Jose Parla Artist Jose Parla joins the guys to talk about Cuba, taking graffiti seriously as an artform, and the joy of digging up old music.
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Jose Parla

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Jose Parla

Jose Parla

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ADRIAN BARTOS, HOST:

Thanks for listening to WHAT'S GOOD WITH STRETCH & BOBBITO. More than 40 million Americans speak Spanish and millions more are learning. For all of you, I'd like to recommend NPR's Radio Ambulante. It's the podcast to hear incredible stories from all over Latin America and across the U.S. Hosted by novelist Daniel Alarcon, Radio Ambulante covers the region like no one else, reporting and storytelling en Espanol. Radio Ambulante is on NPR One or wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BROWN'S "THE CHASE")

BARTOS: Yo, yo, yo, yo, yo everyone. It's Stretch Armstrong.

ROBERT GARCIA, HOST:

And my name is Bobbito Garcia aka Kool Bob Love.

BARTOS: Welcome to WHAT'S GOOD WITH STRETCH & BOBBITO, your source for untold stories and uncovered truths from movers and shakers are around the world.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTOS: And everything in between.

GARCIA: Word up. Today's guest is Jose Parla.

BARTOS: Parla is a huge figure in the art world. His works can be seen in galleries and museums across the globe.

GARCIA: And he's a real, true, sincere friend of ours, mine in particular for over 20 years. I know you're...

BARTOS: Via transitive properties, we became great friends...

GARCIA: Yeah.

BARTOS: ...Like immediately.

GARCIA: Before we talk to Jose, Stretchy, a little known fact - you, as a teenager, worked in an art gallery.

BARTOS: I did. I did. I was - my dad was actually a fine art painter. Our living room was a studio. It was just a lot of fun having my dad at home painting.

GARCIA: Time out. I did not know that. And did you ever engage in art yourself?

BARTOS: Yeah. Even around the age when graffiti started becoming something that people in my class wanted to do, I was - I dabbled in that as well. But...

GARCIA: Really?

BARTOS: I was a toy.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BARTOS: What you would call a toy.

GARCIA: Did you write toy?

BARTOS: I should have.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Well, thank God you became a DJ.

BARTOS: And, you know, I think, you know, in my teens, I think one of the career paths that I was imagining that I would take would be following in my father's footsteps. He eventually became an art dealer, and I thought I would do that as well. And then yes, in the summers, I worked at art galleries, which was really boring. And I think it was working at the art gallery that made me realize I did not want to be an art dealer (laughter).

GARCIA: Stretch, are you still painting in this day and age?

BARTOS: Definitely not. Although my dog just scratched the crap out of the front door, and I buffed it and painted it in a high-gloss paint, and it looks phenomenal.

GARCIA: Nice.

BARTOS: Yeah. I'm very arts and craftsy (ph).

GARCIA: Coming up next, Jose Parla.

BARTOS: Word.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTOS: We're taking our show in front of a live audience where you need to be on September 27. We're sitting down with world-renowned tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon at Playa Studios in Los Angeles. You can buy tickets at nprpresents.org. Come hang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTOS: Yo, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo, we are back. It's time to introduce you to Jose Parla.

GARCIA: Jose Parla is a painter, a sculptor, a photographer, a videographer and now a filmmaker.

BARTOS: Indeed, an artist in the fullest sense of the world.

GARCIA: Jose's art has been exhibited at galleries all over the world. Some of his most notable works include "Wrinkles Of The City," a mural installation for which he and collaborator JR from France created portraits of 25 senior citizens who had lived through the Cuban revolution.

BARTOS: And in 2014, he painted a monumental mural for 1 World Trade Center. It's called "ONE: Union Of The Senses."

GARCIA: Stretch, he is destroying the art world. Joining us now in the studio, Jose Parla. (Speaking Spanish).

BARTOS: Welcome, Jose.

JOSE PARLA: Mucho gusto. Very nice to be here.

