José Parlá on Coming Back to Life Through Art
Through his abstract paintings, the Miami-born, Brooklyn-based artist José Parlá explores themes ranging from memory, gesture, and layering, to movement, dance, and hip-hop culture, to codes, mapping, and mark-making. Coming up in Miami in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Parlá spent his adolescence and early adult years steeped in hip-hop culture and an underground scene that involved break dancing, writing rhymes, and making aerosol art. Parlá resists calling this art form “graffiti” or “street art,” considering those terms as lazy journalese and pejorative. “What we do is way deeper than just scratching the surface,” he says. “We developed, as young people, an entire language that was based on a very complicated mechanical lettering style, a code that only a certain few groups of people could understand.” The art form still manifests, in wholly original ways, in his abstract works, which, while decidedly of the 21st century, extend in meaning and method back to ancient wall writings and cave drawings.
The past two years of Parlá’s life may have been his most pivotal yet. In early 2021, he contracted a severe case of Covid-19 that required him to be hospitalized, intubated, and put into a medically induced coma for three months, during which he suffered a stroke and brain bleeding. His doctors didn’t expect him to survive. Slowly but surely, though, Parlá pushed through. Today he says that artmaking was essential to his return to health, because it both helped him recover much of his memory and gave him hope for his future. He just celebrated his 50th birthday last month.
On this episode, Parlá talks about the aftermath of this near-death experience; his ongoing activism with the collective Wide Awakes; and how his large-scale murals at locations including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Barclays Center, and One World Trade Center trace back to his early days of painting elaborate wall works with aerosol in Miami and Atlanta.
Parlá discusses his recent near-death experience with Covid-19—particularly the liminal, almost psychedelic experience of being in a coma—and what it means to him to have just turned 50.
Parlá talks about his various projects over the years, including exhibitions such as “The Awakening” at Yuka Tsuruno Gallery in Japan, “Polarities” at the Detroit Library Street Collective, and “It’s Yours” at the Bronx Museum, as well as collaborations with the architectural firm Snøhetta on projects including the new Far Rockaway Writer’s Library.
Parlá talks about the influences behind his work across his career, from his early aerosol art days to his current abstract paintings.
Parlá reflects on his relationship with his brother, Rey; his youth in Puerto Rico and Miami; and the underground scene in Miami he grew up in.
Parlá thinks back to the pivotal moment when Hurricane Andrew destroyed his studio at South Florida Art Center, which led him to enroll at the New World School of the Arts and take a class that would forever change the trajectory of his life.
Parlá speaks about his mural commissions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Barclays Center, One World Trade Center, and the University of Texas at Austin, and how he envisions his next 50 years.
SPENCER BAILEY: José, welcome to Time Sensitive.
JOSÉ PARLÁ: Hey. Thank you, Spencer. Really nice to be here. Thank you.
SB: So you just turned 50.
JP: That’s right.
SB: Let’s start there. How are you thinking about your fifty years on earth?
JP: It’s really interesting. Great question to start this conversation with. Last year, I survived a near-death experience from Covid-19 and pneumonia. So my 50th has been a major celebration of life—of breathing, of healing—literally physical healing and also mental. I’ve gone through a lot in my life. But that period, seeing so much decay around me in society, both politically and just seeing people’s health deteriorate at such a level…. I live in front of Brooklyn Hospital [Center]. So before I got sick, I did experience seeing truckloads of folks that did not make it at the same time that there were protests down DeKalb Avenue of hundreds and hundreds of people at a time, protesting the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. So all of these vivid, very vile situations were happening. And then, soon after, I end up in the same hospital.
So now my 50th, I’m incredibly grateful beyond what I can put into words, honestly, but I see things in a simplified way. I’m just really concentrating on my health and the good people around me and collaborating with people who think alike so that we can plant the seeds, however small. We start to make the world a better place because we’re in real dire straits right now in the planet. But 50 is significant for me because it’s also the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of hip-hop culture. We could kind of say that that’s just a number that is attached to that because hip-hop could literally be ancient. It comes from the motherland of Africa and came through the Caribbean and made its way back up to the Bronx. And that, I feel a part of it. I grew up within that community. It’s given me so much love and I’ve been a part of something that’s, I think, historical. And to be a visual artist in that canon, but not only just be pigeonholed within it, but sort of–
SB: Exist without it.
JP: Exist without it, within in, travel internationally and make it to 50, well, I just sort of downloaded a lot for you there, but this is what I’m thinking. I’m thinking a lot of things right now.
SB: I actually recently spoke with Jelani Cobb on this podcast about fifty years of hip-hop, and it’s just amazing to think of hip-hop as this sort of active language of translation. And that’s so central to your work.
JP: Yeah. Well, one of the things that you’ll hear from a lot of artists that come out of hip-hop, whether it’s visual art or music, is that we will say that hip-hop culture saved us. We say that with the violence of that structure of society in mind. We came from places that were very dangerous and the arts sort of incubated us and put us in touch directly with other artists who thought alike, who thought outside of the violence, of the drugs and guns and just general street craziness. So it focused us on a path that was creative. From within that context, the art that comes out of it is political. The art that comes out of it is thoughtful, from the perspective that we are surviving constant madness. By the age of 15, I got shot. A lot of people don’t know that about myself, my life.
So I’ve survived several things that, through the art, I was able to gain strength and gain community because there were other people like me that were there for me, besides my family of course, and mainly my brother, [Rey Parlá], who’s also an artist. Rey and I have experienced everything together, since we were kids. So hip-hop is a large context that’s not just what people think—that hip-hop is [just] hip-hop music or rap. We have the elements of it that include all of the societal elements. It’s sociological from the perspective of living it and translating it for the masses because we were once underground. Now it’s above ground. You see it in everything now, but we come from the days when it wasn’t on the radio, it wasn’t on television at all, and we were still doing it for the love.
