a man with an afro, complete with an afro pick and a fist on the end of it, painted on the large wall behind where Bua was sitting. Another version of it adorned the pendant dangling from Bua’s necklace. When I asked Bua, who’s Puerto Rican and Jewish, where the logo came from, he said it’s based on an image from his first book, The Beat of Urban Art, and was inspired by the folks he’d see in his neighborhood as a kid.

He got his start by simply drawing what was around him, he said, but lately he’s been exploring more angles, noting his depictions of Anthony Bourdain and even professional golfer Phil Mickelson as examples of expanding his craft.

I laughed, even his answer about navigating depictions of race in art stayed true to his message of evolution; it’s like the only that doesn’t change about Bua is his need to constantly change.

Justin Bua talks with students at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland.
Justin Bua talks with students at SoleSpace in downtown Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

That was further evidenced by his response to a student’s question about the future of his work. Bua said he’s just trying to get better, constantly. “Michelangelo was 81 when he said he was just beginning to learn how to draw,” Bua told the students.

When the conversation concluded, the students stepped forward to get free prints of some of Bua’s work. I caught up to Lopez, a.k.a. Casso, who told me he liked the presentation and showed me the print he picked up.

I walked out of the event still holding my camera, thinking more about Lopez’s career path than Bua’s. At age 16, Lopez is already doing what Bua had suggested. He's dedicated himself to being an artist, for the long term. On top of that, he's already pivoting; or rather, evolving.

It kind of makes me question, what’s next for me?

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Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.

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