The art of Futura

Bruce Donners
Mar 24, 2018 · 18 min read

Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Futura saw it all. From the beginnings of the NYC subway scene, he experienced the explosion of graffiti as a worldwide phenomenon and the subsequent commercial appropriation of the art form that he helped to pioneer. He has worked with some of the hottest names on the planet and has collaborated with Nigo’s Bape, James Lavelle’s U.N.K.L.E., Hardy Blechman’s Maharishi, Joe Strummer and The Clash and more. Fascinated by travel, technology and photography, he now lives in Brooklyn, New York, surrounded by collections from his global excursions.

Futura began his lifelong relationship with graffiti naively, mystified by the mark- makings and political messages of the late ’60s. Forty-five years ago, the less-guarded world of the subway system in New York was an open playground for painters and with no idea what he was doing or even how to do it, Futura was sucked into the mystique, desperate to understand the coded language and lifestyle and express himself as an individual.

I was a frustrated kid wanting to express myself.

“Well, it was the late ’60s, ’68 or ’69 and then in 1970 when I turned 15,1 was a high school student and graffiti was arriving in our subway system. There were other graffiti writings on the wall, anti-war, religious messages, a lot of things were being written on walls back then. But the graffiti, which focused on the subway system at that time, was the most obvious thing to me. Looking back so many years, I don’t know what drew me to become a graffiti writer, only to say that it seemed like something I was dying to participate in. At the same time, it seemed like something mischievous and dangerous, hut not criminal, not violent… So, whatever,

I was a frustrated kid wanting to express myself, looking at what the other ones were doing and kind of wanting to emulate that and he part of that, 1 guess, It’s very difficult because I can easily say now that it was my destiny to do that. Looking hack, I can say my life was about becoming this artist from the New York City subway system.”

Regardless of his long-term date with destiny, Futura’s early explorations in graffiti and the underbelly of New York’s transit system came to a sharp halt when his close friend and painting partner Mark Edmonds, aka Ali, suffered a horrific accident in a train tunnel. Me lashed out at Futura and publicly blamed him for abandoning him in the blaze. “Mark was also a bit of a loner, we found each other because we were both loners and we had this big vision like we were going to arrive in graffiti and we were going to be doing these super paintings. Doing our names on the side of subway cars.

“We were painting one night and we had 40 or 50 cans of paint. And I never knew what started the fire, but suddenly the paint cans were exploding and he got very badly burnt. And that really shocked me, because here I was thinking, ‘Oh I’m Futura, blah blah blah’ and in the face of that, there was my friend who almost got his face burned off. It was really sad. Subsequent to the accident there was a story written in the New York Times and although my name was never mentioned, it read ‘Young artist burns in subway fire. His friend leaves him there. It was a terrible story and I was almost accused of leaving him in this tunnel and that kind of did it for me, I just couldn’t be around anymore.”

Visiting Edmonds in hospital, he confronted him about the story and suffered a double blow, both from his best friend’s crushing betrayal and the sight of his horrific disfigurement from the accident. Unable to cope with the situation, Futura had to escape the city and left New York to join the navy.

It wasn’t until his final months of service that their paths crossed again. “So, 1978 I’m getting out and there were three months to go. And like when you’re in jail and you know you’re getting out, that’s how we were in the military. You’re counting every day.

And when I got to 99 days — which is what we used to call a two-digit midget — right at that point I got a letter from Mark. I hadn’t heard from or seen him since that time in the hospital and it was all, like, ‘Hey, what’s up man?’ It was the craziest letter, like nothing had ever happened. He went on to say, ‘Hey, I know you’re getting out, I’m so proud of you, can’t wait ’til you come back, we need to talk.’

I remember almost crying, thinking, ‘wow’. It took him a couple of years to address the situation, but I was very encouraged because I thought that when I got home we were going to talk about it and it’d be behind us.”

He forged a friendship again with Edmonds on his return to New York and the two hung out like old times, checking out graffiti and reforming their graffiti crew, Soul Artists. They combined their crew with Edmonds’ epithet, Zoo York, to create the collective ‘Soul Artists of Zoo York’. However, not wanting to stir up painful memories for his friend, Futura avoided the subject of their division and patiently waited for the time Edmonds could talk about the fire and the two could have some closure on the incident. Time passed and it never happened. The episode was never spoken of, despite them both returning to the site of the fire in the subway tunnel together. Frustrated and upset, but ultimately understanding his friend was incapable of talking about it, Futura let the friendship drift apart.

Back in the thick of New York’s thriving graffiti scene, Futura was blown away by the activity of the late ’70s. He hung out at writers’ bench and reconnected with the first generation of writers — Stay High, Snake 1, Phase 2 and Taki 183 and other members of the United Graffiti Artists crew — people he’d met before his military service who had inspired him to get up in the first place. Part fan-boy, part pioneer, Futura ran around with the writers of the time, meeting other like-minded souls.

