Whatever Happened to ’80s Grafitti Art Legend Futura 2000
by Erika Icon
If you could meet any famous person, who would it be? Most people would want to meet movie stars, but not me. For me, it is and always will be all about the art stars of the 1980s. When I was fifteen, I met Andy Warhol at Nippon, a sushi bar in New York, and it changed my life. Artists have always been the greatest inspiration to me, as an artist and as a human being. Although I usually write about emerging or underground artists, I could not pass up the chance to interview a living legend (and believe you me, he freaked when I called him this), Futura 2000.
If you really think about it, graffiti is as old as cave paintings, but in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, it exploded and became “the scene”. Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf blew up. There was also another crop of artists, kids went from writing (or bombing) in the streets to the galleries. Futura was part of this scene. He was not a Warhol protege like Basquiat, but a twenty year old scared kid from the Bronx who was thrust into this wild money-making machine known as the Manhattan gallery scene. In 1981, Fab-5 Freddy showed Futura’s work along with many other artists including Daze and Samo (Basquiat’s street name) on the 4th floor gallery located in the Mudd Club in a show called Beyond Words. In the same year, Futura had a one-man show at the Tony Shafrazi gallery. In 1983, he was in the movie Wild Style appearing as himself. He has also exhibited at the Fun Gallery and around the world.
Futura was riding high with many exhibitions and critical acclaim as part of the East Village Movement until one day in 1985, his career came crashing down. You may wonder what happened (I did). It wasn’t drugs, a woman, or somebody’s death–as Futura tells it, it was a review. A critic (who’s name he can’t remember) who wrote for one of New York’s art glossies wrote a bad review of one of his shows. She referred to his work as copies of an artist by the name of Wateau, who he had never heard of. Futura had no education in art and had attended one year of city college. He made drawings as a kid, but he wasn’t “feelin’ it” and really making art until he was in his twenties. Futura basically made art to make a new identity for himself and not for acceptance from the gallery scene, but this review hurt him personally because it came from an “important, respected” art magazine at that time (this was in the days that the New York art glossies had clout and were respected). When I asked Futura questions about the 1980′s in New York, I really had to push him, because he has put “the ball and chain of graffiti” and the art world behind him. He felt like a product of his environment, a B-Boy from the Bronx in the New York Gallery Scene and this made him feel out of place. He was not inspired by the “pseudo-intellectual” artists around him and felt intimidated because he did not go to art school and was freaked out by this crazy time of drugs, promiscuity, and art pimps. Futura was not secure about the art he was making, mainly because “I had always been a legendary king in the street, but I wasn’t shit in the art world.” His introduction to the art scene was “on the job training.” In looking back, Futura only wishes he knew then what he knows now and maybe he would not have been so paranoid and could have been a major player.
When it got down to naming names, I got him to share his true thoughts on some of his contemporaries. He referred to Andy Warhol as “a really weird guy”. One of Futura’s good friends during the ’80s was Keith Haring who he refers to as “…a sweetheart who was kind and generous… he really helped me with introductions and fitting in.” He does feel the loss of Keith. He really dug Jean-Michel Basquiat and thought he was ingenious, but felt he got so changed by the monster of fame. I asked him how accurate the film Basquiat was and he said he didn’t see it because Jean-Michel didn’t really like Julian Schnabel (Schnabel, the film’s director, never called Futura to ask him anything for the film, which he took as a snub). He views Julian, Kenny Scharf and Francesco Clemente more as “the superstars of the art world,” but he is still in touch with these people through his wife who is friends with some of these artists’ wives.
Speaking of names, I am sure you’re wondering where the name Futura 2000 comes from. He originally took the name (which he has copyrighted) from the Stanley Kubrick movie, 2001, in 1970. I asked him about the prospect of him changing his name to Futura 3000, now that we are in the year 2000 and he said he will just go by Futura now. And for the super curious, in his pre-Futura days he went by his given name, Leonard. After 1985 and the end of his career in the galleries, Futura stayed in New York and did what he had to do to survive by going back to the 9 to 5 world. He worked 9 months for the post office right across from the now legendary PS1 where he was in a show called New York, New Wave in the ’80s. He was a bike messenger which in those days was dangerous, but quite lucrative at $120 to $200 a day, until he had an accident and was laid off. Futura was almost a cop and was ready to join the force but it didn’t happen. His world changed again when a clothing designer who would later become known as Agnes B., boosted his career by purchasing 2 of his paintings at $5,000 each. He took the money, bought a PC, got carried away with Photoshop, and then he reinvented himself once again. These days Futura’s life is about computers, his family, and re-inventing himself and his role in the world. Futura spoke many times of his wife, daughter, and son and they are the focal point of his life right now. At 15, he found out that he was adopted and he felt that he could create a new identity for himself by writing graffiti. Somehow, he felt this would help him deal with his dark past of being adopted and his sense of alienation. At 30, he decided to start a family and taking care of his tribe seems to be part of his mission these days.
