You wouldn’t call Piet Parra, Dutch artist and clothing designer, an “overnight success,” but it also wouldn’t be far from the truth. The accidental urban art celebrity stumbled onto his talent just a few years back while designing party flyers, and his phone has been ringing off the hook ever since. Parra has worked with just about every major sportswear company—Nike, Vans, Converse—in bringing his distinctive vision to their merchandise and has also launched his own apparel company, Rockwell
. It would seem that anything he puts his signature on quickly becomes a sneakerhead’s desirable.
arra is also part of the growing group of street artists whose credibility has carried over into the art world. Having put on well-received solo shows in Los Angeles, Milan, Paris, and, most recently, Berlin, the entrepreneur is now selling prints of his distinctive and playful work, which feature a dry wit, striking typography, and all manner of curious human-bird hybrid creatures. Yet, despite his speedy rise to prominence, the day we speak with Parra, he’s feeling somewhat unsettled by exceeding his own expectations. We chatted about the wild ride of the past three years–the highs and lows that come with success, the need to start saying “no,” and where those damn beaks came from. You’ve worked with so many big-name clients—InCase, Nike, Vans.
What was your first major collaboration?
Etnies. I think that was in 2007.
That wasn’t too long ago. This has been a busy couple of years.
Well, it’s been a wild ride. The companies come out of the woodwork when you start getting street cred. It’s kind of evil—they use you and you use them. But it’s not street cred, really, it’s more like blog cred. If you’re on the blogs, then things start snowballing.
You seem pretty aware of the mutual use. Does that sit well with you?
Today I had a pretty bad day. I try to stay away from reading the blogs. They get really critical, and well… there’s so much product out there. Before the Internet, stuff used to be cool when you saw someone wearing it. And you’d ask, where did you get that? I got it in New York. You’d think: That’s so cool but I’ll never get that. Now, if it’s on your screen, you can get it. And also you may not even sell anything but people know who you are. You’ve seen it online, and that’s how you exist.
You’re transitioning from having been a more “street” artist to being a legitimate artist with gallery exhibits.
I come from skateboarding, not really street art. I started designing because I needed a job—I was hoping to be a pro skateboarder and that didn’t work out. So I ended up doing flyers and posters, and through all of that, I developed my own style. I am not a traditional designer. But then one thing led to another… I did a Foot Locker campaign and that snowballed into getting me more gigs.
But it’s not street cred, really, it’s more like blog cred. If you’re on the blogs, then things start snowballing.
Do you have a ritual for making creative work?
I don’t put paper in front of my nose. I listen to music, watch some TV, take a walk. It takes a long time for ideas to take shape. Taking a blank piece of paper every day and sitting there… it’s not going to happen. I need to get an influence from the outside world. Ideas are like dreams, and they come to me sometimes when I sleep—it happens quite a lot.
You have a very distinctive style. Tell me about your color, using such an intentionally limited palette.
I like the poppy colors, like the oranges, blues, and pinks. This is the palette that makes me happy. From the clothing I put on, I’m very happy with these restrictions, and simplicity. I hardly use yellow but I did it for the Nike jacket because it worked so well together. I’ll break the rules sometimes because they’re my own.
What about the people you illustrate, like the buxom women with the beaks, for example?
When I was doing the flyers, I got into that hand-drawn style. My father was a painter, an artist, and he used to say draw one line and if it’s no good, do it again. The style came to me fairly quickly. It felt like it was always inside of me. Those beaked people actually came from not being able to draw a face. When I did draw a face, it was too real-looking. It looked like a specific person, almost referential. I was trying to do something long lasting, like a character, a cartoon. Instead of working on the face, the eyes to show emotion, it’s both harder and easier this way.
You have witty quotes and one-liners in your art. Where do they come from?
I make them up 8 out of 10 times. Some of the others fly by in music and movies. I don’t pay attention for that reason—that would be fake. When stuff flies by in a stupid movie, I write it down. Sometimes you make a drawing and the words also pop in my head, like that line feels really right with this picture.
My father was a painter, an artist, and he used to say draw one line and if it’s no good, do it again.
How often do you draw and paint?
Not often enough. I called my father in a panic once and told him, I can’t do this anymore. I felt like I was drying up. You have these bursts of energy and creativity and bang out these incredible drawings, but then you’ll have this stretch of time for weeks when you can’t do anything. I couldn’t draw every day because it would probably make me hate this.
How do you approach the different brands that you’re working on, like how would Vans be different from Nike?
Vans is a skating company, and Nike would be about winning. So with Vans, my way of personalizing it was writing, “Don’t forget to skate in these.” But Nike is all about winning, and I thought it would be a lot of fun if I designed a jacket and sneakers
about losing. It’s all about humor for me, and it’s important to add that to everything I do.
Everything has happened to you in the past three years. How are you digesting all of this sudden success?
This is one of the things I’m dealing with right now. I find myself wondering what do people like, what are they getting into? Do they like my jokes, do they find them childish? Am I doing something right, and, if so, what is it that I’m doing right? Success makes you think a lot. It’s human nature—I should try to just enjoy it, and I’m trying, but it’s like a train. The mind keeps working and running. It’s not keeping me up at night—it’s not that bad, it’s just that sometimes I don’t know exactly who I am.
Now that you’re at a crossroads, do you find yourself thinking about relationships with people more often?
Yes, definitely. I’m not sure if I should get into this really, but yes, of course you think about it. But I’ve also starting saying no to people. I can’t do everything. I have something coming out with Converse because I agreed to that a while back, but I think I need to take a break for a while. Just take a deep breath.
Are you excited about the future?
I’m really excited but I’m also fucking scared. My life has surpassed expectations. You can say that to yourself but it’s hard to believe it. Well, it’s true. The past few years have been surreal. Absolutely surreal. I hope the world doesn’t forget about me, but I also have happy thoughts that I can do animation, I can do sculptures. The creative world is open to me right and that’s a great thought. But there are some overcast skies every once in awhile.