GARCIA: Now, you know, I was struggling to figure out with Stretch, like, how do we refer to you, as a painter, sculptor, you know...

BARTOS: Artist.

GARCIA: ...Artist, former graff (ph) writer?

PARLA: You know, all of those are fine.

GARCIA: Like, you were a graffiti writer.

PARLA: All of those are fine. You know, I'm an artist. And, you know, as much as I love painting and sculptures, I also love dancing, and I love music. And so that connection that I share with you guys is really, you know, multicultural and diverse in that way.

GARCIA: You know, the '80s art scene in New York, you're quietly a product of that in so many ways. And when I say quietly, I've never seen you shine the fact that you were a graffiti writer in Miami and Puerto Rico in the '70s and '80s.

PARLA: I used to write the name Ease on walls everywhere I went. And it was almost like an addiction. You needed to leave your mark. And I was, you know, very happy using that name. A lot of people from that era know me by that name.

GARCIA: Yet, you know, you kind of evolved in a most positive way into Jose Parla. So has that been a deliberate process?

PARLA: It was when my father passed away, who had the same name as I, Jose Parla, that I then took on my given name in a way to not only honor him but to continue, you know, on. I sort of had a personal evolution. And there's people in the world of art that may never even have known that I wrote Ease at one point. So that's even - it seems like to me like another lifetime or another person.

BARTOS: I'm 46, and I'm Stretch Armstrong.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: I'm wondering when I can be respected for something that Adrian Bartos does.

GARCIA: You have to call yourself Bartosini (ph).

BARTOS: Bartosini.

PARLA: Basically, you know how it is with hip-hop culture. You know, whether you were B-boying or you were writing on walls like I was or you were DJing, you become enamored by the culture. You're in love with it. And you defend it all the time because especially in the '80s, from my experience, was that a lot of people were saying that's not art or it doesn't belong, you know.

And we were doing everything possible to bring the art form to another level constantly - everybody was. Everybody who's serious about it wanted to bring it up a level and up a level and always - and that was the evolution. And for me, between dancing and creating the art, I took it very seriously. And even though I got accepted into art school and I had, you know, the opportunity to do this so-called fine art experience...

GARCIA: Which one?

PARLA: I got a scholarship when I was very young to the Savannah College of Art and Design. I also studied at new world school the Arts - Savannah, Ga., and then in Miami, Fla. But I never forgot the roots because what brought me there was winning a competition for the Scholastic Art Awards that was of a canvas done entirely of wild style, of lettering, of interlocking letters. And it was very underground. And that got me a scholarship. I was surprised. I was like, wow, this is crazy.

I came home and, you know, shared it with my parents. And, you know, the thing that everybody had been saying would take me nowhere or that it was, like, illegal or it was a crime, it got me a scholarship. And that was a huge change in my life. And so to repay that debt in my own way, I sort of subconsciously made the decision to never leave those roots and never forget those roots but always treat those roots, in a sense, differently than what everybody else was doing.

I particularly didn't like the use of the word graffiti because I felt like it was limiting. And the media had kind of abused it. And it had a lot more to do with negative connotations of vandalism or gang affiliation than it had to do with art. And then when you just put graffiti art and then you had the word art and a hyphen with it, didn't make any sense.

So I always stuck to the original form, which was writing or, you know, calling each other writers. But I was a painter, so I wanted to balance those things out. And throughout the years of painting, I've continued to incorporate the calligraphy that came from that style that is, you know...

PARLA: Don't get choked up. It's OK.

(LAUGHTER)

PARLA: But I found, you know, I found connections in that style of calligraphy to world calligraphies. I found connections to art history. And I was really interested in not only like the brand new shiny pieces on walls. I was interested in how they looked when they were decaying. Neighborhoods with the kind of social economy that doesn't permit them to always be, you know, on the up and up, those neighborhoods will, you know, the facades will suffer.