SB: Do you think in a way, this hip-hop culture survival mechanism, let’s call it, helped you with your Covid situation?
JP: I think so. I think a hundred percent. I think that fighting spirit is in me, but of course when you’re in a coma and you’re in that distressed situation, it’s a different…. It’s a subconscious element that’s taken over. But that being said, in the dreams of the time that I was in the coma, I was constantly fighting for my life. There was a kidnapping. In my dreams, I was a hotel owner and I was worried for people having a decent stay and, was their room okay, and did they like their food? And I was really concerned for the welfare of people staying at my hotels in these dreams. I had hotels in Cuba and Hong Kong, and I survived a tsunami in Tokyo. All of these things were happening in my subconscious, other-dimensional life. So when I came back to reality, I was confused for a while as to whether those dreams were real or not. So that was pure survival right there.
SB: Yeah, it sounds almost psychedelic.
JP: Yeah. Well, you could probably imagine that some of the experimental drugs that were being used on people to [help them] survive Covid had an effect also on the dreams and hallucinations. That’s very possible. I’ve talked to the doctors about it. So that’s another element there.
SB: How are you thinking about this liminal space you were in, this almost between-life-and-death situation, and the in-between time of the before and the after?
JP: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, I think of liminal space as something that I’ve already been in for most of my life, not just this experience of being in a coma because of Covid. I’ve been in a liminal space just walking around in cities, experiencing jet lag, trying to translate what I see on walls and the architecture around me and design that you see for the very first time as a young person, and [you’re] asking yourself, “Wow, what is this? How do I translate that and bring that into my work?” So I feel like I’ve experienced that euphoric mind space for a very long time.
So the coma is, I think, something different than just a liminal space that I was accustomed to. It felt like another dimension because, when I woke up, it all registered as my real-life memories. Slowly, the psychologist at the hospital worked with me to get me out of believing that I was a hotel owner, that I had offices in Havana, in Hong Kong. I really believed all these things. So that was different for me than just liminal or psychological. It was real. It was so real that I was believing I was still de-boarding an airplane while I was in the hospital and that I had come from this very long flight from Australia. And in the Ciclos book—Blooms of Mold—I wrote an essay titled “The Longest Flight,” where I tried my very best to recall all the memories and jump in between the two realities to describe for readers the feeling of being in this other state.
SB: I have to bring up right now the fact that your grandfather was a pilot.
SB: Because we’re talking about flight and this is just… it’s too strange. [Laughter] Augustin Parlá.
JP: Oh, yeah.
SB: Who was this incredible man. Cuba’s first pilot who flew without a compass to guide him from Key West, Florida, to El Mariel, Cuba, on May 19, 1912.
SB: He also flew over Niagara Falls in September 1916. How do you think about this connection here? I mean, it’s almost too good—this idea of flight in your life, your work, and this dream state.
JP: Yeah. Growing up, I never got to meet my grandfather. Augustin Parlá has been incredibly significant to my brother and me growing up, seeing photographs of him in his airplane. He made his airplane [in] upstate New York in a place called Hammondsport, New York, with the Curtiss School [of Aviation]. And they made the plane out of sugarcane, so it’s a bamboo structure and canvas with a Curtiss motor. And they then took that plane to Florida to fly from Key West to Mariel and to Havana because he broke records flying over a hundred and ten miles over sea with just a compass.
That story was one that always inspired me so much as a person and as an artist, because I also know the backstory of the political side of what he went through as a person in those days. His family was able to send him to flight school because his parents, my great-grandparents, fought for Cuba’s independence. And they were very close friends with José Martí, who was the Cuban apostle who wrote the very well-known poems and who was the leader of the Independence Movement to liberate Cuba from colonial Spain. So we’ve always had this anti-colonialist thread in our life woven into the independence of Cuba’s struggle for freedom.
So that being said, it’s just this massive inspiration to see his struggle to become a pilot, because he was also the youngest of all the people who were going to become pilots, and he became the first one, at the age of 18, which is incredibly young to be a pilot and have that fortitude or that maturity to know, this is what I want to do. So you could go a little bit further in. You could imagine Cuba being one of the first countries to have air to fly was because they wanted to join in the allegiance with World War I, and countries around the world wanted to have pilots so that they could literally drop bombs. It was a military move. He then became a military man and started Cuba’s air force in 1913 and on.
A lot of things really were part of his personality that was inspirational to me and my family of survival because, as you become familiar with Cuba’s history, Cuba has always struggled with freedom from one president to the next. There were military coup d’états and there was dictatorship after dictatorship, and we’re still in it. I mean, Cuba’s still a dictatorship.
So not to drift too much from that, the fact that there’s a connection to my dream state, to being on a long flight, I’ve also questioned a lot. And I feel a connection to my family in that way and to my grandfather Augustin Parlá.
SB: Tell me a bit about your recovery process. I understand it required a lot of physical therapy, and you created this incredible—well, several incredible bodies of work, one of which was “Phosphene.” Tell me a bit about that.
JP: Sure. So coming out of the coma, I couldn’t eat. I had to learn how to swallow. You forget how to use the muscles of your vocal cords and your throat to just eat. So there was a training process for that with ice cubes and all kinds of different mechanical ideas of how to learn to just swallow again. I had to gain weight because I had lost over sixty pounds, so I couldn’t stand on my own. I had to learn how to stand and take the first step and get strong again that way. I spent an additional two months, after the first three months in a coma, in the recovery ward with physical therapists getting me back my mechanics of movement. Eventually, when I could eat again, just gaining weight and gaining muscle.
