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.