Lewis grew up in the Tarpley City neighborhood, but moved to Detroit with his family while he was in grade school. He learned to paint in high school and took a job as a hair stylist in Detroit.
In the early 2000s, after some time in Dallas, Texas, he returned to Birmingham, supporting himself by selling paintings on the street and spending many nights at the Brother Bryan Mission. Birmingham homicide detective Herman Harris became friends with Lewis, giving him a pair of shoes from his Crestline Shoe Shop and offering tips on managing money.
- Bryant, Walter. (September 11, 2007) "Homeless painter, Birmingham detective become fast friends." The Birmingham News
- Harvey, Alec (April 2, 2012) "Birmingham artist Java Lewis plans tribute to Whitney Houston." The Birmingham News
- Carlton, Bob (November 4, 2015) "Birmingham's 'Mr. Painterman' hosts art show at Carver Theatre." The Birmingham News