One of the most important things that happened was that my brother, who was very conscious of me being able to paint again, was working with one of the doctors whose father was a painter, so she was very familiar with painting and materials. They agreed that I should have my watercolors and paper in my hospital room so I could start dabbling again into who I am as a person. Because when I almost died at one point, they thought that, if I survived, I might be paralyzed and never paint again. So they thought it was really important to get me painting again.
My brother covered the hospital walls with paper, and I was in there drawing and writing and doing all of these small watercolors, which led to the first series of these landscapes that are now at the Brooklyn Museum for a project called “Ciclos: Blooms of Mold.” That led to several other series: “Polarities,” which showed in Detroit at Library Street Collective; “Breathing,” which showed at the Gana Art Center in Seoul, in South Korea; and now, most recently, “Phosphene,” which will open [at Ben Brown Fine Arts] in London in October.
Phosphene is something we all experience when we close our eyes after having looked at bright light. You see all these spots and all these colors sort of floating within your mind space and your eyelids, and if you put pressure on your eyelids, those colors will change. I use this as a language to communicate something that we all experience no matter who we are. I use it as a point of departure of where abstraction could start to form all kinds of ideas, no matter what you do in life. I think abstraction is a very powerful tool to get us thinking outside the normal confines of what we think reality is. No matter what you do in life, whether you’re a doctor or an architect or dancer or any practice that you do, abstraction can help us think outside the box. That was what phosphene is for me.
It could be looked at as a political mechanism to get us through these very hard times that we’re all experiencing together. So that’s where I’m at right now, and that’ll be the fifth series since I recovered. And I hope after that, what will come will be something completely new.
SB: Was painting a way of you coming back to reality? Did that help you realize, “Oh, I’m an artist”?
JP: This is who I am.
JP: Yeah. Physical therapists asked me constantly, “What’s your goal today? What’s your goal for your physical structure?” But also mentally, I kept thinking, I don’t want to forget who I am, because when you’re in a coma, you forget so much. You forget names; you forget people. A lot of memories, just gone. One of the things that helped me a lot was painting. Coming back to the studio, my brother Rey had laid out tables with hundreds of photographs of our life as kids, teenagers, recent works, photos in the studio. When I saw all these pictures, I would just start crying because I didn’t remember the person I was. I was basically destroyed.
Now as you hear me speaking, I have this raspy voice. This is because of the scarification in my vocal cords and my lungs and the limited breathing that I have since Covid. But I’m much better today than I was last year. Last year, I would have to gasp for deep breaths just to say a few sentences. So I’ve gotten a lot better. But that period when I was seeing these photographs and starting to paint again, I was tremendously weak. My lungs were destroyed. I was healing my mind, my memory, my lungs, and my physical strength, because when you don’t get enough oxygen, you also are just exhausted mentally, and you don’t have room for memory. You’re just in the moment. So I’d be talking with someone, having a conversation, and I would forget the next thing I wanted to say because I wasn’t getting the proper oxygen. So there were all of these challenges.
SB: Well, it’s so interesting to hear that about memory because that’s such a central component of your work—the role of memory and almost this layering process you go through [in terms of] memory.
SB: Did you make that connection in a way, this idea that your memory had almost been wiped, and now you’re layering it back together just like your paintings?
JP: Yeah, I’m putting it all back together again. That’s what it felt like. Exactly. Without sounding, I don’t know, whimsical, really what I was feeling with every stroke was a deep sense of emotion—somehow very connected spiritually to the thought of, What will I do now with the breath I have left? With these questions of, How much longer do I have to live? Knowing that I was close to 50 now, and would I live another ten years, twenty? That was a very present question for me. What will I do? Why did I survive? Of so many millions of people who died from Covid, why am I still here? So putting it all together again felt like a responsibility. It felt like, I’m here for a reason.
The search for purpose is important to me. The year previous to becoming sick with Covid, I was very active in New York City with the group of Wide Awakes and For Freedoms with my dear friend Hank Willis Thomas and J.R. and so many other artists, my brother included. And Wildcat Ebony Brown. We were organizing a way to bring joy to protests, because it was a very depressing time for so many people. So we thought about musical ways to gather people in parks and march from uptown and Harlem to the Justice Department and make it joyful for people to join in and dance—and also protest the brutality of the political spectrum—but also find a way to get people to remember that we have to bring happiness to each other because there are so many oppressive forces around us.
So waking up and coming back to health from Covid, I kept thinking about all of that music that we created and the art we created. I did a show called “The Awakening” in Japan, and we started a Wide Awakes chapter in Tokyo, which is very active now in local Japanese politics, inspired by what we did here in New York. So all of these things we see as very positive seeds that were planted. Because you start thinking, Wow, this is daunting. How can we—how can I—make any difference? We can, just with little things.
So the search for purpose continues, because it’s not like you wake up from this coma and you’re like, “I figured it out. This is what I’m going to do.” I think just doing various projects, writing about the art—not just painting, but writing about it constantly, these conversations…. Hopefully this conversation that you and I are having will spark thoughts in other creatives that will lead them to have their purpose be significant in their own way. All of this is just part of how important it is to spread that love. This is love. This conversation is creating. And it’s a currency—it’s a currency much more powerful than actual money.
SB: I can only imagine that even the term “Wide Awakes” has such new potency to it compared to even how you were looking at it prior to [what happened].
SB: In the Times, Max Lakin wrote about “Polarities,” the Detroit Library Street Collective series you painted, that, “There’s a sense of all the anger and frustration coursing through the paint, an accelerated thrust that feels impatient—as if time is running out.” This being a podcast about time, I wanted to read that quote, but also see, how do you view that sense of urgency in the paintings you’ve been making?
