José Parlá walks with a suggestion of a limp. “I don’t even realize I’m doing that,” he lilts in his Caribbean cadence. Turns out, Parlá once caught an unintended bullet in the foot during a break-dance “get down” in a roller rink parking lot in his native Miami when he was 15. Parlá is a painter, a rather accomplished one in fact, whose hardships—raised on the backstreets of San Juan, the Bronx and Brooklyn—always led him to better places. His is a modern-day tale of the American dream in an age where the myth is barely hanging on. His expansive new Brooklyn studio in Boerum Hill, outfitted by Snøhetta, the sought-after Oslo- and New York-based architecture firm, only speaks to how far he has come since those days.
Parlá stands in front of the largest mural he has yet to tackle: a 90-foot-wide, 14.5-foot-tall commission for the lobby of One World Trade Center. (His last project at the Barclays Center was a mere half the size.) This one will hulk in the controversial David Childs-designed building where some of New York’s splashiest companies are taking up residence. “In my mind, I see New York and the resilience of people here, layers of all of our lives and stories,” he explains, while looking at the atmospheric tableau. “It’s a document of my feelings. That’s how I look at abstract art, that appreciation for something you don’t understand but accept.”
The mural is popping with a strong yet seductive color palette and Parlá’s signature calligraphic writing, a style of script he began articulating as a young street artist. Parlá is a “writer,” as the term goes in such a circle—his former tag was “Ease”—though his artistic talents stem from a childhood surrounded by creativity and opportunities to express it. His father was an amateur filmmaker, and his older brother Rey took to the camera as a young age, forever documenting Parlá and his crew’s spray-paint exploits. He even captured the time when acclaimed curator Bonnie Clearwater invited them to spray-paint “burners” in her swimming pool. To this day, Parlá and his brother collaborate and work as partners; Rey shoots all of Parlá’s films, including the documentary about the making of the WTC mural that’s currently in production.
Though Parlá has “been painting forever,” his mid-career flurry is a testament to his indistinguishable artistic spirit. Some hit midlife with convention; he settles into it with professional conviction. The painter rarely rests, even protests to taking vacations. This fall, not only does he implant his behemoth creation into the Freedom Tower landscape, but he has a body of work entitled “In Medias Res” that unveils in an exhibition at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, his dealer of the last five years. The series maintains Parlá’s steady style of paint layers, graffiti and mono-transfers, usually from street-strewn signs or ripped-off posters. Along with the show comes a monograph published by Damiani that features many of Rey’s captures of their family and painting crew from the 1980s onward. “It’s a biographical way to explain my work,” José says, “because we’re able trace photographs of Parlá’s graffiti back from when I was nine years old.”
Come early 2015, Parlá will show at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, while continuing to develop more film projects, especially with JR, the artist he collaborated with on “Wrinkles of the City” for the 2012 Havana Biennale. The project and subsequent documentary, which featured portraits of the city’s elderly citizens across the urban sprawl, rumbled internationally, encouraging uproar. “I think that a lot of what I do is collaborative… except when I paint. I’m pretty secretive about that.”
All photos by Rey Parlá