Full Photo Gallery Follows the Text
Futura (Leonard McGurr, nee Futura2000) is the one of the most influential artists alive today. Before hashtags made you visible there were graffiti tags and Futura’s name and work was splashed over the world’s greatest art gallery: the New York City subway system. The legend threw up his letters along with the other incredible NYC writers in the 1970s. But what made him stand out from all the rest is that early on he pivoted from straight lettering to abstract art. This highbrow sensibility shook up the underground as graffiti transitioned from being perceived as vandalism to art. Still a creative force across all art scenes—from galleries to his “Concrete Jungle” on Houston Street in his home city—Futura is now. This month, the legendary street artist’s Converse Chuck Taylor All Star II Futura (Hi $110, Lo $100) hit the pavement. For real insight into the man we tapped art consultant Nemo Librizzi to interview the artist and Futura’s son 13th Witness to shoot portraiture of the father of modern graffiti.
INKED: I’ve seen you come a long way—you were painting trains when I met you—I think ‘81, how long was your train career?
Futura: It was broken up into two parts. It was the 10 years before that in the early ‘70s for a couple of years with ALI—rest in peace Mark Edmonds—and the Soul Artists. Then I had my military service from ‘74-’78, and post the late ‘70s, a return to New York. I really connected with ALI, DONDI [White], Zephyr and Boo. The Village Voice had the whole cars in the Christmas Issue of 1980. And that was the dawn of the shifting from painting trains to getting into alternative spaces and galleries like Keith Haring and all.
Something happened to you creatively along the way. Maybe when you were in the military you came back and perhaps the culture had shifted when you were gone.
You mentioned The Village Voice, and you had done letters for that car, but shortly thereafter you broke with the tradition of letters. Can you tell us what brought that about?
When I came back I had a different mindset. I had seen the world on terms other than what I had grown up to understand and I wanted to do something different. Along with DONDI, Zephyr, Seen, Lee [Quinones] obviously and Phase 2 as kind of mentor we were just trying to find our own way. Mine, I guess ultimately can be described as abstraction because it just seemed comfortable to me. And my name always seemed appropriate. It was not to be a cliche “futuristic” but to put my work on another level. Did it work? I don’t know I guess it did work.
So your name Futura fit that style.
That word “style” is important to us from the early era in that we wanted to create something unique and individual. There was nothing more unique than a painted subway car running in the system.
You called the car that was published in The Village Voice the Break Train. Why?
It was a play on words: there was a physical crack in the car so it was broken and it was also a metaphor in that it was also breaking tradition based on lettering. I just found myself in my own space.
I noticed that a lot of people who burn on a train, somehow made a rough transition onto the new setting which was the gallery, museums, even walls in many cases. But your style was suitable to be lifted off a train and be on a canvas, or anywhere. So it was fortunate that you developed this approach to painting before so that you weren’t forced to put a tag on a canvas, which looks ridiculous in most cases.
Contemporary pieces “from the windows down kind of burners” don’t fit well in contemporary spaces. On a static canvas or hanging on a wall, the graffiti loses a lot of its power. We couldn’t have foreseen how that was going to shake down, but it turned out that I figured out the style of work before that. When galleries were trying to expose “graffiti art” it was fashionable, it was trendy and people were like, Yeah I want one of those! But critically, it didn’t hold up to what was on the street or public space in real time. I think my stuff wasn’t restricted by the boundaries of the canvas or a wall per se—it gave me more possibilities and opportunities. Looking at art in our community, we were trying to jump into the art world in the ‘80s that few got a chance to get involved in at that time. Keith [Haring], no doubt, Jean Michel [Basquiat], no doubt, but of the graffiti school there’s plenty of names you could have mentioned who didn’t make it into the higher art world.
Yet the graffiti writers’ work did occupy more of a public space. Why were the subway cars so perfect of a showcase?
It was like the blood flowing through the city. We had this amazing toy train yard that we had access to. We could see our work moving through Brooklyn, Manhattan, The Bronx, on trains like the 2s and 5s that go from the tip of the Bronx to Coney Island. It was incredible to think of the amount of exposure and activity. Nothing will ever be like that again, there is nothing today that has that kind of excitement.
And how did that start to fade?
Other than the computers and technology there’s been changes in the social structure. The graffiti movement of the ‘70s was possible in New York because the city was broke. It was in decay and things were just so rundown. It wasn’t until the ‘80s and that kind of Reganomics and a lot of loot coming back to the city.
So it was to your advantage the city was broke and you were able to access a visible moving canvas, but since then the city is gentrified you are surfing a new wave. You started collaborating with brands and showing in galleries early-on, these relationships have only deepened. How did you make that transition?
Well initially, it all came from relationships I had in Asia in the ‘90s. Big American brands were not trying to yet embrace our school of art and culture. The age of collaboration with brands really begins in Japan. By the New Millennium, a brand like Nike approaches me to ask me to work on a project. And I am one of the first artists along with Stash to get approached by a brand on that level. Mark Parker (now CEO of Nike) got at me early. I remember meeting him in my office, he had my book and I thought it was nice that someone was invested in my work, but I didn’t know who the guy was. My relationship with Converse is a direct linkage to that. My allegiance to sneaker culture has only been with these two brands. Before there was a Nike in my world there was a Converse; in high school before Nike arrived as a sport shoe I wore Chuck Taylors. I was rocking Cons for many years and I got fortunate enough to get a shoe out of it, which is perfect because I am living in the brand.
Galleries and brands are clamoring to have you involved, is there something about an object, like a shoe, that you enjoy as much as you do a canvas?
There is a separation between those who can afford to obtain works of art on canvas and those who can afford T-shirts. And I want anybody who supports my work to have the access to it.
Does one give you more pride than the other?
Honestly the real rush is the packaging where I see my name. I know it is horribly egotistical but that is the way we were as writers in the very beginning. I still haven’t lost that feeling of, “Oh shit that’s my tag.” I get off more on that than people looking at my work in a gallery. The root of it is getting up the Futura tag.
To those not familiar with the term “getting up” it was the impetus of a graffiti artist.
There’s a book by Craig Castleman that’s called Getting Up. Getting up is attaining some visibility, some fame and that really seeing the tag. With this shoe, I love the design, the fabric, the camo pattern on the bottom but the subtle little Futura really trips me out. We didn’t know it 45 years ago, but with our tags we were all creating little brands. I think I am still very childish in that. I am still getting up. And, Jesus, I just turned 60, you’d think I’d feel up enough! At the end of the day it is not money it is just recognition and I am more into that because it lasts longer.
So the thrill is still there?
Sure, the excitement is still there. That’s why I have been really looking forward to this project with Cons. Andy’s [Warhol] foundation did a nice collabo set with Converse but that was the old Chuck, this is the Chuck II so to be one of the first kids out of the box with it is very cool.
Are you excited to see the shoes hit the streets? Like when you used to bench trains [editors note: sit on a subway bench waiting for a specific painted car go by, much cooler than bird watching]?
I don’t have a photographic memory but I will never forget benching trains, watching trains go by. The very first book I remember about graffiti it was by [Norman] Mailer with Jon Naar’s photos, and the American title was The Faith of Graffiti, but for the printing in Europe, the European title was called Watching My Name Go By. I always thought, Wow man, that was so amazing and opens your mind to what it is all about. And that’s still what I am doing.
Full Photo Gallery Follows the Text Futura (Leonard McGurr, nee Futura2000) is the one of the most influential artists alive today. Before hashtags made you visible there were graffiti tags and Futura’s name and work […]