For over two decades, Justin BUA has been creating exaggerated and distorted masterpieces depicting the Hip Hop world he lives in. Whether it’s archetypal figures like “The DJ” or one-of-a-kind takes on groups like Run-D.M.C. and A Tribe Called Quest, his distinctive style is easy to spot and hard to ignore.
Recently, the forty-something artist brought his brushstrokes and bold images to the world of mixed martial arts, tapping into his long-time love of MMA to create a new collection that captures the spirit of the sport and some of its iconic fighters and moments.
“So I used to be a boxing fan, growing up with Sugar Ray (Leonard) and (Roberto) Duran and (Marvin) Hagler and (Tommy) Hearns and that whole era, but what happened was I was walking down in Little Tokyo in L.A. and I happened upon a Japanese video store and I got to look into K-1 and Pancrase, and started getting into that whole world,” he says, detailing the origins of his affinity for the sport.
“Some of the people that were fighting there would later come out in PRIDE and UFC, but I was hooked back then. When (the first few UFC events came out), I was such a diehard fan - I was at Art Center (College of Design in Pasadena, California) going to school at that time - and I used to cold call Art Davie, one of the owners of the UFC, and I would have conversations with him under the guise of being a journalist. We would talk about Pat Smith and Dan Severn and Royce Gracie and Keith Hackney.
“I was a diehard from the early times and I knew immediately that it was something I was intrigued by and that was fascinating on a visual level.”
While that fascination always kept him focused on the action taking place inside the Octagon, only now has the talented artist taken to transferring his passion for the sport onto canvas.
“Artists have historically painted the athletes of their time,” begins BUA, tracing his path to capturing MMA’s finest in his signature style through those that came before him. “(George) Bellows captured the spirit of underground fighting way back in the day. (Edgar) Degas captured polo and the ballet and dance and the circus. There is a certain rhythm and energy that is very spirited in this sport and it’s really important to document that, I feel.
“I really feel that it’s so important that it has to be chronicled on a visual level. All great history has to - at some level - be chronicled visually. The story has to be told. Photographs can only tell one side of the story. The other side of the story has to be told through paintings.”
While he has plans to display the entire collection in a gallery show later this year, the first two pieces of BUA’s MMA-inspired works have already been released. The first piece, entitled “The Kick,” offers his signature take on one of the most memorable images in UFC history, Anderson Silva’s front kick to the face of Vitor Belfort at UFC 126.
In Las Vegas for UFC 170, BUA released the second piece of his new collection on Thursday morning in conjunction with the UFC and it’s a fitting image given who is headlining this weekend’s event.
Named “Breaking Point” Thursday via social media, the painting captures UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey in her signature pose, primed to extend the left arm of another opponent as an expectant referee hovers in the background.
Though the latest piece is clearly Rousey and fight fans will identify Silva in “The Kick” even if the ex-middleweight champion is identified by name, BUA says the rest of the collection will be a combination of iconic moments and archetypal figures that capture the essence and beauty of the sport.
“There are a couple people - Ronda, Anderson, there’s Matt Hughes. I have a climbed up, rear naked choke that he did on Frank Trigg, but once again, it could be anybody. If you know the sport, you’re like, `Oh that’s Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg.’ I have another painting that is called “The Climb,” which is a beautiful flying knee to the head, which is nobody - faceless, nameless, two characters going into the stratosphere of the sport.
“So it depends: sometimes they’re just a kick or a rear naked choke, and sometimes it’s Ronda Rousey armbarring - well, it could be anybody that she’s armbarring. It could be Liz Carmouche, Miesha Tate or it could be a precursor to UFC 170 with Sara McMann.
“I think I’m going to do moments,” he adds. There are going to be those that are iconic moments of the sport. Maybe the Pettis “Showtime Kick” off the fence against Henderson - I think that’s exciting and exhilarating and fascinating. Maybe it’s a Mark Kerr suplex. Maybe it’s a Ken Shamrock-Pat Smith ankle lock.”
Last month, BUA got to present a print of “The Kick” to the man that inspired the masterpiece, and the depth of his passion for the sport shines through when talk turns to “The Spider” and what he has accomplished in the Octagon.
“It was amazing meeting Anderson and presenting my piece to him. He has a beautiful spirit and was a really cool, kind soul. He’s the truth - he’s the closest thing we’ve ever had to Bruce Lee in our lifetime.
“He’s in the matrix and makes it so easy,” he continues, Silva’s jaw-dropping Ali-esque performance against Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 immediately coming to mind. “Some people say, `Oh well he never fought high-level fighters,’ but that’s just not true. He was fighting the people that he could fight for his era. People could say that about Michael Jordan, but Michael was dominating.
“There was Michael Jordan and then there was everybody else. There was Anderson Silva and then there was everybody else.”
From Pancrase tapes to the Mandalay Bay Events Center this weekend, BUA has a long history with mixed martial arts. Now that he’s capturing some of the sports memorable moments and iconic figures on canvases, the lifelong fan is making sure the sport he loves has a place in history.
“In a lot of ways, (painting) is our great way to document history from a certain point of view. There are a lot of levels to the sport and a lot of layers, and I feel like I’ve always wanted to document it. I’ve been documenting Hip Hop forever and painting Hip Hop imagery for 22-23 years - graffiti writers, MCs, b-boys, DJs, you name it - but now was the time to document something else that has been close to my heart forever.
“I wanted to be a part of not only art history, but history because a lot of people say, `Oh it’s a blood sport,’ but with painting, you can see it’s a sport that here to stay. It’s growing and it should be hanging on museum walls.”
Thanks to BUA, it soon will be.
BUA: Bringing MMA to the Art Gallery
"All great history has to - at some level - be chronicled visually. The story has to be told." - Justin BUA