Inspired by Ottoman calligraphy and the Bosphorus, Cuban-American artist José Parlá created a series of works for his Istanbul exhibition ISTHMUS, capturing the lively energy of the city.

By Yao Hsiao

Istanbul’s dynamic cityscape inspires innumerable artists. For New York based artist José Parlá, who blurs the lines between calligraphy and abstract paintings, both the Ottoman calligraphy inscribed on the mosques and the lively Bosphorus caught his eye when he first visited Istanbul in 1999, sparking his imagination about the life of Ottoman calligraphy masters. Twenty years later, that spark has grown into the ISTHMUS project, paying homage to calligraphy in Turkey and the great Ottoman calligraphers. The exhibition is hosted by ISTANBUL’74 in Akaretler and is running parallel to the 16th Istanbul Biennial.

Taking inspiration from Istanbul and the Bosphorus, Parlá told The Guide Istanbul that he likes how the title plays on the letters “IST,” standing for both Istanbul and Isthmus. While half of the works displayed in the exhibition were paintings brought from New York, the other half are new productions made in Istanbul, including calligraphy done on paper, glass, and textiles, as well as ceramic product done in collaboration with Gorbon Tiles.

During the preparation before the exhibition, the artist spent some time walking around Beyoğlu and Beşiktaş and collected worn and layered posters on the walls. These fragments were later used in a collage series of works named after Istanbul neighborhoods. City walls and urban observation have been at the core of Parlá’s creative process as he moves and travels from city to city. “I feel like I’m recording the energy of the cities that I spend time in,” he said. In fact, for the artist, the walls and streets are where everything began.

José Parlá

Started from the street

Born to Cuban immigrant parents in Miami, Parlá always loved drawing. Instead of putting paint to paper, Miami’s walls became his canvas as early as age 10. Not limited to South Florida, as an active member of the graffiti community, he also spent time honing his craft on the walls and subways of New York City, illegally. These were not the temporary distractions of a rebellious young boy, but, rather, the beginning foundation for a life spent growing up in the art world.

Yet, at the time, during the 1980s and 90s, academic institutions and museums had a restricted definition of art, which did not include most murals and street paintings. “It was [even] just the very beginning of validation for artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat,” said Parlá. However, as a young art student Parlá stuck to his roots, defending this new, tribal art form pioneered by the young generation which challenged the conventions of the contemporary art scene at that time. To weaponize himself in conversations with professors, he did extensive research and presented them with artists who inspired him but were not introduced in schools, such as Jean Dubuffet, Jacques Villeglé, and Burhan Doğançay.

“The city and the walls are where I come from,” said Parlá. “I wanted to paint an interpretation of what the walls and the message boards of our society look like.” From a young kid doing graffiti on streets to an internationally renowned artist having shows around the world, Parlá remains passionate about integrating space and urban activities into his works.

Between graffiti and calligraphy

Parlá was exposed to the beauty of handwriting since childhood. Having parents who were strict about their kids’ handwriting, this aesthetic continues to influence him. Molding the attention to detail reminiscent of older generations’ handwriting with the urban subculture of his own generation, Parlá’s appreciation for the beauty of handwriting has remained an essential influence throughout his life.

Parlá reminisced about the time that he met writers like Try 1 and Jes 1 who taught him the skill of handwriting on walls. “Then I wanted to teach myself how to do it differently—out of respect, I didn’t want to paint just like them. I wanted to evolve.” To develop his own style, he started to look to the East, where Persian, Japanese, and Chinese cultures have a rich history in calligraphy.

The artist explained for graffiti, it is essential to camouflage the writing. When looking at calligraphy works from other cultures, Parlá treats them as graffiti—works in exclusive languages—and appreciates the visual without understanding the text. He sees them as drawings and observes the techniques: the complexity of the flow, the pressure of the writers push on the painting, and the strokes of the brush.

To put it another way, Parlá quotes his friend, graffiti artist Mode 2, who makes artwork from letters that no one can ever read, “when you hear a bird singing, you don’t have to understand it to say it is beautiful.” This is not just how Parlá’s approach to calligraphy works in foreign languages but how he sees art in general. While artists express themselves in their own unique languages, the audience can freely interpret these open languages.

Through the colorful, unrestrained, fluid lines on Parlá’s work—especially large scale paintings and installations, it’s not hard to feel the passion and energy of this artist who is young at heart. “I guess, when you are a little kid, everybody is an artist. Some people change their route in life and I remain the kid. That’s it. I’m still a kid,” said Parlá.


The exhibition will continue throughout September at Süleyman Seba Caddesi No.1-3, Akaretler. For more information visit www.istanbul74.com.