“I always wanted to be an artist,” says Justin Bua, who was tagging subway cars in his native New York City at the age of 12, “and I know from personal experience that it’s hard to really know what direction to take to get there even if you have the skill set and the talent and the ability.”
That’s why the now Los Angeles-based artist, who simply calls himself BUA and is most widely known for his best-selling fine art poster series, which includes The DJ, envisioned a reality competition series to give street artists a leg up. And 10 years after he first started toying around with the idea, Street Art Throwdown debuts on Oxygen February 3.
Hosted and executive produced by Bua, the reality competition series aims to be to street artists what Project Runway is to fashion designers or Top Chef is to chefs—a chance to earn the kind of name recognition that could launch a career and win some cash, too. (You may recall Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist aspired to do the same thing, though the focus wasn’t on street art.)
And while only one of Street Art Throwdown‘s 10 contestants (six of whom are women, which is laudable because female street artists tend to struggle for recognition) will win the top prize, Bua is hopeful that all of the artists will leave with a better sense of how to potentially make a career out of their passion after their work is evaluated by a panel of judges. Those judges include Bua himself, Lauren Wagner, director of Pop International Galleries; and a guest judge. (Mear One is the guest judge in the premiere episode and the likes of Ron English and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh will also join the panel in subsequent episodes.)
Co.Create talked to Bua about the talent featured on Street Art Showdown, designing challenges for street artists to whom the world is a canvas and dealing with haters who don’t like the idea of street art having anything to do with reality television.
Co.Create: Street art is now mainstream enough that there is a reality competition show for street artists on television. Could you have ever imagined the art form being showcased this way when you were first starting out?
Bua: No way. This is the most insane thing ever—absolutely the most fantastical, perfect storm that could have ever happened.
And, quite honestly, it is mainstream in a lot of ways but yet still underground. I mean, it’s all over the world, it’s in galleries, and we all know Banksy. We know that Banksy took over New York. We all know Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Mr. Brainwash. But there’s still an underground-ness to the culture, and a lot of artists can’t make a living doing this.
They’re doing it because they love it, because they have to, but they’re also flipping burgers. So what I love about this show is it really swings the pendulum. It’s a stage for young artists to showcase their work. It’ll get some more eyeballs looking at what’s really going on and the importance of not only street art but art in general.
The work of the pioneers of street art and graffiti was featured in the City of Canvas exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York last year, and I got to talk to Lady Pink about what it was like to paint subway cars back in the day. It’s not often that you get to talk to someone who was part of the birth of an art form.
Lady Pink is a guest judge on the show, and what’s awesome about her is she was one of the original girls who would go out and bomb the yard. She’s freaking awesome, and she’s so knowledgeable, and we wanted to keep this as authentic as possible. We have guest judges like Lady Pink who are really at the top of their game and who have contributed an indelible mark on our culture. You have to nod your head and bow to and acknowledge your predecessors and the contributions they have made to shape this culture.
Street artists tend to be competitive and like to outdo each other. Given that, was it natural for the group you assembled to compete against each other on this show?
It’s interesting. This group is shockingly nice. It’s unusual because yes, the street art world . . . I always equate it to going into battle. You’re going into war. It’s a lot of intensity. It’s a lot of adrenaline. It’s high octane. It’s fast moving. You only get a certain amount of time to create your work, get it up and then keep moving. So it does get competitive.
You chose 10 artists from all across the country to compete on the show. What were you looking for when it came time to cast people?
We cast talented artists, but we weren’t looking for the best in the world, artists who were showing at the best galleries. We were really trying to find raw talent. We were looking for that diamond in the rough, artists who were still pieces of coal that could be shaped to be great. That’s not saying that some contestants didn’t have more talent than others. Some did. And some of the ones that may not have had as much talent rose to the occasion. There are a couple of dark horse situations going on, which is amazing.
Street artists don’t always work in the most easily accessible locations or under the best conditions. Can you talk about how you created challenges that would mimic what they face in the real world but also work well for television?
The goal was to create real challenges that exist in street culture, stuff that I was doing as a kid, stuff that kids still do today. So, for example, the first episode is Heaven and Hell. In Heaven, you grab your paint, go up to the fire escape, jump the ledge, get up on that rooftop and hit the highest point of that billboard so that everybody in L.A. can see your name in lights. And, by the way, you only have X amount of time to do it.
That kind of challenge is not any different than what’s really going on with street art today or back in the day. You’re really mimicking real-life painting situations, and that’s what makes it so interesting and intriguing. You have to overcome the obstacles, which become metaphors of life. It gets really, really, kind of deep and physical.
In the other part of the episode, Hell, the throwdown challenge, the artists go deep into the tunnels under L.A. to paint. Those tunnels were scary. I went into those tunnels where we shot in Long Beach, and they aren’t a joke. They’re old school bunkers from World War II, and people then must have been way smaller because I had a hard time getting my body through them. It was actually weird and claustrophobic.
Can you tease any other upcoming challenges?
We do one where we hit up boxcars because art is not only about just doing things on static life but doing moving imagery. You remember the Banksy thing that he did with the truck in New York City? We do something like that, but I think it’s better than what Banksy did, personally. It’s a conceptual 3-D piece of art, and there is a painting aspect as well, and it becomes something the artists have to go out into the world with to interact with people.
Some critics dismiss street artists as vandals. Do you think you can reach people like that with a show like this and change their minds?
Well, that’s a goal of mine. I think there’s a big distinction between vandalism and street art, and there’s a big distinction even between graffiti and vandalism and a distinction between graffiti and street art. So, yeah, these kids, some come from a graffiti background, some come from a strictly street art background, but there’s a love and an appreciation they all have for art, and I think the public is going to take a shine to these kids.
You mention the distinction between graffiti and street art. People tend to use the terms as though they are interchangeable. Is it correct to define graffiti as the art of lettering whereas street art is a more all-encompassing term for art that is created out in public?
Graffiti is more the art, like you said, the art of lettering, and it is a beautiful art. It’s a stunning art. Street art is a little bit more like painting, but street art is more inclusive. So street art does include graffiti, but it includes painting, yarn bombing, stenciling, slap tagging—it’s got a lot of different iterations.
I have to assume that there are some old-school members of the street art community who aren’t thrilled with the idea of street art being featured on a reality competition show. Have you had to deal with any critics who are mad at you for doing this show?
You have no idea! Here’s the bottom line: I like to talk to people. I like to dialogue. When people say, “Hey BUA, I always loved you. I always respected you. Now, I think you’re selling out,” I say, “Well, tell me why I’m selling out?” And they say, “Because you’re bringing street art into the mainstream, and no one wants to see it legal.” I’m like, “So you just want to do it illegally? You’d never do a legal wall?” And they say, “I would do a legal wall if it was a good wall.” And I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait!”
I am really curious about what the problem is. Most people want to really get their work out and to be seen, and I don’t really buy into it when people say that I’m selling out the culture, or they just want to do illegal walls. I believe that because I’ve had personal discussions with a lot of them who have flipped during our discussion. The artists that I know, that I really respect and revere are really all about this.
Now, if you want to be a rebel, and you just want to be irreverent and subversive, that’s fine because, look, I was that way when I was a kid. That’s just the way it is, but for all of [the criticism] I’d say there’s way more people saying, “This is exciting, I’m looking forward to it,” and I think once the critics see the show and the opportunities that open up for these artists, they’ll change their tune.