Galleries are not part of Futura’s life any longer. Now 44, he feels he caught himself before he fell with the fact that he knows that he doesn’t need the white walls of a gallery and their taking a percentage of him to survive. He feels that too many artists get caught in that trap of continuing to make the same style of work (they get stuck in the moment and even strangled as creators) so their work will sell. He feels that artists can change the structure and find alternative ways of showing their work without selling their souls to galleries. Futura uses the commercial world to make his art, but he makes money by other means.
Now, Futura’s walls are his website–futura2000.com. which features more than 100 pages of words, art, photos, and graphics (in the week that I interviewed him, he had a record 200,000 hits to his site). This pioneer who once wrote on trains (and he swears that he never has the compulsion to pull out his markers anymore) is now on your computer monitor. The Futura’s web experience is not about making money, but about meeting lots of people and “liberating open communication.” It is his diary, sketchbook, and a window into his continued search for identity (the “Suspect” page lays out his feelings). It is a place full of flashes of words and images where you can double-click on several different icons and words on each page (it is very maze-like). Many of the words used play on military terms, which go back to Futura’s four years in the military. One of my favorite pages is Choose Your Weapons, which is nine pictures of people holding toy plastic guns that will take you into the Project Dragon Shooting Gallery where there are surveillance cameras aimed at you. The website changes everyday (he takes his laptop on the road and sits up late at night at his house on his computer working). He refers to the site as a work in progress and loves the immediacy of it all (In this way digital cameras replace the spray paint of his past). This is hours of fun, boys and girls, and once I was there, it was very hard to log-off.
In February, he will be exhibiting his work, but it won’t be “with a vengeance at the Mary Boone Gallery.” Futura will be exhibiting his new work, 150 postcard-sized paintings that are signed and numbered, at a local bar for one week only. People will be able to draw numbered chips starting February 7th to get one of these pieces (and for free). This is Futura’s way of saying thank you and flipping the script so that the show is not geared around sales.
Okay, I know you all are sitting there thinking how does this Futura make his money. He started a company with his friends Bleu and Stash of Subware called Project Dragon Studios International (the name is inspired by Bruce Lee and you can view their latest creations on the website) that is a satellite base and a graphics collective. They design clothing and recruits kids to work for them as a type of outreach center. Futura also owns a store together called Recon (which comes from a military word about being the head of an advancing team, an Indian Scout, if you will) in New York. Bleu was a partner in this as well until his untimely death last year. Recon will be opening a store in San Francisco in February and another in Tokyo this spring.
Futura has worked in conjunction with James LaVelle of Mo’ Wax Records, which he enjoyed because he loves working with his friends. In 1992, LaVelle saw his drawings of these space alien creatures that Futura did and he wanted to use them on the covers of his Unkle records as an identity for the band. One of the coolest things which came out of the Unkle project are the Unkle dolls, which are next to impossible to get now (Futura sent me one). A Futura doll is also in the works and it will have Futura’s head that you can interchange with an alien head and alien hands. He will also be developing the Mo’ Wax website with Graphic Designer, Ben Drury. All this talk about space aliens would make you think Futura believes in aliens, but he doesn’t since he has never seen them (then he made this joke about how he is from Missouri, the “show-me state”, even though he told me earlier that he was from New York).
Futura is also working on a book tentatively titled The Futura Dilemma. Like his website, it is about him looking at words and playing with them. The book will have a limited edition of 200 copies for colleges with 25 different original paper stocks including acetate peel-away pages, brown paper, aluminum foil, and rice paper. If you look up chameleon in the dictionary, Futura’s picture should be there. He has done it all from being a kid of the streets, a world famous art star, a husband/father, a business owner, a web designer and somehow has adapted to it all. These days Futura “reflects on the past, dreams of the future, and tries to live upright.” He feels his time here on earth is short and he is still not fully grown up. Each day he searches for his identity through his art.