The World of José Parlá

Opening the doors to his studio, the Cuban-American artist discusses identity, underground culture and art as politics

José wears long sleeve tee and tack slim selvedge rigid denim Levi’s® Made & Crafted™

Artists’ studios are always personal spaces. Hidden in plain sight in warehouse lofts or behind pull-down steel grates, they don’t reflect their residents’ personalities and practices until you get inside and see what’s on the walls.

The studio of the Cuban-American artist José Parlá is no different. A single-storey industrial building in the southerly Gowanus neighbourhood of Brooklyn that’s surrounded by mechanics and manufacturers, the facade is completely nondescript. But once you’re in the door, everything changes.

Parlá, who bought the building in 2014, works in the centre of the space, a wide sky-lit arena hung with the artist’s vibrant, gestural paintings in progress, which recall urban walls as much as art historical reference points like Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha. The paintings have been shown in galleries and museums from New York to Tokyo; a mural of Parlá’s can now be seen in the new One World Trade Center.

Above the studio arena off to one side of the space is what Parlá calls the ‘nest’: a lofted aerie that holds an office with a wide desk; a circle of sleek chairs; a couch for meetings; and a DJ setup currently spinning Marley Marl, an artefact of the energetic New York culture that first brought the artist to the city. Records spill on to the floor: Celia Cruz, the Last Poets, the Warning. ‘In terms of the quality of rhythm in my work, a lot of it is informed by music,’ Parlá tells me.

Below the ‘nest’ is a neat box composed of a library, bathroom, and full kitchen. Light is plentiful, even on a dull day, and the walls and fixtures are painted a warm industrial grey. Altogether, the studio forms a perfect machine for art, life and anything in between.

‘I don’t live here, but I pretty much feel like I do,’ the artist says (his apartment is in nearby Fort Greene). In his paint-spattered black jacket and jeans, Parlá looks as comfortable as he would holding court at home.

The studio’s design was the result of a collaboration with Snøhetta, the buzzed-about Norwegian architecture firm responsible for such structures as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s recent iceberg-like expansion, and the Oslo Opera House, which won the 2009 Mies van der Rohe award.

Parlá met the firm’s co-founder, Craig Dykers, at a Pecha Kucha slide-presentation event in 2010. The two appreciated each other’s talks and Dykers invited the artist to his office to see if they might collaborate. The first result of the partnership was a piece installed at North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library. The intention is to team up for spaces like a public library in Queens and the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. But Parlá’s studio is the biggest collaboration so far.

‘When I bought the property, I was having a beer with Craig and he started drawing right away,’ the artist says. The space’s openness, both in terms of scale and the presence of other cultural forms, is perfect for Parlá’s practice, which draws on influences as diverse as graffiti and the French situationists.  

Joaquin, Parlá’s studio assistant, brings two Cuban coffees, the kind that you can only get outside of Miami if you know someone who can make it for you. He serves them in espresso cups emblazoned with Cuban flags. ‘As a kid we weren’t allowed to go to Cuba,’ the artist says.  ‘I was born in Miami and grew up in Puerto Rico, so I understand the culture from the perspective of being a Latin American and of being from Cuban parents.’ The country itself was still off limits, however.

After President Obama opened Cuba to United States citizens in 2014, change came in earnest. The country’s cultural landscape is changing, too. Parlá is now becoming a public creative force in the homeland he didn’t know until later in life. He participated in the 2012 Havanna Biennial in a collaboration with his friend, the French photo-based street artist, JR. Parlá had just returned from Havana to work on new projects two weeks prior to our meeting.

During this gradual transformation, the Cuban identity has persisted. ‘Cuba’s still Cuba culturally,’ Parlá says. Not everything has changed, certainly not like the overhaul Brooklyn has seen since the artist moved here decades ago. ‘You see one or two hotels refurbished, some young people opening up their own restaurants. It’s not at the scale you see in the first world.’

However, Cuba is not the easiest political environment for artists. ‘There’s still a lot of tension. It depends on how far you take your message with the art, how much you can get away with,’ Parlá says. Making art there is an opportunity, however, ‘to go back and have a dialogue with my soul country.’

In 1980s Miami, Parlá was exposed to the nascent movement of street art and graffiti that was growing in New York and Philadelphia. Friends and family passing between the two cities would bring back photos and art books. He started painting walls when he was 10 years old, learning from older writers on the scene. ‘It was really important to be original,’ Parlá says. ‘We used to say, this guy “bit” somebody; somebody’s a “biter”. That was a big no-no, to copy somebody. If you didn’t have a respectful attitude, you might get beat up.’

José wears crewneck sweatshirt and chino pants Levi’s® Made & Crafted™

Parlá followed the trail of hip-hop and wall-painting to the Bronx in 1995, then moved to an empty loft in downtown Brooklyn in 1997, all the while writing under the name Ease. The energy had shifted downtown with DIY exhibitions. The scene, as Parlá describes it, became an international export. ‘I started out showing in galleries and doing bigger projects in Japan, Hong Kong and London,’ he says. ‘There was an appreciation for New York underground culture there. Here, the museums weren’t really trying to look at what we were all doing.’

Parlá doesn’t appreciate the label of “street art”. To him, the work is all part of an art historical continuum. The abstract expressionists were urban artists, after all, responding to the street. Parlá is as likely to reference artists like Joan Mitchell or Antoni Tàpies, as the graffiti legend Kase 2. As for the Banksy-style boom, ‘We got grouped in with artists who were painting a bunny rabbit hopping over a dragon. That was not the same,’ he says.

