Justin BUA‘s work is some of the most recognizable contemporary artâ€”if you don’t know his name, you definitely know his art. If you don’t know his art, you’ve probably never been to a poster shop, a dorm room, New York, or this very website. He also happens to be my almost-brother-in-law, so I thought I’d ask him a few questions while he’s in town with my sister.
My name is Justin BUA. I’m a renaissance man: I’m a painter, I’m a writer, I’m a terrible musician, the worst skateboader ever, a vegan, a David Wolfe wannabe, and a b-level b-boy (no seriously I was a professional breakdancer. At Bar Mitzvahs. No seriously, I was a professional breakdancer.). I’m from New York Cityâ€”the Upper West Side, or what we like to call “the Upper Best Side,” and Brooklyn.
What was it like growing up in New York in the 70s?
Hell. What is hell like? It was like Dante’s Inferno. But that’s because I was a victim. If I was a hunter and not prey I would have had more fun, I would have been the robber, the stick-up kid, the guy that beat you down. But instead, I was the guy being beat down, robbed, held up. When you’re the hunted, you’re constantly living in fear, you’re anxious, you can’t sleep, you’re basically half-Jewish, like me.
I heard you got literally pissed on in Brooklyn.
No, that’s totally wrong, it was in Manhattan. And you should be more specific. It was on my face, and I don’t want to mention any names but it was Puerto Rican Frankie from 87th Street.
Why did he piss on you?
He just did. It was one of those things that happens sometimes in New York: a kid whips out his dick and pisses on you. It was uncircumcised, which made it worse.
If you could give your younger self some advice, what would you say?
“Stop sucking those guys’ dicks, mom.” Oh, waitâ€”tell myself something? Let me thinkâ€¦it would be something like, “Don’t eat at Mickey D’s, don’t eat at KFC, and especially stop eating at that Chinese takeout spot on 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue with the bulletproof glass.”
What happened when you moved to LA?
I moved to Art Center when I was 21. They racistly housed me with the only other Puerto Rican person. The problem was, he was actually Puerto Rican from Puerto Rico and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought he was Bobby McFerrin.
What’s your neighborhood like now?
I live in Echo Park, so I went out of the frying pan and into the fire. It’s half old-school gang members and half super-hipsters. You know the neighborhood is gentrified when you’re more annoyed by the hipsters playing nerf football than the cholos mad-dogging you.
What do you say to people who don’t know your art?
I don’t say anything. I do my Piano Man II pose or my DJ pose, one shoulder up, head cocked, hand extended, and then they say, “Oh! You did that?”
Let’s talk about money for a little while. What was it like back in the day (before you were a super successful artist) when you were broke?
I’m still broke. When I was broke I didn’t know I was broke because life was simpler but now that I have money it’s never enough because I have so much overhead that I feel like I’m always scrambling to keep up. You have to be a homerun hitter and keep swinging for the fences. If I don’t keep on hustling 24/7, I will stop treading water and I will sink. Biggie said, “Mo money, mo problems,” and that’s the truth.
Here’s a few standard Broke-Ass of the Week questions. If you woke up a millionaire, what’s the first thing you’d buy?
I can tell you what I definitely wouldn’t buy. I wouldn’t buy my girlfriend another diamond necklace, which was like dumping money down the toilet. I designed a tiny cursive nameplate necklace and instead I received a 4-inch dogtag. It turned out to be the most blingy, gawdy, strippery necklace, which is why I thought she’d like it. [Remember that's my sister he's talking about]. But really, I think I would buy a house because mine is so small. Right now you walk in the front door and you fall out the window and my bathroom is next to my stove.
What are your best money-saving tips?
Not going to whorehouses but going to beat-off parlors instead, not that I go myself. I have friends that do. I’m not gonna mention their names, Jason Andors. He goes to beat-off parlors constantly so I know a lot about that culture. Also, turn off your lights, don’t run your water too long, and did I mention the beat-off parlors?
What’s your favorite FREE activity?
Sex. With my girlfriend. It’s not as fun by myself anymore. It used to be.
You had a show at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA) the other day. How’d that go?
Best ever. I had 10,000 people there. I’m looking forward to being part of a permanent collection there soon. Does anybody know anybody who know’s anybody who knows anybody who can get me in? Seriously. The janitor really liked my work.
We just watched the smoking toddler video. What do you think of that?
He looks like a man. He has that strip club look, old-school mob feel to him. I can see him at a club in a reserved booth sitting next to Puff Daddy, old-school mobsters, and a couple of Arab emirates, smoking circles around all the other toddlers. I don’t smoke but smoking really does make you look cool. I bet he gets all the pussy.
Who are your favorite people in the world?
David Wolfe, the greatest nutritionist ever and one of the most eloquent people on planet Earth, Mr. Wiggles, the greatest popper ever, Leonardo, not Dicaprio but DaVinci, president Clinton, not because he was a great president but for how he wrangled women, and my daughter, she’s the awesomest ever. Everyone else is not so favorite. I guess my girlfriend.
Any last words?
Pay attention to good artists. There are a lot of them out there. A lot of the crappy ones are getting by with tricks. Don’t let them fool you. Great art is a blessing. I’m going to the de Young tomorrow to see the Impressionists and it’s gonna be the best experience ever. I encourage everyone to go see great painters, go to museums, and experience the legacy of the masters. I gotta go, I gotta come. [I wasn't sure how he wanted me to spell that last word.]