And that kind of suffering can be beautiful because the people that live in those neighborhoods are beautiful. And ultimately, I feel that my work visually has been representative of these marginalized neighborhoods throughout the world. So it's not just about Miami or New York, although those are my, you know, integral roots. It's about Havana, Tokyo, Paris, London. It's everywhere that you go, you find these marginalized areas. And I'm always interested in going there and exploring.

And I don't know. In art, you always try to find connections that are relevant, as opposed to just doing something for fashion or for, you know, what's going on in a fad because fads come in and out. But something that's properly backed up by history will become timeless, and that's what I've always been interested in.

GARCIA: Bomb.

BARTOS: OK.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Kaboom.

BARTOS: Somebody dropped the bomb.

GARCIA: Sound like a art professor, man. Yeah. Yo, wow, yo, I'm...

BARTOS: So, Jose, one really good example of the way you're using cracks in concrete to shape the murals you're painting is the piece you did with the French artist JR called "Wrinkles Of The City." Can you tell us about that project?

PARLA: So my friend JR, he's an artist based out of France and New York. And he's become known for his photographic style of pasting massive photographs of women, of immigrants, of elderly people...

BARTOS: Eyes.

PARLA: ...Throughout the world - eyes. He's been able to transform photography because he's essentially doing projects that also transform neighborhoods and often governments. And in Cuba, what we did together was interesting. It was part of a project called "Wrinkles Of The City."

And we had both been invited to become part of the Havana Bienniel. And rather than doing something different, we collaborated. But you imagine, this is four years ago, still not as open as things are now after the Obama and Raul Castro administration sort of started, you know, began changing things a little bit now. So we went and started scouting out walls, scouting out what people were going to photograph and essentially making a presentation so that we could start getting permissions for these walls throughout Havana.

And we did almost 20 walls of men and women that we randomly met in the streets walking. We were interested in finding people whose faces had the kind of wrinkles that we could accentuate and also combine into the wrinkles of the city which is like the cracked walls, the layered walls, walls where, like, chunks of them are falling and trees are growing out of them and stuff. So that was our interest, to incorporate the history of the lives of these folks into the lives of the history of those walls. Yeah.

BARTOS: It's amazing. So I was looking at some of the images of the murals you guys did and they're really big. I mean, some of them are 20, 30 feet tall. And these images of everyday people from the city, you might see someone's head that's, like, a 10-foot head on a wall. And what was the reaction of these people who - they're not people that are trying to be famous. They're not musicians or singers or even have any kind of notoriety on the island. They're just regular people.

PARLA: Exactly. The reaction's interesting because you can imagine in a country that for 50 years, there's no advertising on the walls. There's, you know, there's no - there's not much mural art. And if there is, that mural has predominantly been of the socialist, Communist movement, so it's very political art. And people are accustomed to seeing the heroes of the revolution. So you have Che Guevara, Antonio Maceo, you know, Jose Marti from the, you know, liberation movement, Fidel Castro or Camilo Cienfuegos.

People are accustomed to that. So when we came, we were the first people to ever come and do these massive murals of faces on the walls. And everyone assumed that they must have been some kind of revolutionary hero. And that was one of the reactions. And they would assume also...

GARCIA: Well, you know what? As regular people, they are revolutionary heroes.

PARLA: They are revolutionary. And that's the interesting part is that we were connecting them to being people that have lived from, you know, the 19th century, 20th century and also in the 21st century. So they've survived several, I mean, many movements and I don't know how many presidents, but they've survived several systems. And in that way, they are revolutionary. And randomly, we met people who were - we met a woman who was the first Afro-Cuban doctor. We randomly met her. We met a woman who was a famous dancer. We didn't know that when we approached her on the street.

We met people who had fought in two wars in Cuba. We met a railroad worker who laid down tracks all across the island. And this came out in these random interviews that we then incorporated into the murals through the calligraphic mark-making that I did around JR's photographs and colored with the colors of the existing wall and layers.

