José Parlá and KAWS. Two kindred spirits catapulted from the underground to the contemporary art world, still gaining international acclaim every passing year. Although, the work is vastly different, each man possesses a distinct visual language and an evolving maturation. Despite the polar influences, there’s one city they both call home – Brooklyn. Having recently exhibited in Los Angeles – José Parlá showing at OHWOW while KAWS was exhibiting at Honor Fraser- both artists experienced a homerun of sorts on the West Coast, but are happy to be back at headquarters in New York. We visited Parla’s Fort Greene studio to overhear the boys wax poetics on their roots, gardening, and the good ‘ol days. [Moderated by Jauretsi Saizarbitoria]
KAWS: LA was fun. That trip was a good one for both of us
Jose: We did celebrate! A lot of people came out to support us from all over the world.
KAWS: The last time we got to hang out like that, we were both in a show in Paris.
Jose: That was a few years ago, 2009?
KAWS: Yeah. It was a few years ago. It was a project Lance Armstrong did called Stages to benefit Live Strong with Emmanuel Perrotin.
Jose: If I really think about how we first met — I mean when we first gave each other a “what’s up” [nod] and shook hands — it was a long time ago in New Jersey.
Jose: Paterson, New Jersey.
Jose: I think so. We never really had the chance to hang out much in New York though. I think it was first in Tokyo and Paris.
KAWS: In New York, you don’t have to take a trip together to a bookshop. Whereas, in Paris, it’s like a destination. “Yo let’s go check out this thing.”
Jose: Yeah yeah. It’s like Brooklyn heads out in the world. We both sort of have a big connection with Japan.
KAWS: In the mid ’90s I was friends with Stash and Futura and those guys were frequently going to Japan. They were already collaborating with Nigo [of A Bathing Ape] and the guys at Hectic. I just wanted to go to Japan ever since I was little. Aside from wanting to be a ninja when you were a kid, it’s one of those things you would joke about. It just seemed so far from everything that was Jersey City or even Manhattan at the time. It’s inspiring and it made me want to work harder.
Jose: When I was a kid, I was into a Japanese animation called Mazinger Z. Growing up in Puerto Rico, that cartoon was translated into Spanish. I knew they were from Japan so it was the first thing to instill interest in Japanese culture. The drawing style was very good, so I guess that was a connection to art early on. When I got to the US, some of them were translated in English, but I already knew the storyline. I was a big fan of the manga stuff. Like you mentioned, ninja stuff too. By ‘97 I went to Japan with my friend Tomoko and Mike. The next year our friend Yutaman, organized underground art shows for my friends and I at the time under the name Ink-Heads. I remember I’d bump into you or Futura and Stash and we’d hang out or say what’s up in Tokyo. We were getting a lot of invitations and opportunities in Japan.
KAWS: You know who was a good unifier of all that? Relax Magazine.
Jose: Big time. They were showing support no matter how different artists were at the time. As much as they supported you, you wanted to go back and keep supporting them and having the exchange between the two cultures. And then Japanese friends starting coming to New York more often and it’s still going on, it hasn’t stopped.
KAWS: Yeah, there became a general, larger interest in Japan. Like what Sarah was doing with Collette in Paris. She sort of kept another community of people going. She was just another person interested in Tokyo. It sort of did become a group of people that you would just see in different places and projects would happen and you’d get pulled into these projects
Jose: Can you remember when you first started getting into art?
KAWS: I think I just realized really early on that I didn’t have many other options in society. I just did not feel inclined towards anything else. I never wanted to be a doctor. I never wanted to be a firefighter. When I was younger I never saw art as being a reality, like this could be a career. I went through school and went through the steps… then I kind of realized, oh shit, this is the only thing I feel inclined towards that I can stick to.
Jose: I was always into drawing since very young and my mom was really good at drawing also, so she was able to teach me how to get better at it. But when I was most impressed about art was when I saw black books (sketchbooks) from writers in my South Miami neighborhood and learned about all that was going on in the New York subways from local writers that had pictures of painted subway cars. That pretty much cemented the idea in my mind that I would be an artist.