Re-inventing Futura2000

“By the time I came out of the military it was Henry Chalfant time, it was the time of the whole car, top-to-bottom. And a lot of progression had been made and I couldn’t believe it. I was, like, this is crazy good and amazing. And I wound up meeting modern- day graffiti writers like Lee Quinones and Dondi White and Zephyr and Seen and Cap. You know, it was a city filled with thousands of writers from all over, so I was very encouraged. The movement was so awesome but it wasn’t until 1980 that I actually returned to the subway system and tried to re-invent Futura2000, which was a toy. It’s crazy, I went from saying I used to write graffiti, my name was Futura, to a position of no fame and kind of started over.”

Rebuilding from the bottom up, Futura threw himself into his artwork and the graffiti community, producing his now legendary whole car ‘Break’ in 1980 and making a mark with his own unique sty e of abstract graffiti. Within such a big city, the graffiti community was surprisingly small and it didn’t take Futura long to rebuild his reputation, but he was still in awe of the ‘real’ writers of his day and never fully considered himself to be one of them. As the graffiti scene began to grow and progress, it transformed into a different beast. With the arrival of figures like Keith Haring and Bette Gordon, there was a movement toward exhibiting work in galleries instead of just making it in the streets. The transition was an uncomfortable one for Futura and he once more found himself at the bottom of the pile, trying to make a name for himself — this time as a professional artist.

Starting off with his first show at New York’s FUN Gallery with Patti Astor, Futura began to exhibit nationally. In a strange twist of fate, he took part in a group show in Arizona with Lady Pink, Chico and other artists, where he again came across his old friend Mark Edmonds, who happened to be living in the basement of the gallery. As part of the show, each artist had to produce a short video about themselves, which Edmonds also took part in. However, instead of speaking about his artwork, Edmonds used his video to tell a different story.

“Everybody’s was about two minutes long and Mark’s was about 10 minutes. And Mark goes on to tell a story about how one night in 1978 he was painting with his friend, there was a fire. He went on to explain that he made the unfortunate mistake of blaming me. It was crazy, I can’t remember the words, but he somehow told the exact story of what happened and how he made a false story to the reporters because he was looking for sympathy. It was kinda sad, I mean I was crying because he could never talk to me about it, but somehow he talked to a camera. Then two days later he died of a drug overdose.”


With Edmonds’ final admission and tragic death, Futura felt a huge chapter of his life had closed. Drawing a line under this part of his past, he continued on his journey, meeting other individuals on his path that helped him on his way. In 1981, perhaps his biggest commercial break came when he collaborated with English punk rock band, The Clash, who exported him to Europe. Designing artwork for the Combat Rock album, Futura also painted with the band live on stage and recorded a song with them entitled ‘Overpowered By Funk’.

“I was really proud of that because it’s actually me collaborating with The Clash! It’s not even a bad record and Joe pStrummer], rest in peace, was so cool to me. I’m an only child, my mum was always on point but my dad was a bit of a flake, so I never had that father figure guy or an older brother, aside from an older kid in the neighbourhood that I looked up to. And so Joe was amazing, Joe was like a combination of my dad and my brother, he was just so fucking cool and I had such a great time with those guys and that experience. Honestly, I think that helped me a lot in moving forward.”

As the graffiti movement collapsed for the first time in the US in the mid-‘80s, it skipped continents and began to blow up in Europe, spreading the message further into the world. When the new set of artists started to gather energy and momentum, Futura found his role switched from declining artist to knowledgeable prophet. “Once Bando and Mode2 and Delta and all the Europeans got their hands on spray paint and Subway Art and Spraycan Art — which were essentially manuals to do graffiti and bibles with which to deconstruct letters — then the movement was like a virus. So when we were all having our heads down and bumming over here and saying the fashion of our culture had died and hit its apex, then we looked around and I became a messenger. In 1987/88/89 I was saved or brought back to my senses by a woman named Agnes B, who has clothing companies around the world. She’s a huge patron of our culture and supporter and gave me an enormous opportunity in ’89 to return to painting and being an artist.”

Backed by Agnes, Futura found himself with a studio, a support network and a creative future once again. As Futura’s artwork was given a new lease of life, so too he brought his own charges into the world; his two children, Tabatha and Timothy. Futura found he had to dedicate more time to them and less time to himself. This meant he was forced to loosen the grip on his artistic dream and concentrate on supporting his family. During the tough times that ensued, Futura met James Lavelle in Berlin, sparking off a new direction in his life, producing artwork for the MoWax and U.N.K.L.E. imprints. His initial abstract style began to take more form, with the development of his Pointman figure, which Lavelle picked up on in Futura’s studio one day when they were discussing album artwork.

