How the graf legend progressed from subway cars to art-world stardom without losing his cool.
This feature is a part of Complex's Futura Week.
PART ONE: THE FRENCH CONNECTION
It’s a cold, wet April day in Cognac, France. A small group of intrepid travelers is huddled around a fire. But while the brief respite from the chill is more than welcome, the blaze isn’t there for comfort. Nope, they’re learning about how barrels are constructed.
“Does anyone want to give it a try?” The elegantly dressed Frenchman guiding them through one of Hennessy’s oldest facilities wants the group to experience firsthand the craft that makes the world’s leading cognac special.
A master cooper in blue work clothes is pulling on a massive contraption that tightens metal rings around heated oak staves, the same way they’ve been doing it here for 250 years. Nervous smiles abound. Leonard McGurr, better known as Futura, isn’t shy. He jumps right in, not afraid of getting his hands dirty. His excitement is contagious. “It is amazing to be brought here to learn the process,” he says after mastering the centuries-old technology and successfully putting together a barrel. “This stuff I can learn in a book, but it’s more impressionable to learn on site. I want to sponge up on everything and then I can better explain the brand."
We’re in France because, four decades into a storied career, Futura is sitting on his largest project to date — a collaboration with Hennessy that’s placing his signature atom design on 360,000 bottle labels worldwide (200,000 in the USA alone). His gusto for barrel-making is indicative of his appetite for adventure and learning—the same qualities that have helped the former graf legend solidify a place in the art world and even beyond that—in the real world. This Henny collabo is a project that encapsulates a career, and more importantly, a life.
Hennessy is no stranger to the arts. Since 2007, the brand—which merged with Moët et Chandon in 1971 and then in 1987 became part of Louis Vuitton, creating LVMH, one of the world’s most esteemed luxury conglomerates—has released limited-edition packages of Hennessy XO (extra old) Cognac, working several times with the brilliant industrial designer Arik Levy. Perennially popular street artist KAWS (Brian Donnelly) joined Hennessy’s collaborative ranks last year, kicking off an annual series of collectible bottles of the brand’s best-selling VS (Very Special) Cognac. This street art series has expanded the firm’s art projects, sharing them with the largest possible audience.
Futura embodies the notion of ‘never stop, never settle.’
—Rodney Williams, Hennessy
"Futura embodies the notion of ‘never stop, never settle’ with his cutting-edge design of our new limited-edition bottle," Hennessy USA's Senior Vice President Rodney Williams says of their latest collaboration. "Spirited and unbounded, Futura's bottle design captures the unique energy and bold colors that have made him one of the world’s most sought-after graffiti artists. It’s a fresh adaptation that brings together Futura's artistic roots and the DNA of the Hennessy brand in a novel, highly creative expression that commands attention."
“Given what Brian had done, I was super excited to do something possibly better,” Futura says of his entry to the Hennessy lineage, “I just thought, Wow, I could flip something cool. I also look at my own French connection as an awesome additive to all this."
Futura loved France long before hooking up with Hennessy. It was one of the first countries to embrace him as an artist, and also the place where he met his wife. “Everyone wants to reflect back on when they were somewhere, when they did something,” he says. “For all the bullshit that goes into historical references this is one is legit.”
His name notwithstanding, history is important to Futura. “I was a history major as a kid in school—technically World War history,” he recalls. “I want to know why things are the way they are.” This, then, is a story about how things got to the way they are, about the context of a collaboration and the consummation of a career. It's a story about how a street artist became a true pioneer and—perhaps even more remarkably—how he maintained and expanded his relevance over an extended period of time. So let's take it back to the start.
PART TWO: MAKING A NAME
Leonard Hilton McGurr grew up on 103rd and Broadway in Manhattan during the boom years of train bombing. As a youngster in the 1960s his eyes were drawn to the bustling graffiti scene, searching for his own vision in 1970 as a 15 year old. Looking up to SNAKE, CAT 87, STITCH I on a local level as well as all-city legends PHASE 2, FLINT, and STAY HIGH 149, he mostly ran with ALI as one of the Soul Artists focusing on the 1 and 3 trains.
The former Futura2000 began as a “toy,” more fan than hero and far from even scratching the surface of local legend status. But the numerical portion of his artistic alias spoke to a grand view and a particular ambition that was absent from others painting around him. “My name is a direct response to 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY from Kubrick,” he explains. With many writers employing street numbers in their names, he "was looking for something unique; something about Futura2000 sounded good at the time.”
I was always influenced by graphic design and I wondered if spray painting could be action painting.
