Today we’re posting an interview that RJ and I conducted, but which we’re conflicted about. It’s an interview with Justin BUA, host of the upcoming tv show Street Art Throwdown, which premieres tonight on Oxygen.
Frankly, the show makes us a bit sick. It’s a contest/reality show like Project Runway or Work of Art, but with a focus on street art. Commenting on the show, some of the most respected people in the street art community have said “Don’t know whether to laugh or cry” (Martyn Reed), “Can we call it over now?” (Raymond Salvatore Harmon), and “Fuck this fame hungry ‘like me’ mainstream culture desperate for peer acceptance. … Any person who thinks this is art – fuck you too- it’s not. … Do not confuse fame with talent. Shame on The Street Art Throwdown, Justin Bua and Lauren Manganaro for selling out this culture” (Artist asked to remain anonymous). Okay, so we haven’t actually seen the show yet, but from the casting call, online video teasers, and common sense about reality tv, that all sounds about right.
Our negative visceral reaction left us wondering: What the hell does BUA think he’s doing? So we asked, and it seems like he came back with some honest answers.
RJ and Caroline: How do you respond to prominent members of the global street art community who suspect that Street Art Throwdown will be an exploitative dumbing-down of the contestants and the culture?
It would be nice to know who those “prominent members” that you are referring to are? Because there are many “prominent members” who are actually appearing on the show like Ron English, Mear One, OG Slick, Lady Pink, Claw Money, Jules Muck and others who thought this was a great idea and not an exploitative one. This is TV, a collaborative medium, so there are always concessions. That being said, the good of making this into a TV show out weighs the bad for me. The good is that this show gives a platform for a beautiful art form that the majority of the world views as vandalism. Most of America thinks the average street artist is a hooded vandal lurking in the shadows tagging on public property with no artistic veracity. This show is a good educational tool to showcase not only the skill sets of the contestants but their unyielding necessity to paint. Also the captive TV audience, who might never get a glimpse at a true master artist like Mear One will get the opportunity to see how powerful his craft and other judges and competitors artists skills are.
There are many artists, who I consider prominent, who have done various commercial projects that many would consider “exploitative” like Shephard Fairey’s Nike campaigns—Nike is considered by some an exploitative corporate conglomerate monster. Futura 2000’s collaboration with the alcohol company Hennessy, and the list goes on… Most artists I know, including myself, have done work for “the man” whose companies’ integrity is suspect. Artists need recognition and there is no bigger and mightier podium than Television. There is a difference between “selling out” and having an actual say in the discussion. I respect debate more than I respect shutting people down when you don’t agree. This show furthers a debate and let’s people in instead of locking them out.
Does Street Art Throwdown maintain the illegality that is practically inseparable from graffiti and street art? Is that important to you?
There is clear distinction between Street Art and Graffiti. Street Art was birthed from Graff… So is this show illegal? No. This show is called Street Art Throwdown not Graffiti Art Throwdown. This is not a Graff-centric show. There is Graff repped, but this is Street Art in the context of a television reality show. There are realistic aspects of the culture like the physicality of the high-octane challenges that mimic life as an artist on the street as well as the time constraints that represent what it’s like to paint fast and furious. This is not a documentary about street artists painting illegally. But it is the first of its kind as a competition reality show that is just one part of a sometimes trangressive practice. What an artist does on this show does not affect a street artist or graffiti writer painting a wall and making their mark or co-opting or interacting with public space. This show highlights one aspect of those complex realities and personalities that people posses as they move back and forth between criminal acts and law abiding and creative forms of expression… like we all do. We are too complex to be reduced to just one aspect of what it means to be a street artist, and I am showing the most visually stunning side of this world.
What is your own relationship with the law and law enforcement?
Used to be not the best ever, but I have learned that there are good cops and there are bad cops, but I have been unlucky with respect to my personal interactions with the law. I hope this show will ask people to realize that street artists and what they do are just as complex and diverse as cops’ lives and actions. We need to take a step back and let individual action and expression tell its own story. When we do that we may actually get along a lot better as a society based on experience and respect instead of generalization one way or another.
You’re a well-known commercial and fine artist and you wrote graffiti at one point, but Oxygen describes you as a street artist. What is your connection to street art?
I started on the walls and in Black-Books back in NYC, but these days I paint on my easel. I did a 20-foot mural the other day in Los Angeles but for the most part I keep my painting in my atelier and paint with either acrylics or oils. That being said I am a documentarian because of my understanding and appreciation of graff, street art and art. I was the first artist to ever paint a narrative of a Graffiti artist prowling in the Ghost Yard. (The Ghost Yard also known as the 207th street Repair overlooking the Harlem River.) I made this image, entitled, BUA 420, into a poster, massed produced, for the world to see, experience and appreciate. In my painting entitled “The Artist” I document those nascent moments of the historically significant graff artist. This painting represents an era when we had to paint. When there were no advertising companies recruiting street art, where it was a pure culture. By naming my painting “The Artist” I am I circumventing any pre-conceived notions of calling him anything other thanan artist. Thereby giving him more significance. By naming him the Artist it challenges the naïve idea that graff writers can’t be artists. So am I being recognized for bringing the narrative of the street to the traditional art space of the canvas? I hope so, and I am humbled by my role in the “street art” movement on what ever level I am being recognized for it.