“So we met in Brooklyn, he comes in to my studio and I had a painting on the wall that was one character. They’ve been called Pointmen, just because their heads are pointed, that was a subtle shout out to HR Giger, who was a bit of an influence on me. So James goes, ‘Who’s that little bloke over there?’ And I thought that was funny, just the word bloke and the way he said it. We don’t use that word on a daily basis, so I said, ‘Which bloke?’ I honestly didn’t know what he was talking about, because I shared that studio with other artists and I thought one of the other artists had walked by. I thought a bloke was a guy, a man. So I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’, so he said, ‘Oh, the little bloke with the ears’ and I realised he was talking about my character and it just made me laugh. It was funny how my guys were my guys but nobody really ever looked at them. So the artwork had been there…but it was really James who embraced them. They went on to symbolise, initially, U.N.K.L.E. — and it was him and (DJ) Shadow; they just appropriated those characters as an identity.”

Though he picked the moniker Futura2000 in 1970, he was surprised 30 years on when he witnessed the fall of the millennium. He experienced mixed feelings at the turn of the year and dropped the 2000 from his name. Instead of lamenting the past, Futura looked forward and progressed to work with luxury Japanese streetwear brands A Bathing Ape and Maharishi. Ultimately, he went on to start his own clothing label, Futura Laboratories, and ran it for as long as he ethically felt he could. He dropped it in the wake of Japan’s nuclear disaster but hopes one day to rekindle it as an American company.

“It just seems the most efficient to have a social media presence — which I don’t really want to have. I don’t want to be on Facebook, I don’t want to be on ; I don’t want to be a commercial entity in that way. I’ve nothing to sell or promote — all I want to do is exist and exploit the space to my own advantage.”

“I had a little store in Fukuoka in Japan, but after the Fukushima disaster I felt bad about having a business there. My thing was more vanity than busine»- like, FL was a great brand because I could breakeven and I always managed to make a couple a few things every year, and I could always gift my friends with that stuff. You know. could pay the couple of people we had on staff and it was just a small-time operation that was always able to survive. And after Fuknshima I just felt guilty, in a sense that fin asking kids to worry about my stuff and I don’t even care about it that much. So in the end I stopped it…” Sneaker culture was also taking over, with Stüssy and Supreme.

Futuras other interests also encompass photography. Until recently, he ran a photographic diary online,, until other formats superseded the model he’d designed with his son. Later on he worked with more high-end photographic enterprises and made the switch to professional equipment, which enabled him to work on his own projects such as his upcoming books, one on his own work, with publishers, Rizzoli, and another documenting baseball stadiums. Excited by the capacity of the internet as a tool for reaching out and connecting people, Futura experimented with Flickr and Tumblr accounts before settling on his preferred medium.

“Just to have a presence online was great, I never wanted to commercialise myself online. It was just about saying, ‘Hey, here’s a space and I can put any content on it I want, I can do whatever I want. I’ve always wanted to do that and, finally, what happened is there’s no better application for me than Instagram.

Like, where have you been Instagram?! I’ve been on it now for three years but, in a sense, the Instagram idea has been on my mind for some time and I was doing it in other ways, it just wasn’t Instagram. Technology has finally created an application that works with the fact that we have all have these computers in our pockets. It just seems the most efficient way to have a social media presence — which I don’t really want to have. I don’t want to be on Faccbook, I don’t want to be on Twitter, I don’t want to be a commercial entity in that way. I’ve nothing to sell or promote — all I want to do is exist and exploit the space to my own advantage. You know, I speak to my son and Timothy is the only guy I follow on Instagram, he’s 13th Witness. So my photography thing is almost like me coming lately. It’s like my son became the teacher and I became his student and I learned a lot about photography from him. There’s no planning to it, everything is spontaneous.”

The dynamism of Futura’s work spreads into many aspects of his life, perhaps reflected aptly in his love of bicycles. Working as a cycle messenger in New York, bikes were

always dose to his heart and hr developed a passion for the Tour de France that grew as hr spent more time in Europe with his French wife. Tw always loved cycling. even before we had our first champion, ‘Greg! LeMond, I was into it. But nobody knew about it over here, nobody knew about European racing. So the fact that I spent a lot of time in Eu rope helped me to really become more than a hobbyist. I could have never been a pro, but at one point I could have been a pretty fast amateur and I used to just love to do it. Honestly, now I ride more recreational!}’, I’m not throwing miles of my legs like Iused to. But I love it and Irecently did a project with Antonio Colombo from CineUi, who’s a really great man. I met him back in the day when he hooked up Keith Haring with a bicycle, so that’s a great story that’s been coming hack around again. Tobe honest with you, that has definite)}’ kept me active, being on the bike a lot.”