So that was really beautiful in its - on its own because it was new in Cuba. And also, what was interesting is that it was part of the Havana Biennial, which had forever been sort of confined to some neighborhoods that were more touristic or considered to be nearer to a museum and whatnot. We were the first project to ever go into the very deep marginalized neighborhoods and sort of invite people to come there and see those neighborhoods and meet the people.

(APPLAUSE)

BARTOS: Amazing.

PARLA: So that was - gracias - it was very different, actually.

GARCIA: You know, it's echoing for me the teachings of Pedro Albizu Campos, who is a Puerto Rican revolutionary - well, a leader, a nationalist - I don't even know revolutionary would be the right way to describe him. But when I hear your voice, it - to me, it was reminiscent of Albizu Campos.

And when I'm hearing you talk now, Albizu Campos' main foundation of his philosophy was that, you know, it doesn't matter if you are a street cleaner or a doctor, everyone in the community deserves to be treated with equal respect, with equal compassion. And, you know, he was a lawyer who was offered, you know, big-time money and went back to - he studied at Harvard.

PARLA: He was the first Latin American to graduate from Harvard as a lawyer.

GARCIA: And he went back to PR to be a lawyer for the people and lead. So it's just so funny, like, you're saying these things because, you know, in Puerto Rico, you know, we have a very long history of...

PARLA: There's a beautiful saying I would love to add to this program by a Puerto Rican woman named Lola Rodriguez, who said - I'll say it in Spanish and then we'll translate it. She says, (speaking Spanish). And that translates as, Cuban and Puerto Rico are of one bird, two wings, receiving flowers and bullets to the same heart. And that connects us from the very beginning of when the two countries were fighting for the independence from Spain. And today, it resonates as deep as ever because, you know, everything that's going on in Puerto Rico with so many problems that the island has had to sustain both politically - that it's still not an independent country, that it's, you know, a Commonwealth.

And Cuba has had, you know, even deeper issues depending on which side you look at it from. But they - when I say they, meaning the two countries. And not only them, in Latin America in general - Mexico, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia, there's a unity that is there that needs to be accentuated and that is beautiful. And I think that's, you know, what Albizu Campos, Jose Marti was all about. It started with Simon Bolivar in Venezuela. And those teachings are important because it's - they're very human. It's not about Latin America. It's about everybody. And through music and through art, that's what we - it has the power to bring everyone closer of all types, everybody from all over. And so that's the overall message.

GARCIA: Yeah. I think, you know, Stretch - Stretch and I are one bird. It's a pigeon.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: A New York pigeon.

BARTOS: A flying street rat.

GARCIA: One wing is Polish and the other wing is Boricua.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: They're international.

BARTOS: And it just poops a little...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: Break it down. So, Jose, you had an exhibit in Savannah...

PARLA: It's the Savannah College of Art and Design. They have a museum called the SCAD Museum of Art, and it's in Savannah, Ga. I went to college there in 1990 for a few years.

GARCIA: So how did it feel to go back?

PARLA: It was good. I've been back a few times to exhibit. It's been great to go back and actually do a show at the museum. So it's a huge honor.

GARCIA: It's like full circle.

PARLA: Yeah.

GARCIA: And I visited Savannah, Ga., maybe a decade ago and was really blown away by the architecture there of the homes and how well they were maintained. On the same token, anytime I see old Savannah, old South, I just can't disconnect it to the marred history of...

PARLA: The South.

GARCIA: Yeah. And so it's like this, like, bittersweet thing, like, oh, my God, like, that home is, like, phenomenally designed. But then I'm kind of like, well, who lived there?

PARLA: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it was, you know, during the Civil War, when the Yankees basically conquered the South, the Confederate army basically surrendered outside of the lines of the city of Savannah so that it wouldn't be burned down like other Southern cities. So that's why it was preserved so well. And you do think about who lived in those homes and what they owned. And, you know, the history of slavery is really huge.

As a matter of fact, the museum - SCAD Museum of Art is in a building that was the Georgia Central Railroad, which, you know, held auctions to sell slaves and transported slaves. And it's now currently in a black neighborhood on Martin Luther King Boulevard. And one of the main museum donors that donated his collection of art to that museum was an African-American who made it a condition that every time, you know, the main room is for an African-American artist in that museum.