When the casting call for this show was announced and agents began reaching out to well-regarded artists to apply, the general response that we heard was along the lines of “No way in hell am I applying for that.” What was the applicant pool like? What qualifications were you looking for?
Whatever you heard sounds… 23% true. It’s funny how everyone comes out of the woodwork to hate and throw shade and pretend like they’re noble artisans that would never do anything commercial. They say stuff like “I would never audition for Street Art Throwdown” but in reality those same people will do a fast food commercial in a heartbeat because they don’t care that animals are killed, the food is poisonous and the workers are treated like shit…They just wanna get paid. The reality is that people came out in record numbers. I was actually shocked how many people came forward for an unproven season 1. Now it is also true that some artists, some of whom are very good friends of mine, sidestepped away from the opportunity, mostly in fear that they would be shunned by their peers. Culture is complex and this street art culture is no exception, so I respect the dialogue but not the wholesale criticisms that lack any sort of self-reflection.
Now what qualifications were we looking for is a great question. The honest truth is we were looking not for the best artist in the history of the world. We were looking for raw talent that could be forged into steel. A diamond in the rough. These kids are good, some could be great one day with hard work and dedication, but there was an undeniable shine to some of them that was unadulterated. Some exceeded my expectations and some fell short of them, but all of them were hard workers and that’s the most important thing. People love to criticize and call some of these kids “Toys” but this was a painting military boot camp of sorts that made these kids face their fears and take on new challenges as artists. They became better artists because of it. It’s like my training at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. It was nasty, intense and full on. Painting with some of the best figure painters in the world. Training with high level perspective teachers and getting deep into light logic and color theory while being über competitive with some of the best painters in the world. Did this make me a better artist? Fuck ya, and it was worth it.
I would love to see some of these haters jump into some of these challenges, and to be honest I had some heavy hitting street artists that wanted to do it but freaked out at the eleventh hour because they got cold feet. Some just straight up told me they needed way more time to paint than we were allotting for and they were terrified that they were going to be embarrassed on national TV. This is an honest and respectable emotion, but some of those same people that were afraid are some of the people that are talking smack. That’s unfortunate because I know that it doesn’t come from a place of authenticity but rather from a deep sense of fear.
The common assumption is that most street artists are men, but in Street Art Throwdown, 60% of the contestants are women. Why do you think that is? Was that a coincidence based on the applicant pool, or was a conscious decision, possibly related to the show being aired on Oxygen?
It’s a heavily female demographic network. You can Google that in 5 seconds so that’s an obvious fact, but I think you guys will agree that there is not enough recognition for female artists out there, and we know some of the ones that are painting are seriously burner. My good friend Mad C is one of my favorite artists out there. In my opinion she’s one of the top street artists in the world. So by putting so many women on the show I think more woman will get recognized for what they are all ready doing and will truly get more into the game. My prediction is that Street Art Throwdown will single-handedly change the face of Street Art and there will be a massive shift of woman believing that they can do this as a career… Watch out guys! Truth be told, woman already have a better sense of color…
From the teaser, it appears that at least one of the challenges in the show is to create an advertisement for a globally-recognized brand, and ads for Street Art Throwdown have appeared on the New York City subway. How would you characterize the relationship between street artists, graffiti writers, and the advertising industry?
How layered and ironic is it that the MTA would buff all the old cars in the subways back in my day and I’m talking about historical pictorial masterpieces done by the likes of LEE, DONDI AND SEEN. Then the second iteration of change in the “war on graffiti” was adding the graffiti proof trains in the late 80’s, and now they are doing ads wrapped around the train in the same way. This is just so ironic. Yes it’s fitting for my show to be wrapped around the train, but I also really miss the days I was getting on the 1 train on 103rd St. and I would see a wildstyle TRACY 168 tag and a SKEME painting… The advertising companies “own” the space and the graff writers define the public realm and interact with space in ways that are more potent then advertisers. But we all know who learned what from whom. Advertisers would only know how to use subway spaces by watching graffiti artists do it first. So I am at both end of this history.
Why impose rules on an art form that, in promotional footage, your own contestants define as having no rules?
This is entertainment. In gymnastics should there be rules? It’s just kids doing flips and who should judge that? Why should they have rules at the UK Bboy Championships? Or Battle of the Year? They are all great B-boys with different styles… The answer is simply because you need a system to analyze and judge. I know every artist is great and no one should be judged and we should all love each other and listen to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but this is life and it’s harsh out there. Street Art Throwdown is in many ways no different than real life. It’s a metaphor for life. Besides ask a graffiti writer about rules and he or she will show you a list a mile long of do’s and don’t’s about everything from a proper letter to appropriate placement for a tag.
What would happen if the winner of Street Art Throwdown had to “throwdown” against Banksy?
Well would that really be fair? Doesn’t Banksy have like 12 artists painting for him? The winner is only 1 person… So they better bring a gun to that knife fight.
Thanks BUA. We took this as a fun/weird joke. On the one hand, we didn’t want to give airtime to a mainstream, commercial network to push their product, especially when that product is the sugar coated commercialization of an art form that we respected for challenging the consumer industry. On the other hand, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to engage in a critical discussion, and maybe have a laugh along the way. At the end of the day, we respect BUA for being serious and engaging us, even if we disagree. Street Art Throwdown premieres February 3rd on Oxygen. We’ll still be hate-watching.
Photo by RJ Rushmore