After an accident in a train tunnel—a friend of his stepped on the third rail and was badly burned—Futura spent the years 1974 to 1978 traveling the world in the Merchant Marines before returning to New York to focus on his work with new passion. Rather than playing with his own take on wild-style lettering, Futura began to carve a separate path. “I started painting in late ’79,” McGurr recalls, “I was always influenced by graphic design and I wondered if spray painting could be action painting." Though it was far from Jackson Pollock, his distinctive style—abstract, atomic forms written over lush sprays of dense color—diverged from the popular character-writing style of his graf peers and soon found favor in another world, the bustling downtown New York art scene.
Back when hip-hop was rubbing shoulders with punk, Futura headed a few miles south of his home turf with his friend Fab 5 Freddy and began kicking it with the likes of Patti Astor, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. "I met Fab after he did his famous Warhol-esque soup cans subway car," recalls Futura, "He was working with Lee Quinones at the time and was the obvious connection to the downtown scene."
Artist, TV personality, video director, and hip-hop historian Fab 5 Freddy recalls being impressed by Futura’s individualism. “Graffiti, at its core, is about style,” Fab observes. “Futura had a really cool way of writing his name which allowed him to stand out from the rest. I saw right away that he had a unique style and a cool personality, so I plugged him into my downtown friends.”
Futura had a really cool way of writing his name which allowed him to stand out from the rest. I saw right away that he had a unique style and a cool personality.
—Fab 5 Freddy
The two artists were kindred spirits, both aware of the demonization of graffiti. “Futura was a part of the Soul Artists, smart guys that were doing graffiti,” says Fab. “They saw what was going on and also wanted to explore the possibilities of the art world and this new audience for the work.” They had heard about Fab and Lee’s 1979 exhibition at Galeria La Medusa in Rome, one of the first proper graffiti exhibitions, and were inspired to join their ranks in the international art scene. “What we were all trying to do is carve our own lane and represent,” says Freddy, “There were no positive words for what we were doing, no positive reinforcement of what we doing. I knew that he was intelligent enough to hold a conversation and he could explain what he was doing the world.”
In 1980, Futura and Fab 5 Freddy shared a studio space on the far Lower East Side (Fab still owns one of his first canvases, and abstract composition of ovals with a Futura tag in the corner). Once downtown, Futura began painting live inside clubs like the Roxy. He also created a mural at Patti Astor’s apartment on East 3rd Street, an event that served as the the catalyst for her pioneering FUN Gallery.
“I had a landmark BBQ when Futura did a mural on the wall of my $65/month tenement pad on 3rd St. across from the Men's Shelter and the entire art world showed up,” Astor shared with @149th back in 2000. Futura’s work and the subsequent fervor it inspired opened her eyes (and, moreover, her partner Bill Stelling’s imagination) to the possibility of an East Village exhibition space for graffiti artists at a time when other galleries were still unsure of the form's potential. McGurr soon became a fixture in one of the most vibrant periods of New York's cultural life.
Art and music mixed fluidly in the moment. “During the huge Clash events in 1981, when they played multiple dates at Bonds, we met and I did some art work for them,” McGurr remembers. Intent on soaking up the hip-hop scene on their trip to New York, the seminal English punk band enlisted Futura to paint a backdrop used during their Big Apple shows in support of their epic triple-album Sandinista! “Later they would invite me on the European Tour, have me paint live on stage, and actually do a faux rap track entitled “The Escapades of Futura2000.” The song, recorded at Electric Ladyland studio, found the artist explaining the history of graffiti and was released as a Futura solo project. The Clash were working on their Combat Rock album at the same time; Futura also lent his voice to the song “Overpowered By Funk” and his signature lettering style to the 1982 album’s lyric notes.
I came here [to France] in the '80s, took one of their ladies, brought her home, married her, and made children.
Relaxing in the lush sitting room of Chateau de Bagnolet, a gorgeous antique-filled estate bought by August Hennessy in 1841, McGurr has clearly come a long way from 103rd and Broadway. Surrounded by Hennessy family heirlooms, this seems the perfect place to reflect on Futura’s journey thus far.
“What a life-changing summer!” Futura exclaims. “I came to Paris in 1981 with The Clash, which helped my reputation here.” Though the significance of the tour isn’t lost on McGurr, he’s still got a proper sense of humor about it. “I came here in the '80s, took one of their ladies, brought her home, married her, and made children,” he jokes. The trip also cemented his stature in Europe and kicked off a series of other Continental connections.
His next visit to France came quickly, with Futura joining his friend Fab 5 Freddy on what amounted to a hip-hop roadshow. Both artists had released singles, Futura’s “Escapades” coming on the heels of Freddy’s “Change the Beat,” giving them further reason to promote their respective visions. And so they hit a variety of cities in France with 50 other representatives of the new culture, including Afrika Bambaataa and graffiti writers Dondi and Ramelzee, having what Freddy describes as “a wild, anything goes jam session.” The tour effectively rooted hip-hop in France, which remains one of the world’s largest markets for rap music and the other core elements.