JP: Well, when Max wrote those words, I felt like he really captured it, captured the work, captured me. And often, writers, as an artist, you think, Wow, they missed all this. We had this great conversation and they missed it. He didn’t miss it. He got it. Because I did have a tremendous sense of urgency to heal through the work, to show that in the work, that others could heal by looking at the work. Each work had this point of departure of energy just spewing out of sections from the paintings where you see light almost coming through. I kept imagining that as light flowing through my veins and giving me strength to paint.
I remember during “Polarities,” one of the major paintings in that show, I hit a pivotal point where I jumped for the first time to get these strokes that are really long in the painting. And it was so automatic for me to jump that I didn’t think. My body couldn’t sustain landing, so I just fell straight to the ground. I hit the floor with all my weight, but I was laughing from the joy that I had jumped because I hadn’t been able to do it for months before that. So I’m there on the floor. My brother comes to see me laying on the floor like, “Are you okay?” He was worried for me, and he’s like, “Why are you laughing?” He helped me get back up. I’m out of breath. I picked up the paint, and I just kept on painting.
So all of that energy in “Polarities” was really translating the polarization that we were experiencing all over the world, politically. Not to mention going back to the very first period [when] Donald Trump gets into office to the healing coming out of Covid. I’m blaming everything on Donald Trump. I can’t not think of an attitude in the world, in the political spectrum that’s more polarizing than people like that, politicians like that that divide us. So these paintings were both about the political spectrum, but also my health coming back and the urgency of proving to myself I can live strong again, but very mindful of the situation.
Something that I grew up with, for example, being a Cuban person, you’re [automatically] a political person, because your country’s been constantly in political struggle. You grow up being very aware of the theories of Communism and capitalism and the structure of democracy versus a place that has no democracy. So Detroit for me, and the city of Detroit, is one that is known to have been one of the main centers of the [Industrial Revolution] and of the creation of the automobile and the mechanics of building huge industry. One of the first places to have roads. Havana itself was very wealthy at that time and was one of the major proponents of buying cars. So there was this major communication between the two cities. Havana was very wealthy because of the sugar industry. So you had all of this incredible architecture from the point of colonial architecture to Modernism.
So Havana and Detroit both have a strong, deep culture of Modernist architecture, and you see it in both cities. But both cities, one capitalist, one Communist, are completely decayed. Now Detroit’s coming back. A major comeback. There are wonderful things happening, and I love that the arts are a massive proponent of a city coming back. However, Havana is deteriorating both politically and physically. So that polarization— I used both cities as a way to have that conversation—and the colors that you see in deterioration, because paint chips in a certain way and mold displays color in a certain way. That was also very experimental for me to bring that into the painting. Both cities had that. So there’s a lot going on when I’m thinking of what “Polarities” means to me in the world right now.
SB: Weeks before the pandemic and New York’s stay-at-home order in March 2020, you had a show open at the Bronx Museum of Art [Editor’s note: The show later reopened in September 2020]. Tell me about that experience, and also what it was like for you to have that happen just a year before your life-altering case of Covid.
JP: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of interesting things that happened. Coming full circle, to be able to do a show in the Bronx, for me it was really important to pay homage to the Bronx and its significance, again, in hip-hop culture.
SB: And where you had first moved when you came to New York.
JP: Yeah, and that’s where I lived when I first came here. So for me, it was a huge honor and I kept thinking about a song that was really instrumental in my life as a young kid called “It’s Yours” by T La Rock, where in the lyrics of the song, it’s encouraging the listener to take ownership of culture, that this belongs to you. It’s yours. You’ve got the power to do it, so don’t depend on others. It’s yours.
I kept thinking about the community in the Bronx, and what is a museum, and how a lot of young people feel maybe not so invited by museums. There’s this high and low separation in the art world. So I called it “It’s Yours,” not only in homage to hip-hop culture and to that song, but it was a message to the young people: “This belongs to you. Come in. It’s yours.” The paintings were very much about a lot of the political history of the neighborhoods of the Bronx, like we talked about redlining. For people who are not familiar with redlining, redlining was political decisions made to separate Black and brown neighborhoods from not being able to participate in ownership of property. Insurance companies would not insure these people. So it separated wealthier people from people of lower income, and therefore, there was a racist structure to the way neighborhoods—not only in the Bronx, but in major cities around the country in the United States—were divided. So there was a lot of significance in that exhibition.
We collaborated with Snøhetta to design the exhibition and the way that we would display some of the earliest books, my sketchbook in their vitrines, and we thought it would be really interesting to have seats. So Snøhetta designed these moving seats that could also be brought together so you could, as a group, sit together. There were all these symbols within the design of the exhibition that was about unity. We collaborated with Ghetto Gastro and [Jon Gray] designed local food from the Bronx for the opening night so that people could dive into the local taste, because a lot of people from around the world came to the Bronx for the very first time for the show.
SB: Yeah, I was going to say Jon Gray was actually episode two of Time Sensitive.
JP: Oh, amazing. So we’re in the family here. Also really importantly, I wanted to bring a really incredible musical set to the opening. So I collaborated with Andres Levin, who’s a musical artist based in Cuba, and we brought together a band of more than sixteen live musicians. My friend, DJ and photographer Stefan Ruiz was on the set playing classic Cuban and hip-hop music. So the opening itself was very much community oriented. It was jam-packed, a little over ten days before the shutdown due to Covid-19. It was almost unbelievable. A lot of people say it was the last party of the world before Covid. Just thinking about it, it’s almost like a dream, like, did it really happen? Because the museum was shut down after that for six months. Didn’t open for six months after. Then the city started to open up little by little.