Like most New Yorkers, Futura has been obsessed with sneakers since an early age, as well as bikes, gadgets and toys. He is something of a hoarder, but has grown to realise the beast of consumerism can never truly be sated. “I was a sneaker head with boxes and boxes and boxes of shoes. Tons from China Haul — just collecting and hoarding is awesome but at some point it gets out of control and you create a monster that doesn’t ever seem to get fed. And it’s not even about what you have, you’re in awe of and appreciative of, it’s what you don’t have. And then it gets into being something else. Ultimately, if you don’t have resources and storage capability it’s pretty sad because it all gets tossed in boxes. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you should sell it’. But that’s not how I am; I didn’t get it to sell it. And at some point, in a perfect world, I could see an amazing space that could house and exhibit this nonsense, but 1 wouldn’t want to turn it into profit. I think it’s a ‘permanent collection of and should remain as such.”

Alongside as his tumultuous love for the next new thing, Futura also struggles with the forced real estate that brands take up in our everyday lives. He loves his fellow artist Cliffs ethos of taking back public space from the advertisers and remains somewhat sceptical about the intentions of other artists in their work. “Brands have kind of cornered the marketplace in our minds. The subtlety of the constant variety…. And so, yeah, my thing about Ki adult was — and I hope I wasn’t mistaken — someone had told me that none of the things he was doing, like all of the Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Chanel actions that he took — which looks great, by the way, it’s like, ‘Yeah, fuck it up’ - someone told me that it wasn’t permanent.

They did that hr was twin# some noi l of watn I minim I solution that could hr removed (|ultr easily if they wanted to rlrart It off. So, on the one hand, I liked It, hut 1 thought if lie’s going to do it, hen got to really destroy It. If you’re going to tear it down, tear it down.

“So, for me, I liked the aggression — and I sort of like the attack, because you’ve got the kid whoa doing the fire extinguisher, KATSU, who’s doing a kind of adult style attack hut his solvent or something that’s really deadly. Both are vandalistic and technically wrong, but 1

think I like the more destructive one, rather than the fake destructive one. It’s sort of like the wheat-pasters and the kids that just run around slapping stickers on everything.

I mean there’s no level of real danger or risk, everything is just like a TV dinner or something, like you just pop it in the oven and it’s ready.”

Stepping back from the anarchic side of his artwork, Futura doesn’t have anything to prove anymore. His ego has mellowed as he has matured and he admits it has become a lot easier to find legal walls that don’t carry the same risk as bombing, but, occasionally, the urge still takes him if the timing s right. “I think the last time I physically tagged up was when I was in Paris a couple of years ago working on this project with Logan Hicks. SheOne was involved, Tristan Eaton, How & Nosm and, you know, what happened was we were a group of people walking down the street and somebody tagged up. And before you know it, six of us tagged up. And that just comes out of that group kind of thing. Ee travelled the world a couple of times over and I don’t think that I’ve tagged up on anything in the last, you know, five to 10 years. With the exception of that one day when I was with those other guys. For me, there’s no thrill anymore. The illegality is not a thrill, the writing on someone’s property is not a thrill, whatever.” As the attention and recognition he craved as a young man has lessened, he has found other, perhaps healthier channels for his creativity. Part of this evolution has also been the realisation that he can he himself too. without needing the false front of a graffiti name behind. Stepping away from the sometimes shallow world of tags and burners, he feels he can live his life with his own name, “lair years I felt that in order to he h ut urn I hud to do certain tilings, but that’s not really true. I think, now that I’m comfortable outside of that identity…Pm the artist formerly known as Futura2000, but I’m also Leonard and Lenny and I can do other things and I can take you on a journey that’s got nothing to do with graffiti or street art or any of that…

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

“Now it’s about finding that balance. Obviously because I’m in Shanghai, I’m having an exhibition, yeah, no doubt. Ini Futura. But when I’m running around on the subway system taking photographs, no, I’m not. I’m just being me then. I could learn, could teach, could do whatever, hut it doesn’t always have to he fixated on ‘me, me, me’ as the artist. “Me, me, me as the person? For sure, hut “me, me, me” as the artist? You know, sometimes. And that s how I can deal with it all. I’ll say one thing, this movement, this whole scene, this counter culture, it’s massive. There’s so many people. And everybody falls into the timeline where they fall in.

“So having been around for a minute, it’s amazing to have seen all of this happen, but I can also be sick of it all too, you know what I mean? I’ve been around long enough where I’m, like, ‘It’s old, it’s boring*. At least, what’s boring is all of the stuff that *s maybe already happened. Obviously, I’m going to be optimistic for the future and cool shit’s coming all the time, but to keep dwelling on the past — who did this and that, whatever — none of that will affect anything moving forward tomorrow…so it’s about tomorrow.

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