Born in 1955, raised as Leonard Hilton McGurr by a black mother and white father, he grew up in New York at 103rd and Broadway. The culture clashes of the 1960s, the imagination of science fiction, and a sense of lost identity drove him toward the world of street writing. A horrific accident drove him away, but he returned to go where no graffiti artist had gone before.
Thank you, Mr. Kubrick
It came out of the blue, as deadly as a dagger, when Futura’s mother abruptly announced that he was adopted. He claims he became “Futura 2000” that very night: “So I’m a weird individual in the sense that I don’t know where I come from.”
He was 15, and didn’t know who he really was, when he first joined crews tagging New York’s subway lines in 1970. He wanted to establish himself. He wanted the world to know his tag. The simple principle behind graffiti, as far as he knew, was that you became somebody by putting up your name.
He came up with “Futura 2000” from the font, the Ford car model and Stanley Kubrick’s film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He ran with ALI and the Soul Artists. For two years he mostly motion tagged the subway’s 1 and 3 trains, but sometimes he painted up buildings in Queens and the Bronx.
“I was a full-blown, New York City graf wannabe,” Futura says. “Had no identity. Hadn’t a name. Wasn’t up that much. You know, more than a toy, I was a fan.” As he retells it, it was thrilling to witness your work pass by on a subway car.
Futura had little to claim beyond his tag when the UGA exhibition at Soho’s Razor Gallery broke the scene wide open in 1973. Media coverage of the show, especially by New York Magazine, created a turning point in street art — but not for Futura, who never realized it because of an accident.
While Futura and ALI busied themselves on cars in the lay-up tunnel below Broadway, a live rail ignited aerosol cans into a fiery explosion. ALI’s face and body were severely burned, so much so that doctors concluded it necessary to amputate the artist’s hands. ALI’s mother opposed the medical staff and, after months of recuperation, he returned to his work. Futura, spared physically, felt too emotionally shaken to carry on — he effectively retired from graffiti. He joined the U.S. Navy and traveled the world with the merchant marines from 1974 to 1978.
Futura’s life back home evolved in his absence. His mother passed away in 1975. Then his father suffered a mental collapse and destroyed everything from Futura’s childhood. In 1978, the artist returned to New York to discover his former life in ruins, his adoptive parents gone, his material sense of home obliterated. He never learned anything about his real parents.
The graffiti scene had also gone through radical changes. When Futura returned to painting in 1979, he discovered that the current street artists and their techniques had grown up to encompass sophisticated applications of shading and 3-D perspective. But for all that evolution, most of the art still centered on letters and characters. Futura’s sense of graphic design began to stir, and he wondered if he could translate the technique of action painting into graffiti.
The new generation of artists admired Futura’s new, abstract style (the street always raved, and always will rave, about his tag). As hip-hop, punk and urban art converged, Futura found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Fab 5 Freddy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Patti Astor. He became the closest of friends with Fab, the man who famously rendered a subway car with Warhol-esque soup cans.
Futura and his new associates were pointedly aware of the recent explosion of graffiti as gallery art, such as Lee Quinones’ 1979 Galeria Le Medusa exhibition in Rome. And they all wanted more. They wanted their work to transcend the common view of street art as illegitimate.
Futura took to working on canvas for the first time in 1980. He undertook live painting at the Roxy and other clubs. Then he produced a mural at Patti Astor’s East 3rd Street apartment, an event that dramatically altered his career. Astor later described the happening as a BBQ at which the entire art world showed up. Soon afterward, Astor and partner Bill Stelling opened their East Village exhibition space for graffiti artists, long before other New York galleries dared recognize the form.
Futura’s work played a key role in the new explosion of legitimized street art. He recalls the times with almost a shrug of the shoulders — Futura had arrived, he’d become hip and relevant and happening, and critics compared him with the likes of Kandinsky and other artists he’d never even heard of.
Futura’s quick trip continued, meeting up with The Clash in 1981. He painted a backdrop for its Big Apple shows. He later joined them on a European tour in which he painted on stage during the concerts (he also met his future wife on tour). The band produced a quasi-rap track by Futura who also lent his voice to their song “Overpowered by Funk.” For the band’s 1982 “Combat Rock” album, Futura hand-scribed the lyric notes.
The artist later returned to France with Fab 5 Freddy in a sort of hip-hop road show. Some claim their multi-city tour helped establish hip-hop in France. In 1984 he traveled to Russia, photographed in Red Square as a bad-boy representative of hip-hop.
Street art lost its flavor-of-the-month status in the art world by the mid-1980s, and Futura moved into other ventures. He co-founded a graffiti art clothing label, GFS. It eventually folded, but led to Project Dragon and Subware. In 1998 Futura returned to music graphics, creating cover art and a character he dubbed “Pointman” for the group UNKLE. Since then he has ventured into publishing, toys, struck deals with Nike and Levi’s, and developed his own clothing company based in Tokyo — he even dropped the numerals from his name in the year 2000.
It’s been one heck of a street odyssey for Futura, one of the graffiti’s grand masters. He put the “art” in street art with a vision that broke boundaries and questioned limits. The generations who have come up since, those that took new risks and raised the artistic stakes, they all took their lead from Futura. The street owes him for that.