So it's pretty massive what happens there because in this exhibition, one thing that I felt very proud of is that it was a really diverse group of artists showing, opening with Hank Willis Thomas, African-American from New York, Carlos Cruz-Diez, who's a Venezuelan artist, 93 years of age, Monir Farmanfarmaian, who's a woman 98 years old from Iran. You had a Japanese artist, Chiharu Shiota, Glenn Vogel, Hernan Bas, myself, I mean, really huge, diverse group of people.

And so for a museum to have that history, for a town to have that history and then hold a show like that but also for an art school to be born there of that magnitude that has a massively diverse group of students from all over the world, it's different for the South.

BARTOS: That was all amazing. We've got to take a break right now. But when we back, it's going to be time for the Impression Session.

GARCIA: Session (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTOS: And we're back. And now, it's time for the Stretch & Bobbito Impression Session.

GARCIA: Session.

BARTOS: Impression Session.

GARCIA: Session, session, session.

BARTOS: Impression Session. Impression Session.

GARCIA: So, Jose, what happens in this moment is that Stretch and I are each going to play you a song. We're not going to tell you what it is. You can elect to try to guess, not really important. What's more vital is that you allow the song to just take you somewhere. And wherever you land, express and share. You down with that?

PARLA: I'm down with it. Impression Session, I got it. I'm excited.

BARTOS: We play it and you say it.

GARCIA: There it is.

BARTOS: Am I going first?

GARCIA: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUNMAN TUNE")

PAN HEAD: (Singing) Respect to all the gunman dem. Gunman alone keep gunman friend. Fire burn fi all di informer dem. Informer alone keep no police friend. Respect to all the gunman dem. Gunman alone keep gunman friend. Fire burn fi all di informer dem. Informer alone keep informer friend. Show me your company and mi will tell you who you are. A nuh any boy you must mek see your SLR. Dem sidung pon roadside and a idle. A nuh any bwoy see mi Desert Eagle.

GARCIA: Rewind.

BARTOS: Bow, bow, bow, bow, bow, bow.

GARCIA: All rude boy in the house.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Well, that is "Gunman Tune." Of course, we're talking about metaphorical guns. Anyway, Jose, what's up?

PARLA: Wow. Well, where this took me to, it took me to Miami, to my hometown. I grew up in that era when dancehall was going off. And my neighbors were Jamaican. I was introduced to dancehall and reggae. It's also very - it takes me to Wakefield in the Bronx because when I first moved to New York, I lived on 241st and White Plains Road, which is a Jamaican neighborhood.

And I remember walking by this bar every time on the way home from the train. And the music was always amazing. And I was like, wow, I want to go in there, but it looks kind of tough. And I'm not sure if I should just walk in there by myself.

And then one day, I just said, I'm going in there. I'm going to walk in. And I walked in and I ordered a drink. And everybody kind of was like, what is this - like everything stopped kind of errr (ph). And they looked at me like, what are you doing here, you know?

And then somebody was like, where are you from, you know? And I was like, you know, I'm from Miami. I'm Cuban. I grew up with this kind of music. And one kid called me Fidel Castro because I'm Cuban and I had a beard. He was like - and, you know, from that moment on, it was cool. It was like I'm Fidel Castro. So I got this - and so when I walked by, sometimes I'd go in and have a drink on my way home or whatever. So it took me there. It took me to that kind of experience in my life.

BARTOS: Funny. I played this because you and I have this ongoing Instagram sound clash.

PARLA: That's right. We send each other songs just - especially dancehall.

BARTOS: Videotape records of - getting played on turntables that would be, you know, apropos towards a sound clash setting. It was pretty funny. I enjoyed doing that with you. We haven't done it in a while, but...

PARLA: We should. I'm going to pick that back up now.