Today, the artist shows in estimable galleries like those of Mary Boone and Bryce Wolkowitz – the latter being the New York gallerist who walks into the studio during my visit to check on work for upcoming art fairs. Exhibitions are coming up in Italy and London, as well as a project at the University of Texas, Austin. Parlá is entrenched in the art world, reinforcing a now well-established path from graffiti to museums, just as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and KAWS have before him.

Yet Parlá is still focused on reaching a wider audience, particularly through his murals and other “public art”. ‘You’re having a connection with the public that’s different, than with someone who’s searching for art,’ he says. ‘They might discover that they really love art.’ One can easily imagine the next generation of painters arriving in New York inspired by Parlá’s work, just as the city once drew him in.

For its SS17 collection, Levi’s® Made & Crafted® has channelled the rich colour palette and flamboyance of Havana, with guaybera shirts, tropical prints and camouflage details all harking back to the nation’s enduring revolutionary spirit.

See more from Levi’s® Made & Crafted® here.

Photography by Mark Mahaney
Styling by Yety Akinola

Secret City: Gilles Peterson on Havana

Following the release of his ‘Havana Cultura: Anthology’ album, the dj, broadcaster and world music aficionado shares his favourite places to spend time in Cuba’s capital

Gilles Peterson in Havana – Photo by Youri Lenquette
Gilles Peterson in Havana – Photo by Youri Lenquette

EGREM Studio cafe

I discovered this place inadvertently because we were recording in the studio upstairs, and I like it because it isn’t too touristy. The studio itself is where all the legends have recorded, and that’s why I recorded our first album there and returned to do the Daymé Arocena album there last summer. The space downstairs is nothing to look at, really, but they do fantastic rumba sessions there. It’s definitely worth going to check out the music, and the good thing is that it all kicks off there in the early evening – you don’t have to be there at 1 am to get the best of it.

Raices Profundas rehearsal space

This is the most magic place in Havana for me. It’s not open to the public as it’s a rehearsal space for the rumba dance troupe Raices Profundas, but for me it captures everything about the culture, music and dance of Cuba. I actually featured this place in a documentary series I made called Creative Class, and it’s an old theatre that’s falling to pieces, slightly off the beaten track near the centre of town. It’s like the Cuban version of going to the Opera House. If you’re heading that way, see if you can put your head around and you’ll see how vast and glorious it is inside.

Seriosha Record Shop

People always want to know about record shops, but, unfortunately, in Havana there aren’t really any apart from Seriosha. In all honesty, it’s not a record shop per se, more of a bric-a-brac shop selling everything from sewing machines to to car parts, and it’s right at the back of a little market. Because new turntable needles don’t come into the country every month, many of the records aren’t in great condition, but this place has all the gems – especially electronic fusion records from that sweet spot in the ’80s. As a tip: for good quality Cuban records in London, I go to Cosmos Records on Hackney Road.

Miramar Hotel

One of the reasons I’ve been staying at the Miramar Hotel is because it is very close to the studio I’ve been working in. I guess you could say it’s in the ‘posh end’ of Havana where all the embassies are, and when I stay there I always do a run from the Miramar to the old town and back. You’ve got to get up quite early so you get back before it gets too hot, but  I really recommend it because it takes you all the way through from the outskirts of the city centre to the Malecón, which is like Havana’s Promenade des Anglais. You can go via Revolution Square on the way back and I’m always discovering new corners of the city. It’s a great way to see Cuba.

Berthold Brecht Cultural Centre

It’s a formality that I go here every time I visit Havana, and I suppose that’s because it’s the club where Roberto Carcassés’ band Interactivo have residency. Roberto is the son of Bobby Carcassés, who is a legendary Cuban jazz pianist of the ’70s and ’80s, and he’s got a great approach to music. He’s very interested in trying things out and incorporating new styles like rumba, hip-hop and rap. The crowd is a lot younger, and it’s a really interesting insight into modern Cuban jazz. It’s really worth going to see them there.

Santy Pescador

People are always talking about eating in Cuba.  When I was first there, the food was really disappointing because, of course, the ingredients weren’t coming into the country. I would come back home having put on weight from only eating fried chicken and drinking rum, so I was keen to find new places when I next returned. This place is a little obscure: a Japanese restaurant,  believe it or not. It’s in the west of Havana close to the Marina Hemingway. It’s quite a while out of the centre, but it’s nice because the restaurant backs onto a river with lots of little fishing boats, and you can sit outside on a balcony overlooking it. The chef here is totally Cuban. He obviously must have travelled to Japan at some point– but the food is wild, it blew me away.

Gilles Peterson’s ‘Havana Cultura: Anthology 2009-2017’ album is out now and features some of Cuba’s newest musical talent. The record was created in partnership with Havana Cultura, a project by Havana Club rum.

Photo essay: Colour in Havana

Kane Hulse’s new photography project unearths the colourful architecture and characters that inhabit Cuba’s capital city

The latest project by photographer Kane Hulse, Havana, is a 92-page photobook released on Never Been Publishing that shows life in Cuba through reflections on form and colour, capturing the city’s visceral and lesser-exposed beauty. The photographs, taken in 2014, open up the nation’s capital for an insight into life in Havana, before the country goes through monumental change as it rebuilds bridges with the US.

Focusing on Havana’s vast array of colourful people and places, Hulse’s sun-washed images, shot on film, create a timeless document of an extraordinary Caribbean city. Powder pink buildings set against emerald skies sit alongside brutalist sports stadia, art deco cinemas and crumbling facades, all nodding to the romance of Havana in its heyday. Here, Hulse shares some exclusive images from his new book.

An exhibition of images from the Havana series will be on display at E Tautz’s Duke St. store in London from 28 May 2015. The book is available from