Strokes of Genius
José Parlá’s paintings beautifully score the American Nightmare
Photos by Dustin Aksland
José Parlá was a B-boy first. He came up in 1980s Miami in the shadows of Vice (as in the television show) at a time when the streets were hotter than Satan doing a headspin in a barbecue pit. The art that was born on New York City subways at the beginning of the 1970s really inspired him, so José embarked on a lifelong love affair with letters and words and the calligraphy that many inside of writing culture refer to as handstyle. His Cuban ancestry gave him a different tilt on what the American dream might look like; his fine art often reflects what American nightmares look like via the vast spectrum of tints and textures that thrive inside of the seemingly endless realm of urban decay.
He’s an artist who has smashed the glass ceiling, but caught a few drippy tags on the surface before the bits were jettisoned away. He honors the principles from which writing culture was spawned. José Parlá is one of us.
Mass Appeal: In a quaint Brooklyn cafe with Mr. José Parlá … Parláying … Tell us your earliest memories of art and how you connected with the idea of drawing things.
José Parlá: I remember sitting on the floor, and instead of playing with toys, I was always drawing. I would draw video games— what they looked like— my own characters and mazes. My family relocated from Miami to Puerto Rico after leaving Cuba, and my neighbors happened to be architects, and they were doing a lot of architectural drawings as well as posters for local events like marathons and basketball tournaments; they also influenced my drawing a lot. But, when I returned to Miami at the age of 9 or 10, that’s when I saw this explosion of early Miami graffiti that came down from New York and Philadelphia. I got really attracted to it. We were looking at everything that was coming down from New York. I was a bit too young to know what was happening on the train lines. But when Subway Art came out, Miami already had its own underground writing scene. Being a writer pushed me to do more sketching, to learn the various styles.
Who were the players in that scene? Who were the first writers you saw and then met and then became apart of the community?
Some of the first writers that I saw was a guy by the name of JES 1, and Ake Love— I saw their signatures on my elementary school’s walls and I saw them getting up around my neighborhood. Mes One, he had rooftops everywhere. Miami only had one train line, and that wasn’t getting painted very often because cities like Miami had already learned from New York how to put fences up and security. So it was all about rooftops and trucks for us. We had crews like FAA— “Fuck All Authority”— and another crew at the time called International Kings of Art or All the Kings Men, Vicious Outstanding Five, Artist in Motion, and those were some of the crews that were coming out of Miami in my area between 1983 and 1989.
What was the first name you chose for yourself?
I had a funny name, which was “Zeep,” which was inspired by Rammellzee. I took the “zee” part out of Rammellzee and put a “P” at the end for my last name … but my brother Rey and Jes used to call me “Ease”; they gave me the name because I was real quiet. It just stuck. During those years, I just practiced my name, but I was also into all types of art. By the age of 16, I got a scholarship while I was still in the 10th grade; I went straight to Savanna College of Art and Design in Georgia. That got me out of the bubble of only thinking about art through the cannon of writing. Yet, writing was really important; writing would stay a big part of my work.
My scholarship was earned based on a drawing I did in my art class in public school. I did a very detailed drawing of the city of Miami with a title above it that said “Graffiti City.” It was a really intricate, like the Design marker style you’d see in a black book, but I rendered it on illustration board. I didn’t even know my work was entered into a competition— my art teacher submitted it. I was going around, skipping school, and one day I came back to school and she’s like, “I have something for you,” and it was this package to go to Boston for the national competitions. So, in 1988 I went to Boston and there was one kid chosen from every state, and I was representing Florida. All the colleges were there looking to see who they could scout into their school. I went to visit SCAD’s campus; I thought it had a really strong program and the architecture was really dope so … by 1989/1990, I started school.
Meanwhile, I was still writing. I was piecing and catching freight trains. By 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit Miami, so I went back to help my family. We all regrouped and I continued studying painting at a school called the New World School of the Arts. That same year, 1992, I got my first painting studio outside of anything that had to do with school— at South Florida Art Center on Lincoln Road. Back then, Miami Beach wasn’t “trendy”. There was still a very underground scene with a lot of artists, young and old. I remember Kenny Scharf being there; there had been an exhibition of Basquiat, and Keith Haring had opened up his Miami Beach version of the Pop Shop. There was all this connectivity between New York City and Miami. That led me to better see the path of how to fight your way through what was considered crime versus art.
So when you got your studio what was your work like from that point?
At that point, I was incorporating lettering into very abstract color backgrounds and the lettering still had big influences of piecing: you had interlocking arrows and connections, but instead of doing it in a traditional way like you’d do it in a black book or wall, I was doing everything with brushes, and it was impressionistic and some of those works had more surreal backgrounds. At the same time, I was piecing outside illegally and painting in these abandoned buildings— which coincidentally led me to consider the “environment” to be one of the most important elements of the work I wanted to create. That led to the net step in my work, which continues to change everyday.
When you were piecing and doing more traditional graffiti illegally, who influenced the type of lettering you were crafting?
There was definitely a Miami independent style that did have roots in New York/1980s subway graffiti for sure. Writers like Kase 2 were a big influence; I was really into his concept of “Computer Rock” style. I really liked the experimental style behind Vulcan. Writers like A. One— who I met in 1988 in Miami— was a huge influence because he was doing a lot of experimental abstraction with his lettering and backgrounds. Having met him allowed me to connect with him as a person, which was major for me. Miami had writers like Seam from VO5 crew or Icey and Scam from ATKM; Dash 167 who was partially living between New York and Miami; JES1 who I mentioned earlier and one of my mentors SAR 1 from Alive Five and Ink Heads Crew. There was also Crime who was originally from Brooklyn but had connections to Miami who was a natural colorist and known as the king of characters in Miami. Philly had a big influence because Miami had a lot of the tall thin writing that initially came out of Philly. In Miami, however, somehow the writing started to lie down, lay back and whip back with flourishes, claiming its own style.
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