But that was, I think, also the beginning of Wide Awakes because we decided…. I remember going to Hank Willis Thomas’s studio, and we decided everything we do from now on is a Wide Awakes event. You have a show, if you DJ a party, just call it a Wide Awakes event. That way we start to get people together under an umbrella of unity and solidarity. So that was really important as well.
SB: We can call this a Wide Awakes event.
JP: We could call this a Wide Awakes event. Wide Awakes is an open source system.
SB: You mentioned Snøhetta and you’ve worked with Craig Dykers for a long time now, the partner at Snøhetta, and he designed your studio in Brooklyn—almost coinciding with this milestone of your 50th is the new Far Rockaway Writer’s Library. Could you talk about that project in particular, but also just your work with Snøhetta more generally, how you think about this intersection of art and architecture?
JP: Amazing. Craig Dykers and I have become dear friends, and I have to go back to how we met. We were both invited to speak at PechaKucha, which—Florian Idenburg introduced us. I met Florian in Tokyo back in the day.
SB: The architect.
JP: The architect from SO-IL. So there was this really great connection. When I saw Craig speak at PechaKucha, I was blown away, particularly by the Alexandrina Library in Egypt that they designed, because of their incorporation of language, of all the world’s languages in the façade as a hieroglyphic on the façade of the library. And I was blown away. I gave a speech after him and we all got twenty minutes to speak, one minute per slide. So you’re really just rushing through the conversation. He came up to me afterwards and he said, “Oh man, I love what you have to say.” And I said, “Same here, man. I love your work.” And he’s like, “Come by the office tomorrow. I want to talk about a project.”
So that started our collaboration and our first collaboration was a library at North Carolina State University. It’s known as the Hunt Library, and I did a painting there called “Nature of Language.” And that started our affair to collaborate on other things. When I mentioned to Craig I had bought this property in downtown Brooklyn, he designed the studio on a napkin over a few beers, and we were just real casual. So we did the studio. Shortly after we did the studio, we were already in the competition for the Far Rockaway Writer’s Library, and that was seven years ago. Now, it’s ready to open. We were there last week to go and have a look and it’s unbelievable. It looks like something from another planet landed in Far Rockaway.
Far Rockaway has a history of Nobel Prize winners. There are three Nobel Prize winners that came out of Far Rockaway. It’s also a place that, before Broadway, it was where theaters were in New York. So there’s this history of writing and storytelling in Rockaway. Furthermore, a famous writer in the sense of the urban style of subway painting named Rammellzee, who was friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat. And he came from Far Rockaway and Sonic from the BAD crew came from Far Rockaway. All these writers—in both the literary sense and the painting sense—came from there. So the Writer’s Library, we chose that name to pay homage to the history of the neighborhood and to uplift the idea of writing and telling stories.
So the façade is covered with my artwork, and the calligraphy, it’s like an ocean of calligraphy waving from thinner to thicker lines with a palette of light oranges to darker oranges that will change, because the glass itself, as the sun shifts throughout the day, will change the color of the library. During the winter, the artwork will warm the interior, and during the summer, it will cool the building. Art that functions environmentally. So we’re really stoked, really excited about this project opening very soon.
SB: You’ve previously mentioned, speaking of writing, in interviews that you really dislike the terms graffiti and street art. Your work really goes all the way back to cave painting. I think we could think of it more as wall art. Could you speak to this across time view, this idea of…. Let’s go from cave painting to your library in Far Rockaway.
JP: Thank you. I’m really glad you brought that up. I understand that people want to use those terms. What I think is that to call what we do—and here I’m going to quote Phase 2—“To call what we do graffiti is to call a comet a meteorite.” When you look at the span of human existence, language is what we do to document our entire life. So graffiti literally just means “to scratch.” What we do is way deeper than just scratching the surface. We developed, as young people, an entire language that was based on a very complicated mechanical lettering style, a code that only a certain few groups of people could understand. We’re communicating with each other in an underground way and that spread throughout the planet. So it’s different than—and the same as—cave painting. It’s related to the writing on the walls of Pompeii, and throughout history, the need for humanity to make a mark.
The difference with what we do as writers, in the subway art movement that’s been labeled graffiti, is that we stylized it in a way full of color, full of code that is significant of being the voice of the ghetto. So to pigeonhole it under the term “graffiti” or “street art,” for me, always felt lazy. And it came from the outside definition. People who started writing about it in the newspapers in the 1970s, they weren’t living it. They weren’t doing it like we were. We were the practitioners. They were coming from the outside and defining us. And in a way, they defined us wrong. And I believe that we should really define ourselves.
So I always thought about it, like, when you have anthropologists, they go and spend a few months in the Amazon and then they come out after a few months and they define a tribe that’s been living in the Amazon for thousands of years. The tribe doesn’t agree with anything this anthropologist wrote because they’ve only been there for two months. So it’s the same. We’re a subculture. We are a tribe. There are many styles that spun out of it.
When you think about what was happening in the movement in the seventies in the subway system in New York City, you had styles like Futura, who was known as Futura 2000 back then. He was the first to paint an entirely abstract subway train. And then you had Lee Quiñones, at the time known as Lee, and Lee was doing more significant political paintings that were narrative like “Stop the Bomb,” and attacking nuclear politics. So there were all these different styles that started to grow. There was Seen from the United [Graffiti] Artists. He had a very mechanical but also cartoonish world that he brought to it. Dondi was one of the forefathers of the lettering style that so many different artists were inspired by.
But the godfather of all of it, one of the godfathers was Phase 2, and he remained underground until the day he died, rest in peace, by doing styles that were illegible to the normal eye. It was art that was incredibly coded. Just like Jackson Pollock or an abstract Arabic calligraphic piece from eight hundred years ago, it’s not meant to be read in the way you read phonetics. You read it with a deeper sense of emotion. That’s abstract art.