BARTOS: It's not over. Trust me.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: All right. I have a record for you. Let's get into it.

PARLA: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAMPO")

LOS PLENEROS DE LA 21 AND COJUNTO MELODIA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA: Come on, Stretch, sing along.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAMPO")

LOS PLENEROS DE LA 21 AND COJUNTO MELODIA: (Singing in Spanish).

PARLA: Wow.

BARTOS: Caliente. Caliente.

PARLA: Wow, this - that song, it does - you know, it really stirs me up inside. And it's a song that Bob and I shared not too long ago. I was like, Bob, I got to play you this - I love this record. And, you know, even though I'm Cuban, I have a tremendous love for Puerto Rico. I grew up there. And hearing this song, it really makes me feel so much inside because I remember growing up in Puerto Rico going to a campos, into the mountains and, you know, feeling this incredible, I guess, unison with the land and with Puerto Rico as well.

And this song has also got this very strong African root to it. And it also brings me back to being a B-boy because bomba, the style of bomba, the style of dancing has a lot to do with this confrontational kind of like uprocking that we have in being B-boys.

And so it brings a lot for me. It talks about, you know, the sovereign land of Puerto Rico. For one, the passion of this song, saying, if I don't dance bomba, I'm going to die. It's saying that - it's a song where the singer is saying to the countryside, I miss you. I need to be there and to be with you. And it's beautiful. It just - it's really touching. And it connects me to my roots very, very deeply. So, yeah, thank you.

GARCIA: Thank you. The group is Los Pleneros de la 21. They're based here in New York, but they are a beacon for bomba plena music worldwide. And just for the uninitiated, bomba plena is Afro-Boricua roots music. The plena is originated in Puerto Rico, the island that my parents are from. But the bomba is very much rooted in the African slave trade, where the rhythm is West Africa. But it was - it was originated in Puerto Rico. And similar to rumba in Cuba, it's centuries old. And it has survived.

BARTOS: Bob, thanks for that. I'm serious. That was right.

GARCIA: You know, I got to say, I love DJing or playing music around Stretch because he's not Latino, but he has an ear for amazing music just across the board, right? And it's so nice to, like, hear him embrace the music that might have a complete different meaning to me and you.

PARLA: Yeah.

GARCIA: But for Stretch, it's like - Latin rhythms are like - it's almost like a new genre for him in a way. And it's like - he's so spot-on, like, you know, so spot-on.

PARLA: He gets it.

BARTOS: It's true. I mean, you know, when I was coming up as a digger, I knew older people that were buying, yeah, the funk and the soul and the jazz that I was into. But they would also buy Brazilian records and Latin American records and whatnot. And I kind of shied away from that. I felt - in one way, I had bitten off more than I could chew with everything I was digging, where I was like, I don't need one other whole world to try to get into.

And then I found myself - I really didn't buy records from like 2001 until like 2015. I mean, sporadically, if I saw, you know, a yard sale, of course, I would go over and see - like, any time you see records on the street, you look. But I wasn't really looking.

And then coming out of that, emerging from that, like, I found myself just listening to Latin music and particularly through touring the world with Bob and hearing what he's playing in the right context - right? - with seeing people dancing and hearing the music with the full frequency of a sound system on vinyl. And it just was like this eureka. And I haven't actually started really collecting the stuff, but I really appreciate it in a way that I don't think I was ready for when I was younger. So thank you.

GARCIA: That's dope. Thank you.

PARLA: Thank you, guys.

GARCIA: And, Jose, thank you for coming on our show.

PARLA: Thank you for having me.

BARTOS: It's great to see you, Jose.

PARLA: Big pleasure. Thank you, guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTOS: That's our show. This podcast was produced by Sami Yenigun. Our editors are Steve Nelson and N'Jeri Eaton. And our executive producer is Abby O'Neill.

GARCIA: Special thanks to our VP of programming, Anya Grundmann.

BARTOS: If you liked this show, you should check out our interview with Ana Navarro. Listen on Apple Podcasts, NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

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