KAWS: I mean I didn’t grow up with an art background. My family wasn’t into art in any sort of way. My high school, didn’t even have any sort of art program. Instead, I was looking at pretty much the stuff around me.
Jose: Nobody was talking about historical painters at home. You discovered it along the way later on. In college there were certain challenges, because people thought graffiti didn’t belong in the institution, but rather it belonged in the trash. I had to study and find artists in history that had some kind of common visual language, so that I could use that knowledge to arm myself so that I could defend my ideas when speaking with my professors or with other students during critiques. That’s when I started picking up more historical influences of art.
KAWS: I would say older kids. Graffiti kind of made me acknowledge a bigger world. Just from trading pictures with kids in Germany or kids in Spain. It made you learn about geography through painting.
Jose: We were the Internet before the Internet because writers had an incredible network worldwide. As you said, we were trading 35mm photographs printed at the local drug store or what not. I remember printing five to six copies of each thing. One would go to Germany, one to Spain, one to Brazil, and we would write handwritten long letters like “What’s going on? Come visit me. Here’s what I just painted.” We had friends all over the world. You could go to any city and stay at their place and vice versa. And, there was this drive to connect with people. You were just incredibly amazed that there was like this friend in Australia… you know, so far away!
KAWS: We kind of got to see this transition with Internet and how it’s affecting things. It comes back to small communities. But now there’s nothing you can do that’s sort of mellow. Like you couldn’t do a small exhibition in Iowa, ‘cause the work would still be seen that morning or that night online.
Jose: It’s not like back then… if you did a show in Tokyo, then it’s for Tokyo collectors, or if it was a show in New York, then it’s New York collectors. But now, you do a show on the moon and you have people calling from wherever. If they are looking for your work, they follow your gallery wherever it is showing you. It’s different today.
KAWS: Yeah, it doesn’t matter where the show is really.
Jose: It’s probably different for the new kids coming up the pipe right now.
KAWS: Well, that’s the thing. Just like the people before us, there is no exact way. Whenever somebody asks me what advice to give to a young artist, I’m always like “Stick to what you feel is right”.
Jose: I always tell them “work real hard!” There are different tools now actually. I’m amazed by young kids, man.
KAWS: What’s getting your attention the most now?
Jose: I like gardening a lot. I like taking care of my plants. It’s like…
Jose: It totally is.
KAWS: What are you gardening?
Jose: All of these plants in the house, outside… In New York, there’s nothing like taking a few hours of the day to get into the plants. Putting my hands in the dirt. I pluck all the dead leaves. I water them. It’s like the most relaxing thing. Downstairs I have trees. It’s a lot of work but very good to get myself ready for painting. Is there anything that’s meditative to you?
KAWS: I mean… my girlfriend, hanging out with my dog. That’s about it. I’m pretty lack luster. It’s one speed. I wake, make. What’s next for you?
Jose: After the two shows this year in New York and Los Angeles, I’m working in my studio on new paintings, really with no destination, and in between, I am going to do some construction… break down some walls. Start fresh for 2012.
KAWS: This December I’m going to have a solo show at The Modern in Fort Worth, Texas and next February I have a larger exhibition titled “Down Time” at the High Museum in Atlanta. I feel that since we are on JAY Z‘s site I should ask you what you thought one of his best creations were?
Jose: Um… I like the recent one song that Swizz Beatz did the beats on!
KAWS: Which one?
Jose: With the black and white video!
Kaws: I thought having the [Watch the Throne] listening party at the Planetarium with Kanye was pretty genius. That was just perfect… such a good New York experience. Just to hear the album with those visuals and that environment. Knowing how to take something and then add on to it, and add on, and add on… that’s just when people shine.
Jose: Yes, taking it to the next level… as it should be. Oh right! “On To The Next One.” I love that song!