SB: Your work is also beyond being a form of hieroglyphics and mark-making about topography in some ways. There’s a landscape quality to it, but also it’s a kind of map. Do you view your work as a navigational tool, as a sort of form of placemaking, literally and metaphorically?
JP: It’s a form of non-placemaking, because I’m inspired by non-places. I always called the work a psychogeographical map because I was interested in the places and cities that not every person likes to navigate. I love alleyways and tunnels and communicating with people that live there, people who have been labeled homeless. I would speak with them and do my own research and realize a lot of these people are in that living condition because they were veterans of war or they had really difficult times in their life that led them to be there. So in a sense, I’m telling the stories of those people, but also telling the stories of poorer neighborhoods. If you look at my paintings, they carry deep texture, textures of replications, the ideas of walls and the memories accumulated on those walls like palimpsests that perhaps tell the story of those accumulated groups of history, of people from these places. I’m not painting about walls in Madison Avenue. I’m painting the Bronx and I’m painting Hackney in London and I’m painting Nakameguro in Tokyo—neighborhoods that are struggling. That’s the landscape that I’m interested in, telling the story of the people who are, let’s say, less fortunate. Whatever fortune might mean to others is different. But that’s what I’m interested in.
SB: It’s interesting. You talk about coming out of the underground and your work really does, on some levels, really hit what you see in that layering on the subway when there’s these old wheat-paste posters that have decayed.
JP: Yeah. You start to see history. If you peel away a layer, you start to see, Wow, there was something else there. It’s like the old saying goes, “The writing is on the wall.” Well, that literally exists because we’re looking at ancient hieroglyphics, cave paintings, Egypt, Pompeii. We look at walls historically to look at the trace of humanity, what we left behind. And if we jump into the future, a thousand years from now, we’re still going to be looking at walls and the ruins of today to try to get clues about what happened. We don’t know what’s going to happen in a thousand years, but there’ll be clues to explain things. Maybe the clues will be digital. Maybe this very recording will exist in a cloud, and some form from the future will be able to pull it and go, “Wow, Spencer Bailey and José Parlá were talking about some wild things on that day.” [Laughter]
So who knows? Maybe this is the mark-making of today, this digital form. And as we become more digital, I think paintings made by hand and those textures become more significant because it’s something tangible. It’s a different type of documenting. It’s not ephemeral if it’s taken care of, like the way we go to a museum to see something from a thousand, two thousand years ago, we look at it and we’re astonished: Wow, that came from Mesopotamia and it’s still here at the Met. That’s the way I think about art being made today.
SB: I want to go back to your upbringing. You were born in Miami to parents who had fled Cuba. Your father was a traveling salesman, your mother had studied architecture before the 1959 revolution, and you lived much of your early life in Puerto Rico, then returned to Miami in the 1980s. You were only speaking Spanish at the time.
JP: That’s right.
SB: Do you think this is where your interest in language really began, was that moment of feeling almost an outsider, even though you’re back to the place of your birth?
JP: It’s interesting. I love that question. Coming to Miami from Puerto Rico and trying to assimilate into the culture, we were called refugees. It was during the time that hundreds of thousands of Cubans were coming by boat. And although we came from Puerto Rico on a plane, we were refugees. Kids that thought themselves superior to us at school, that spoke English, treated us badly. The only kids who were nice to us were the hip-hop kids. So we got into break dancing and writing rhymes and painting before we even spoke English because those kids spoke Spanish. Cuban and Puerto Rican kids, Jamaican kids, Haitian, Black kids from the United States, we formed a little group.
Miami in the 1980s… there was a lot of racism. So groups were divided. You had the white kids there and the Black kids there and the Cubans there. The hip-hop kids, we looked like a rainbow of kids. The gangs sort of left us alone because they couldn’t figure out why we were so united. It was art that united us. As we start to learn English, we’re also translating an underground culture that the other kids couldn’t understand. They were listening to pop music and we were listening to records they had no idea even existed. So they looked at us like freaks and we looked at them like, Who cares? They’re boring. So we were translating society as we’re learning the language. At the same time, we were custodians of an underground language that came down from New York. We were very aware. This came from the subway movement and it was being passed down through sketchbooks and books. Let’s say a New York artist. I remember Juice from a crew called TC5. His parents said, “You gotta go to Florida to stay with your aunt and uncle because you’re in too much trouble in New York.”
Well, he came down to Florida and he just brought the art with him and others like him, and many more would come, and then that art was being passed down to us kids. So we were learning a style from New York and Philadelphia, and now we became custodians. I use the word custodian specifically because there was a respect to do the art in a specific way that we could then teach to someone else. Each person became a student and a mentor at the very same time. So collaboration and mentorship was built into the system already.
So when, eventually in my life, people asked me to mentor students in college or at a young arts program, I’ll say, “Yeah, sure, it’s easy.” Because we were built that way. I think the interest to translate language was just something that was part of my upbringing from that point of the age of 10 and those pivotal teenage years of surviving Miami. It’s 1980s Miami. Everyone remembers Scarface and Miami Vice, and that was real for us. I remember the FBI raided my junior high school because they found Uzis and MAC-10s and they found cocaine in a junior high school. We’re talking 13, 14 years old, and there’s serious crime happening and gangs and art, again, saves us because it sends us on a path that was really shiny for us. It was like, “That’s nice. Let’s go there.”
SB: And it was around this time that you got your writing name—or nickname—given to you by your brother Rey and your friend Jes, which was “Ease.” It’s a name you kept and adopted as your identity. What’s the meaning of Ease? What’s the backstory there?
