Last week, the legendary street artist Futura joined a young German illustrator and designer, Ramona Ring, at a public Q&A session at the Apple Store in New York's SoHo neighborhood. Ring came all the way from Hamburg, Germany, after winning the Adobe international competition centered around her illustration and design. Ring and Futura are now collaborating on the album cover for DANCE (RED) SAVE LIVES2, an album of various artists put together by the Bono-led charity (RED). All proceeds for the album go to the Global Fund to fight AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
Futura and Ring gave us the opportunity to catch up after the public session, where we talked about dance music, the impact of AIDS on Futura's life, what it's like to collaborate, and why Futura doesn't approve of fans getting his work tattooed on them.
Ramona, it's pretty fitting that you’re from Germany and that it's an electronic music album. Are you at all plugged into club culture in Germany?
Ramona Ring: I actually go out a lot. I really enjoy the clubs that Hamburg offers. They were all here before Hamburg, so you have a really beautiful view when you go out.
Futura: Just the view that the evening offers, it's a different way of looking at things for sure.
Futura, are you up on the current electronic dance music?
F: You know, I’m really not, but it's funny because I have to give it up to Kraftwerk in terms of that. For it to be a German girl we are working with, there is a connection I’m sure. But I’m really not. I’m sad to say, like the last album, I don’t really know those guys. Its not my demographic. I mean, what the hell, I’m going to be 58, not 28. So it's just not there for me. It's no slight at all. I certainly lived it at one time of my life and loved it for sure. You know, now I’ve fallen back, my choices are very eclectic. They do have a lot of range—it's not like any one thing. When Daft Punk came out, there were a couple of tracks that I burned out, probably played a Drake track too much in the last week. For me what’s important is the connectivity that (RED) has with Apple is essentially priceless. I don’t know how many people I can bring in terms of the attention to this situation. Will my involvement help in some way? Yeah, maybe in a little way, so that's what I’m in for. You know, against all the other giants that are already out there, I can only lend a little bit of support, but I am totally willing to do that. And the extra bonus of what this is all about, where they’ve got to be creative, finding Ramona, or the potential winner, whoever he or she was going to be, I think that's a great opportunity for a young artist. So that was also cool. It’s not just "Hey, lend your name to this" but also, "Oh, by the way, we are also going to do this for a young artist who will get a chance to do that." So that's cool.
Ramona, what's the best piece of advice that Futura has given you so far?
R: I am just very happy about how supportive he is. It makes me a lot more confident about my work, that he actually likes it that much. That's the important thing about that at the moment.
Futura, what piece of advice is the best that you could give to a young artist?
F: I think young people are looking for acceptance or looking for some kind of recognition, like, "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah that's really good." But a lot of times that is not there, the acknowledgment, the support, the props, whatever you want to call it. And people tend to get a little bit down about that. I would just say to a young person, "Don't listen to anyone." Basically, you have to pursue what you’re hearing in your head. I think it's pretty clear that I’m not that perceptive, but I like to think that I can look at something and get a general vibe about it, and you can just tell, Ramona's work is very kind, very soft, and yet strong, in a sense, as well. I actually told her, when I first saw some of her initial sketches, “Hey, you need to think about all the elements, what do you see?” And one of the things she presented was kind of a crowd scene, and I had already seen that actually. It was not a clairvoyance, but I already saw something she might do given her style, and she almost did it, and she was like "Yeah I like that one too." So, boom, right away there was a symbiotic, some connection, where aesthetically we are on the right page. And honestly, I already saw her do something she physically hadn’t done yet, and then when I saw it, I was like "Oh, shit, that’s crazy. I kind of thought you were going to do something like that." It’s even better when it falls together. In the next few days, we are going to pull it together. We will come up with something, and I’m excited about it.
In the initial remarks you said, “The last thing an artist wants is for some corporate bullshit to get in the way of your work.” In all of your collaborations over the years, how have you managed to keep your voice so strong?
F: I think, the people I’ve worked with, my work history, my reputational work history, it’s pretty good. Like when someone asks me to do something, I’m going to be there. I’m going to do it. I’m going deliver. I’m going to under-promise, and I’m going to over-deliver. I’m not going to have an attitude about myself. I’m not going to be pretentious about it. I’m just going to be a regular guy... For me its not about the money—yeah, it's part of our system; we have to trade paper, and there is an economy; it's an economic thing—but that doesn’t drive me. So, there is nothing someone can offer me that is going to sway my opinion. If I don’t feel right about it, I’m just not going to do it. In this situation, there is no pressure really, they just wanted my involvement and whatever creativity I can lend to the project. Like I say, I am riding in the backseat of this vehicle, so there is really no pressure for me. I’m wearing a seatbelt. She’s from Germany. I’m sure she’s a good driver.
