The Beat of Urban Art (HarperCollins Publishers, March 2007) is an intimate look into Justin Bua’s youth, art process and paintings. Bua’s drawings and painting are complex. His art digs into the birth of hip-hop culture and the characters that fill his youth – pimps, drug dealers and hustlers – revealing a human side to a chaotic 1970s and 1980s New York City (in 1977, President Jimmy Carter calls the South Bronx the worst American slum, ever. In 1980 President Ronald Reagan compares the South Bronx to a bombed out section of 1940s London).
For 65 of its 160 pages, The Beat of Urban Art explores the youth of Bua. Growing up near several single room occupancy hotels that, for the most part, welfare recipients collect dust while abusing substances, Bua finds neighborhood heroes in what society deems the anti-social. Bua does not flinch when sharing his roots. His grandfather, a neighborhood street hustler, introduces a young Bua to card games and pool halls, places that Bua depicts, later, through his distorted urban realism art. Illustrating the ups and downs of urban living is why The Beat of Urban Art pulls readers into its passion for what defines Bua. Although the risk of alienation, both for the reader and author, is a challenge for all biographies, Bua tastefully balances the information he reveals of his youth.
The second half of The Beat of Urban Art uncovers the process to Bua’s paintings. Whether a novice art collector or professional artist, the paintings section of The Beat of Urban Art entertains and educates readers without being preachy – if anything, the paintings section of The Beat of Urban Art leaves the reader with more questions. The making of Bua’s popular, The DJ (2001), takes six pages to fully explain the process (“I wanted to create a turntablist, as opposed to a house DJ; someone who grew up on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.”) of his painting and with light text, the reader is not lost in jargon or empty sentences.
Comprehensive is the word that best describes The Beat of Urban Art. If Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation sums up the who, when, where, why and how of hip-hop, than Bua’s The Beat of Urban Art paints the visuals of a city, of a man and of a culture.