JP: That’s interesting. A lot of people know me as Ease still. And it’s funny because when someone says, “Hey, what’s up, Ease?” I know already it’s a person from way back and when someone new uses that name, I kind of feel like, “Nah, you don’t know me that well.”
SB: No, man.
JP: There’s this beautiful feeling to being a writer that I get when I think about so many friends that helped me become who I am. Some of them have died and they didn’t survive. So Ease, that name was given to me by my brother and my friend Jes because I was younger than them, and they were really schooling me, mentoring me into the system. I was real quiet out of respect because they were older. So it was like, “Take it with Ease. He’s always quiet.” So I adopted that name because of my personality. But shortly after, I became the opposite of tranquility. I’m boisterous and I was taking over the party and DJing and break dancing, but the name stuck. So I use that name still. I mean it’s still my name, but only for some people.
But I used it in my first exhibitions, even here in New York since the age of 10 to about 25, 26 years old. And then later, because my father passed away, he and I are both the same name, José Parlá, I sort of woke up one day and I thought, I want to honor my father’s name. We’re José Parlá. So I also saw that the underground culture had become so popular. I didn’t want to exploit that so-called graffiti entity to gain success. So out of respect, I actually put Ease back in the underground and started from scratch. No one knew who José Parlá was. Basically I was like nobody, and Ease was somebody in this other world, and even some in the art world at the beginning. So people would still insist on [calling me] Ease and using the graffiti context to popularize my projects. I would say no. Out of respect for the culture, I just kept it underground. So that’s the story behind who Ease is and who I am and who is José.
SB: Tell me also about your relationship with Rey. You’ve collaborated with your brother throughout your life, and I think it’s worth noting that, in 2006, you even created a painting titled “Brothers Back 2 Back” that really captures this sense of kinship.
JP: “Brothers Back 2 Back,” that’s a saying we always had because if you have each other’s back, then no one could come for you from any [angle]. Rey really is an incredible artist. We were known in Miami as Ease and Faz, so that’s kind of a little legend of its own because we were always people who loved introducing people to each other. We were from South Miami, and at one point we moved to the very center of Miami, where we discovered an entire world of writers and we started to meet them and they were not aware of the Southern Miami writers. So we started to invite everybody to meet each other. So we were literally the connectors. We were very much into collaborating and bringing people together. My brother loved photography—he still does—and he carried a camera everywhere, documenting everything.
Then he picked up a Super 8 camera and he started filming stuff and I was painting, he was filming. So we just gradually collaborated, since we were kids, on everything. He also does paintings and he painted and we did huge murals with a crew that would eventually become known as The Inkheads. And Rey was pivotal in creating this idea that we were the modern cavemen. So there’s this graphic that Rey directed: a caveman with a magic marker. That became the symbol of our crew, The Inkheads, because we were really rudimentary. While everybody was becoming really—I want to say, fancy, in the style of mural making and getting really ingenious with technique and almost drawing paintings on the level of Michelangelo with spray paint—we were keeping it real underground and using ink to just write our names.
So we became The Inkheads, and we were very much cavemen in the style. We could paint anything, but we chose, again, to be custodians of the original techniques. So we were very much into that. And Rey was instrumental in the thought process for the crew because he was like, I would say, the intellectual of the crew. He earned another nickname, which is really funny to think about now. We called Rey the Minister of Information Logistics because he was really good at researching and gathering ideas and information and then disseminating it to all of us, and then we would execute it in the art. And we still collaborate. We were in the studio together. We did a show in Paris that was really important for both of us called “Parlá Frères” (“Brothers Parlá”) at Colette in Paris. And we’ve collaborated on numerous projects throughout the years.
SB: I wanted to bring up Hurricane Andrew, 1992, that proved to be this pivotal moment in your life and career. You’d gone off to attend Savannah College of Art and Design on a Scholastic Award, but you left early to come back and help your family post-Andrew—and the hurricane also destroyed your studio.
JP: That’s right. Yeah.
SB: Looking back, how do you view the significance of that hurricane, that moment on your path?
JP: I had such a massive moment. A lot of things were going on. I had gotten a scholarship to SCAD, and I was really grateful to be there and to study with some amazing professors, but I had kind of hit a ceiling there because there was an internal problem with some of the professors there. At the very time that Hurricane Andrew started to destroy Miami, one of my professors at SCAD said, “Your family needs you, and anyways, you don’t need school. You’re ready, José.” And I said, “Wow.” So I went down to Miami. I got a little studio at the South Florida Art Center. This is before the hurricane came. But weeks after I got the studio, the hurricane destroyed Miami, and I found my paintings down the street in pieces. I thought, I need to really focus on work, and I needed a studio and I didn’t have one now. It was destroyed. The building was gone.
So I went and enrolled at the New World School of the Arts. I walked in one day without an appointment and I talked to an administrator. I had a bunch of canvases rolled with me and I said, “Can I talk to the dean? Whenever he’s available—I’ll wait.” And a few minutes later, a wonderful man by the name of Mel Alexenberg invited me to his office and asked me to show him the canvases. I rolled them out on the floor, and within the hour of a great conversation, he accepted me into the school. I found some financial aid, and I started at New World School of the Arts. The first project that he did—it was a studio painting course—was to make art from the debris of Hurricane Andrew. So right away, we were engaging the hurricane and parts of paintings that were destroyed.
I was bringing them to the class and assembling. It sort of reminded me of [Robert] Rauschenberg’s assemblage of trash. And I was really influenced by Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly at the time because it was like a language that I could use as a bridge to convince people that looked at the work coming out of the streets as something that was uneducated or self-educated and not fine art. I would use the abstract expressionists and specifically Cy Twombly because he used writing and poetry so much as a bridge to say, “Look, there are similarities here. There are ways to communicate.” So that was an important period for me. And then once it was the end of the class, there was this very pivotal moment that happened where Mel Alexenberg asked us to pick a person in the class to collaborate, and that would be our final project. You were not allowed to do it on your own.