R: I don’t have a driver's license.
F: Ok, I’ll drive, you get in the back. This is like a can’t fail project for me. Then I fall into that support role. I’m a mentor; I’m a friend; I’m a collaborator; I’m an equal. Like Steven said, Ramona a few weeks ago had no idea that this was going to happen in her life, so all of what has occurred as a result of this campaign, and this opportunity, not only for me, but for her, I think is awesome. In the end, we can already calculate that they are going to sell X amount of records, so it’s going to work. Unless people want to be aesthetically critical, like "Hey, this album cover sucks!" you know, there are going to be people who do that too. But they wouldn’t have invested in the album, in which case you wouldn’t care what their opinion was. I actually said, when this first happened, when I saw Ramona’s work, I’ll be one of the first people. I’ve spent hundreds, thousands probably, on iTunes. We all have spent money there, so I will do the same on this. I’m a member, but I’m also a client. I’m part of it, but I am also a consumer. And I would be more than willing to consume something like this because it really has a good benefit, not just for the disease that we are trying to eradicate but also in support of, in this case, a young artist’s opportunity. This doesn’t happen all of the time. This is a bit of a unique kind of thing... I wouldn’t have submitted to a competition. I would have been too afraid, like "Nah, I’m not good enough," or fear of rejection. I think that would probably have held me back even more, so the fact that I have a name, I don’t have to worry about that, that’s the benefit.
You mentioned the role of mentor, when you were starting out, who were your mentors?
F: I’ve jokingly said, “All my role models are dead.” Basically, people who I looked up to in life, there were older men, kind of trying to find an older brother, Joe Strummer, for example. When I met Joe, he was like an older brother. He was a dad. And I guess have looked at men like that. [Julian] Schnabel, in the '80s, I looked at Julian a lot, kind of learned from Julian. But even Keith [Haring] and [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, in fact they were younger, but they were contemporaries, and we were learning from each other. I mean, Keith was enormously supportive, of his friends. I learned a lot from Keith, just in treating other artists as well. So, you know, I am also a byproduct of his being kind to me, opening doors for me. And this is kind of a door opening opportunity arriving, but unlike myself back then, when I was insecure and less talented, I think Ramona arrives prepared to do what's asked. I hope, and I see a future for her in very intense illustrative work like for books that wind up being really famous, not just for the books but for your work that’s in the books because that happens too—"Oh my, the book was great, but look at the illustrations were amazing." I hope this is a platform for Ramona. My kids were here tonight. They’re young adults. My best work has been created, and I’m just trying to nurture and cultivate it enough for the future. But for me there is no feeling of "Yo, I need to do something. I need some accomplishments." No, I need to reflect or shine the light elsewhere, so that’s kind of what this is about for Ramona. And it could be overwhelming, but like I said, Ramona is very talented. He work speaks for itself, even if she couldn’t quite articulate it. In the end I think everyone would agree, like "Wow, that’s really beautiful." She’s quite lucky. She’s just sitting there drawing stuff and I’m like, "Really?" She’s drawing it, just drawing, like natural ability shit. I know people that can draw, but they are looking at something, like Mode2, great illustrator, historically, one of the best artists from my school of art in the last 30 years, he’s an amazing artist , but he takes photographs, and then he draws from the photographs. But as an artist, I am really fascinated with people’s hands, because we are all mental, but as an artisan or craftsman, things that require you to work with your hands, I am always really impressed with that. Illustration is something that kind of blows my mind. And I told her, "Ramona Ring, you’ve got the name. You are a star waiting to be born with a name like Ramona Ring." So I hope it happens, I hope it happens within the next few years. And I’m going to be your biggest fan. I’m going to tell everybody.
Because of the nature of the album and what it’s achieving, did you approach it straight from an artistic point of view, or is there an emotional component?
R: I don’t know. I’m sure that this has influenced what I do since I heard about what this is going to be about, and I just can’t leave that out of my mind. Automatically it is going to influence what is coming out in the end.
Futura, is this the most emotionally connected you’ve been, because of the impact, the relationship you had with Keith Haring?
F: There is more to it than just the normal, "Oh hey we are making a mixtape, we need album art." Yeah, of course, because there is something very serious. It's weird because we know about the disease, and we know we are trying to kill that, yet somehow through this charitable organization, (RED), they are actually able to raise awareness and money. So it goes into our thinking, only because it’s the reason why the thing exists. We are not going to be conflicted by it. We simply say, "Yeah, this is what is going on here." But creatively, no. I think you just want to approach it, like she’s saying, from a composition point of view. Some of the content in there does speak directly to the event or to the situation in Africa.
Futura, what’s with your recent obsession with heels on your Instagram?