In in 1984 Futura traveled to Russia, a country that played an important role in the development of his style. “By the time I got to Moscow, I had already heard the references to Kandinsky and the Russian Constructivists.” He seized this opportunity with his usual lust for learning. “I'd been to libraries before any of this happened," he says. "As a child, as a student, and through museum visits such as MOMA and the Whitney.” Now that he was in Russia, he wanted to see it all up close.
Instead, he wound up getting photographed in Red Square striking a B-Boy pose and wearing head-to-toe adidas. The shot landed in The FACE magazine’s July 1984 issue, where it became a key element of a story entitled “B-Boys At The Kremlin: Taking Hip Hop To Moscow.” It was a reminder that despite all his artistic ambition, Futura was still caught between two worlds, employed as a sort of hip-hop-styled muse and still not fully appreciated for his visionary abstractions.
The 1980s closed with less of a bang than the decade had begun, and Futura found himself in a slight lull—but his restless curiosity soon led him to embrace the alternatives to art world success, seeking new avenues to connect with an audience. One of those was streetwear. Along with fellow New York writers Gerb and Stash, he founded GFS, a pioneering clothing label that brought sophisticated graffiti graphics to T-shirts and sweatshirts. Although the brand eventually folded, it served its purpose as a jumping-off point pushing Futura to work on similar enterprises like Project Dragon and Subware—ultimately moving into the realm through which most of our generation understands his work.
The vicissitudes of life dictated some of Futura’s next moves. After he “took a series of wrong turns,” he says, “I somehow found myself in London.” There he met James Lavelle, founder of the electronic music label Mo' Wax, which helped a new generation of music lovers discovered Futura’s work. Just as The Clash helped expose him to Europe, Futura’s second musical collaboration presented a new vision of his work to an increasingly global audience. In 1998, Futura created the cover art for UNKLE, a group made up of Lavelle and Bay Area producer//turntablist DJ Shadow. Their debut album, Psyence Fiction was also the debut of Futura’s signature Pointman—an abstracted, almost robotic figure with an elongated head—another pivotal step in his progression.
“Without the UNKLE experience, I don't think anyone would have ever heard of the Pointman,” notes Futura, “In addition James Lavelle was most instrumental in not only exposing my artwork to that new audience; but also producing the Futura book back in the year 2000.” A sketchbook history of the artist’s evolution, the book connected the dots of his work up to that point—from writing on trains to designing album sleeves—contextualizing a spontaneous, serendipitous career.
Without the UNKLE experience, I don't think anyone would have ever heard of the Pointman.
The success of UNKLE gave Pointman a life of its own. The figure soon became the basis for collectible toys produced by the Japanese manufacturer Medicom and collaborations with the likes of Bathing Ape, Levi’s, Nike, and the continued development of McGurr’s own Tokyo-based Futura LABORATORIES brand, a fully fledged clothing line which has collaborated with Japanese technical clothing company Descente and deployed Pointman on a range of electronics accessories. The Pointman figure became a locus for new interactions with an increasingly diverse and dispersed audience—an audience united, of course, by the Internet.
Futura was quick to embrace the web’s potential. "As soon as I heard about the Internet, I was very excited to get on that information superhighway," he says. "Almost twenty years later it appears to have changed the way we live. I see the interaction between myself and the public at large to be increasingly positive."
Through his own websites, Flickr, and most recently Instagram, Futura has always maintained a presence in the digital space. He’s used it wisely, extending his world view through a slightly left-of-center, but oh-so-fitting approach to provoking creative interaction, especially through instagram where he relishes maintaining individual connections with fans. That social platform also allows Futura to share his secondary artistic passion, photography. Regardless of the project, he’s always got the same simple aim with art: “get other people inspired.” So what Futura’s own inspiration?
PART THREE: THE POWER OF NUMBERS
“It’s massive,” says Futura of his Hennessy collaboration. He’s smoking a cigar before dinner in the conservatory of Chateau de Bagnolet. On one side of the room Arik Levy’s most recent sculptural bottle design for the brand towers above perfectly set tables. “Sometimes, when these type of projects appear…” he pauses, searching for a way to put it all in perspective. He remembers one in particular where he teamed with Philadelphia-born, New York-based letter master Steve Powers (aka ESPO) on another large corporate engagement. “We all did a Calvin Klein bottle, but it didn’t have my signature. For me it’s all based on that tag.”
As a writer, he says, he was never one to blanket the streets. He chose his spots carefully, thinking critically about both longevity and visibility. Tagging 360,000 bottles gives him plenty of both. “Getting up is not the main thing,” he says, “but it is a great perk.”