So I collaborated with a really good friend of mine who was in the class, Iván Moreno, who was known as Shie One, and we decided to do an illegal rooftop. We painted this massive mural in downtown Miami, illegally. We mapped it all out, how we got up there, how we crossed the fence, how we climbed on the rooftop, how we had to hide from the security guard. It was all a kind of spy movie for us to paint a mural. But we then brought that as our final work to critique, but it wasn’t in the class. We brought the entire class with us on the train to critique our work, and we gave each student and the professor pamphlets of the entire written project so that they could see the mural. And Dr. Mel Alexenberg, he loved it. He thought, “Wow, this is crazy. No one’s ever given me this as a project.”
He was a spiritual man—he was a rabbi actually—and he often would pray in tefillin in the classroom privately, but we could see him. He was in his own world. He is an incredible man. He related our calligraphies on that rooftop as a spiritual script, and he connected it to his own Hebrew philosophy of script and tefillin. That made me think about our work differently because I started thinking that there’s a phenomenon that took place and made young kids, literally, [who] came out of the worst neighborhoods in the United States and started making art, taking the risk of doing it at night. And it wasn’t just egocentric like most people think. We were trying to communicate something bigger than ourselves. And perhaps that was spiritual.
Perhaps it was like we collectively are saying, “We exist, we flourish, and we blossom.” Because what we were doing was incredibly colorful. We were painting these places that were decayed, full of rust, full of garbage, destroyed buildings, and we were putting beautifully colored artworks. And we were not being paid for it. So it was something grander there than just the ego of trying to be famous. And I think he made me see that as a professor, and it brought this new form of thought into the work that I do from that point on.
SB: Jumping forward, let’s just basically come to the present. Over the past dozen or so years, your work’s really gone large-scale from what you were presenting in gallery spaces and back to the early years where you were making murals. You’ve since gotten these large-scale mural commissions, whether at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Barclays Center, One World Trade, the University of Texas at Austin. Could you speak about these projects in particular and how scale has served this really profound purpose in your work? I mean, just to touch on it, dance is such an element of this too. You are quite literally taking flight when you make some of these works.
JP: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I’m incredibly honored and grateful to have been invited to [collaborate on] these projects because, as you can imagine, there are a lot of artists that can scale up their work, but not a lot have the training to do it. So going back to my early years, I had the training of not only being able to make lines at scale that are larger than the body, but there was a training that I had already been a part of collaborating and working with groups of people. When you’re working on projects with architects, you are working with numerous architects plus the teams from the universities or the World Trade Center, or BAM, there’s a lot of people you’re dealing with. So being able to work collaboratively is also an element that I was comfortable with working with groups of people. Then there’s the technical aspect of being able to work really large.
I love that idea that in public spaces, you have works that are larger than someone, because then you are involved in this artwork. It’s panoramic. You’re in a large landscape. It’s not just you viewing something in a frame and a scale that you would see in a museum or in a gallery. You’re now part of it. The visitor is part of it. As an artist, I become part of it, too. And you could trace the body movement and that dance within the mural. There were some gestures and lines that I needed to make that required me to jump off a ladder. It happens so automatically because I work fast and I like speed in the work.
And one day, I went up the ladder and without thinking when I needed to make that next gesture, I jumped off the ladder twelve feet with the line working out just perfectly. I landed it without falling because at that time I was fit, and there were all the years of break dancing [where you learn] how to deal with gravity a little bit differently. It just became a technique. So I started doing that as a way to get gestures that don’t look normal. They’re gestures that are not just the capacity of my height. They were longer; they were taller. And I loved doing it and adapting a new form that was specific to me. So having all those years being able to translate the years of my early phase as an artist to this new way, for me, it gave me a lot and it gave a lot to the projects.
SB: So let’s circle back and finish at 50. Where do you see your next fifty years going? What excites you or gives you hope for the next fifty?
JP: That’s a great question. I look now at, again, planting the seeds of what will be the foundation and legacy of my work and the works of my collaborators. I think about the studio as a place that can exist beyond my own lifetime. So now I am planting the seeds of how to protect it and work with the right custodians that will be around when I’m gone. I’ve started to think about all the work I’ve done, not only paintings, but the entire archive of photographs, film, the story of it, and how that can benefit younger artists’ research, and how that legacy could survive me, and how the building itself, how my studio could become a learning center. It could provide studio space in the future for artists who don’t have space.
Hopefully I’ll live another fifty years. But I think it’s important to start thinking about the significance of the work, the significance of philosophies in the work, both in the political connotations of the work and also the sociological and psychological aspects of what I’ve talked about in essays for years. Protecting those writings, protecting the photographs—that’s the first step.
I think it’s important to talk about who we are as people and what our heritage means to each and every individual, and how that heritage is to be translated and protected into something that is grander than the heritage itself and how we could now start to think about humanity as having more unity and more solidarity—to understand the differences that we all have, how those differences are beautiful, and how that beauty is something to be studied and learned about so that we can just continue to plant seeds for a better world.
One of the things that happened this year, which is an incredible honor for me, was that I received a fellowship, the Gordon Parks fellowship. So that’s an upcoming project that I have, and I intend to use that as a platform to spread that message of Gordon Parks, of unity, of how we as humans need to find a better way. That’s what my work has always been about, but I think there’s got to be better ways for me to even think about my own work so that I can be easily translatable for those who need to have an understanding of how they can impact the world themselves.
SB: Beautiful. Let’s end there. Thanks, José.
JP: Thank you so much, Spencer.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on July 12, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo.