Artist José Parlá Opens Up on His Miami

If the walls of Cuban-American artist José Parlá’s childhood neighborhood could talk, they’d tell stories of a nine-year-old boy roaming the streets of 1980s South Miami with prominent underground writing crews—breakdancing and painting every surface in sight. In three decades, Parlá has yet to exhaust his affection for mark making, and though he can no longer claim exclusivity to Miami—he now lives in Brooklyn, travels as far as Tokyo, Istanbul, and Havana to make work—Parlá’s hometown still holds a special place (and the feeling is mutual). During Art Basel in Miami Beach week last year, Parlá debuted his pop-up installation, recreating a Cuban cafecito, and screened his film collaboration with French artist and friend JR. This year, with the art crowds again in transit to their yearly Miami embrace—Parlá included—we asked the artist to reflect on his favorite memories of the city, from his earliest days painting in the streets to the heart-stopping moment when Beyoncé and Jay-Z came to see his own work at The Standard.

Artsy: Can you describe the Miami you remember as a kid? How do your experiences there influence your practice today?

José Parlá: Miami was crazy when I was a kid. I grew up in a mainly black and Cuban neighborhood in South Miami, going to public schools, when I was introduced to hip-hop culture. I started painting walls and breakdancing at the age of nine and took the culture with me everywhere I went. I lived in West Flagler—that was mainly Cuban and Latin American, and South Beach was a Bohemian city on its own. During those times I was painting walls not only in my neighborhood, but all over the Miami. It was a dangerous city growing up and you had to watch your back constantly. Crime and drugs were everywhere, so having art as an outlet saved me. During those early days and for about ten years I was part of an early wave of Miami’s top Writing crews. I painted with the best artists of my generation—all members of distinguished crews. There was a tremendous spirit of competition and collaboration at the same time.

My memories and documentation of this era of my life are very important to me. Without roots a tree won’t grow. I always wanted to make art that can show a continued thorough lineage to being a writer within the context of the studio and my relationship with the spaces I’ve ventured to explore while creating ephemeral works outside the white box, and how this informs my reflections and stories there. After all, calligraphy, writing, documenting is the basis for civilization, so a transformation that maintained the integrity of the unwritten rules of a phenomenon like what became known as graffiti art, to me was important to reflect its true ethos and visual language.

Artsy: How would you describe your Miami now? Living in Brooklyn, what do you miss most about your hometown?

JP: Miami now is obviously a more developed city than what it was in the ’80s or ’90s. It is possibly safer than I remember, and there is a much bigger art community than when I was a kid in terms of visibility. Art was always being created in Miami, but it was more of an underground community that also existed through the club and music scenes. I remember spots like the Alliance Film & Video Co-Op, Club Nu, Warsaw, The Kitchen Club, Avenue A, the South Florida Art Center, and when Lincoln Road was where artists would hang out at cafés alongside homeless folks like The Professor reading poetry at Cafe Bongos.

I miss the old Miami, but it really hasn’t changed that much. I miss my family, the Cuban and Latin cultures at large, the food, the weather, beaches, and seeing the big open skies.

Artsy: Straight from the plane, where are the first places you head when you visit Miami—places to eat, drink, see art?

JP: When I first land in Miami I always go straight to my mother’s house to eat. For lunch I go to Garcia’s Seafood on the Miami River. For a drink I like the Standard Spa in Miami Beach and later at night the legendary Club Deuce is classic.

To see art I like to visit a few friends’ art studios that are in Miami. I also visit Locust Projects, the Rubell Family Collection, the Margulies Collection, MOCA in North Miami, the Design District, as well as the CIFO Art Space. During early December of course Art Basel and all the satellite programs.

Artsy: What are your best memories from Art Basel in Miami Beach last year, and your pop-up at the Standard Spa? Generally, what is your relationship with the fair and the art world takeover of Miami every December?

JP: My best memories from Art Basel Miami Beach last year was screening the film that my friend JR and I collaborated on, produced, and co-directed, entitled Wrinkles of the City, Havana Cuba. That night was perfect! The pop-up installation at the Standard Spa I created, titled Cafecito Neptuno, is filled with great memories as well. Our hearts stopped when we met Beyoncé and we were of course honored to have Brooklyn legend Jay-Z visit us by surprise. How crazy was that!

The late hours of Cafecito Neptuno saw other legends drinking the secret rum recipe and eating Cuban sandwiches and pastries 24 hours a day for four straight days during Art Basel, so there were far too many great memories to tell all. If you were there you know how it was.

Generally speaking my relationship with the art fair and everything going on is more organic to me, I am a native artist of Miami. I am proud to see everyone going crazy having fun and bringing the world art community over to celebrate the city and all the artists involved.

Artsy: What projects are you currently working on?

JP: Recently I completed two solo shows—one in London entitled “Broken Language” at Haunch of Venison and in Tokyo with Prose at Yuka Tsuruno gallery in the TOLOT Shinonome Art Center. I also completed a painting titled Nature of Language, commissioned by architecture firm SNØHETTA and North Carolina State University for their new James B. Hunt, Jr. Library. I am also working on a solo exhibition in New York next year, as well as a curated project in Belgium for 2014.

Artsy: What shows are you looking forward to in 2014, Miami or elsewhere?

JP: In 2014, I’m looking forward to seeing the Amelia Peláez exhibition at the new Pérez Art Museum Miami. In New York the Whitney Biennial in March, and I also look forward to creating a new Cuba project with my friend JR for the Wifredo Lam Museum of Contemporary Art in Havana, Cuba.

José’s Miami picks: Garcia’s Seafood & Grille, 398 NW North River Dr, Miami, FL 33128; The Standard Spa Miami Beach, 40 Island Ave, Miami Beach, FL 33139; Club Deuce, 222 14th Street, Miami Beach, FL.

Images: José Parlá working on Time and Essence © 2013; Painting in Miami, © 1987; South Beach, Collins Avenue, © 1988; JR & JOSE PARLA, Havana Cuba, 2012 © Havana Biennial; Cafecito Neptuno, José Parlá, Installation, © 2012 Standard Spa, Miami Beach; Broken Language, © 2013, José Parlá; Day and Night in London Town, Jose Parla, Haunch of Venison, London © 2013; Haru Ichiban, The First Wind of Spring, Through the Tokyo Alleyways Her Voice Sings. © 2013 José Parlá Yuka Tsuruno Gallery, Tolot Shinonome Art Center, Tokyo; José Parlá painting his work Haru Ichiban, in Tolot Shinonome Art Center, Tokyo © 2013; Nature of Language © 2013. José Parlá for the Hunt Library, commissioned by SNØHETTA and North Carolina State University.

Explore Art Basel in Miami Beach on Artsy and Artsy’s Editorial Highlights from the Miami Art Fairs.