Something like this [Hennessy collab] is a door-opener. My goal is to present myself and let them determine if I am worthy of their time.
For all the graphic design work and global success, the lure of art for Futura remains the same as it did when he started writing on 103rd and Broadway —for him it’s a mode of communication, a chance to interact with people.
“Something like this is a door-opener,” he says of the bottles. “Needless to say I’m going to open up my audience. My goal is to present myself and let them determine if I am worthy of their time.”
Of course, another door opener is the current fervor for street art, which has never been more popular or respected. “Banksy, Shepard Fairy, Swoon,” Futura says, ticking off the names of street art’s new generation. “Any of the contemporary people who are blowing up right now and giving art more visibility and more credibility, it really allows me to appear and say ‘Hey—what’s up guys? I’m here.’” At this point he’s as much an old master as Rembrandt.
"Futura's contributions to the abstract element of graffiti are well documented,” asserts Eric HAZE, famed for his graphic design work with Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys. “His important place in art history will remain clear.”
Futura was able to strip away the letters for pure abstract color and form, making a statement that is still being digested today. —Poesia, Graffuturism
“It’s hard to explain how important Futura is to our evolution as artists,” says Poesia, a major figure in the Graffuturism movement. “As the cliche states, Futura was ahead of his time,” notes the Bay Area artist. “He was a complete paradigm shift... Futura's purely abstract whole car in 1980 can be compared to Wassily Kandinsky's first purely abstract paintings. Both were firsts and painted almost 60 years apart. Kandisky opened a door to modern art, Futura has opened a door to what we are doing today. Futura was able to strip away the letters for pure abstract color and form, making a statement that is still being digested today. The graffiti artist leaving figurative letter forms, the graffiti artist transcending aesthetically, the graffiti artist becoming an artist, graffiti becoming art—Futura addressed so much with one painting. It didn’t stop there. He’s had huge impacts in streetwear, photography, design, publishing and much more. He seems to always be first to the punch on so many things. Legend is not a strong enough word. He is the exception to every rule, unparalleled.”
Despite his OG status, Futura keeps his finger on the street art pulse. “Logan Hicks is a mastermind, Saber is the sweetest spray painter, and C215 is my brother from another mother,” says Futura, applauding those who wave the flag of progressive graffiti. “There is a whole new crew, this Graffuturism crew. I love that,” he says, “The thing that is great is that it has been coming for a decade. It was great to see 2010 hit. I see things from a decade-to-decade perspective and I see abstract having its time now.”
Although he enjoys the universal respect of his peers, Leonard McGurr remains, as Poesia puts it, a “humble visionary.” Thanks to his keen interest in history, he knows his place in art is understood and rarely toots his own horn.
“Who started all that?” Futura asks, ashing his cigar, then half-jokingly answers his own question. “Duh, Lenny.” All jokes aside, Futura says that “It has never really been about me.” Still he concedes that “I need to be more assertive in the art world—and I will be.”
In January, Futura mounted his most recent solo show at Galerie Jerome de Noirmont in Paris. The opening drew friends ranging from the French fashion designer Agnes B., with whom Futura created one of his first co-branded products, to up-and-coming English street artist Nick Walker. It was the type of crowd that hammered home an essential point — Futura speaks to many people and his forward movements function like a snowball, bundling up old fans with new ones.
The fresh paintings on view proved that the 57-year-old artist is still progressing. His traditional atom, helix, and Pointman were minimized, his canvases pushing beyond the edges of traditional graffiti and into a more fluid abstract realm, soft aerosol mixing with harder paint and marker line for a never-before-seen depth. The exhibition served as a reminder that Leonard McGurr is always looking for new angles and new challenges.
The relationship I have with my kids is super strong. In the end, the value of my relationship with my family outweighs everything. —Futura
His own call to action comes from his own family. Futura’s daughter, Tabatha, is with us at Chateau de Bagnolet. For each of her father’s stories, she has an aside. She lovingly cuts him down, playfully punctuating points with a “you’re stupid”. McGurr’s son, Timothy (making a name for himself as a photographer under the moniker 13th Witness, is physically absent but a constant presence as father and daughter check iPhones and track him via social media.
“Coming from a broken situation, it was important for me to get my family together,” says Futura, who was an adopted child himself. “The relationship I have with my kids is super strong. In the end, the value of my relationship with my family outweighs everything. Moving forward, that balance helps me maintain a certain reality in my life.”
The stars of art and family are now aligning. Just over 30 years ago, Futura came to France and set off on an artistic journey that continues to surprise and delight. When we see his signature and that trademark abstract style on the Hennessy bottle, we understand the history, and we see it repeating as the art world—and the real world—gets back to Futura.