F: Yeah, that’s like a little role play. That’s not my feet by the way. That's just my girlfriend and I. I was able to extract her shyness in her amazing collection, but yeah, that's just a byproduct, just another element of, there is probably like a dozen, family of iconography that's all in that mix. I think it’s tastefully done.
Before this interview, we met a guy named Kano, and he grabbed my notebook from me and started...
F: Started tagging up, doing little throw-ups in your book.
What can you tell me about this guy, and how often do people get your work tattooed on them?
F: He recently had those tattoos made. I feel weird about that, I don’t know if like it. My son has recently become somewhat of an illustrated man. You know, sleeves and the whole thing, and I was like, "Don’t be putting any of my shit on there."
R: Why don’t you like it?
F: I don’t know. I mean, really, there is better stuff.
R: I find it awesome when people ask me if they can take elements from my illustration.
F: But your stuff lends itself to tattoo art, my stuff not really. Although Kano did get something that was interesting. But it kind of bothers me a little. Don’t do it. I’m not that psyched about it. It's obviously the world we are living in today. It’s kind of become part of what’s going on. And I’ve got my daughter, Tabatha. I got that in Kuala Lumpur in like 2004, ten years ago almost. I’m not a tattoo guy. And I like your work too, looks like you spent some time. I like that skull head with, is that like a Mohawk? Or a headdress.
F: Once again, I think I’ve passed my window. You know, I was in the navy for four years. I did get tattooed in Hong Kong, back in the day. But, you know, I missed a window on that, and I wish kids probably wouldn’t. The characters are one thing. The gears and some of the other things, that's different. You know the symmetrical shit, I can see that more, it becomes more of a pattern. But the characters, I don’t know about that.
Ramona, this has been such a whirlwind for you, working with Futura, seeing your work, and now it's going on a global scale, so what do you take away from that?
R: I’m sure I’m going to be a lot more confident. I’m actually already confident about my work because I’ve got recognized a lot during the last year since the project I submitted was published. But from this experience, I am going to take away a lot more confidence about myself as a person because I just found it extremely scary to come here and to be the center of attention, and know that I got through this, and it feels pretty good.
How much did you know about what Futura before you came into this project?
R: When I submitted my work, it was the first time I read his name and...
F: You Googled him. That's what’s awesome too because I don’t think knowing about me was a requirement. That’s just what they were throwing out there, because it, quite frankly, might be someone who didn’t. But that shouldn’t mean, "Oh what you never heard of me?’" No, that's absurd. Chances are maybe you didn’t. We actually heard that most of the submissions were global, rather than even American because Behance has more of a global interest. So I thought some of these people they’ve probably never really heard of me. If you’ve never heard of me and you Google me, oh god, because then you are not going to get me. You’re going to get this ridiculous version of me, which is nonsense. I can’t control any of that. When I meet people, I’m like, "Can we tear down the mythology a little bit?" It’s a lot of bullshit actually. I’m just a regular guy and blah, blah, blah. Although I have a very positive reputation, in terms of, "Hey, this guy is ok to work with," I also have one that intimidates younger people, like "Shit, Futura." But no, it’s not like that, I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t demand, I don’t roll in an entourage. I don’t need X men around me, everyone assuring me, like I’m the shit. I do my own thing. I’m often seen alone, and people think I’m weird. And I am, but in a cool way, not in a serial killer way. I’m the guy that will anonymously hook everything up. They’re like, "Oh, who did that? Oh, that guy. Oh, I thought he was a creep." I’m cool with that, that everyone is not really on to me, because I don’t have room to be that friendly with that many people. But Ramona’s my new friend, and I'm fully supporting her work. I’m already thinking, what are the '20s going to be like? Not the roaring '20s of Boardwalk Empire but the next five or six years when we hit the '20s, what are they going to be like? So, my mind's already there, which means I can’t fully see, not appreciate what’s happening now, but it’s all happening a bit fast, and I’m already a little bit down the road. So I’ll just do everything here now, make sure I don’t offend anyone and do the right thing, but mostly, the shit I’m going to get involved in, it’s down the line. For now, it’s all about Ramona, and (RED), and thank you Apple. They’re still selling my Beats collaboration here which is very nice to see, so that’s cool.
R: I would like to add very quickly that since I’m here, I find it extremely weird that Futura isn’t as popular in Germany as he is here. None of my friends have heard of him, but when I wrote to some friends from Montana and Philadelphia that this is going to happen they were like, "Oh my god Futura." I mean, it’s so weird.
He’s an icon.
F: Well, I was born in Manhattan, not Mindelheim. But I’ve been known to be popular in Asia. I don’t take not being popular in Germany as an offence. I told you, in ‘85, when I went and tagged on the Berlin wall. I thought that was like pretty damn cool.
RELATED: A History of Futura's Collaborations