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Across 50 years in the art scene, Futura has undergone a brilliant evolution from graffiti prodigy to design master.

Design Matters: Futura

Design Matters: Futura

ARTIST

10.5.21

Futura / graphic design / graffiti / street art / artist / Jean-Michel Basquiat / Keith Haring

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Leonard Hilton McGurr was a young artist writing graffiti on subway cars in New York City. Then he joined the Navy and was overseas for four years. When he came back, the graffiti scene was beginning to merge with the East Village scene and generating art stars like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. McGurr started working on canvas, became integral to the movement, and over the years his lush and lyrical paintings have turned him into the art star we know as Futura. He’s also designed album covers and performed onstage with The Clash, and if that wasn’t cool enough, he’s also designed sneakers and automobiles. Futura, welcome to Design Matters.


Futura:

Thank you. Glad to be with you, Debbie. Thanks for having me.


Debbie Millman:

I know you go by Lenny, so I’m going to try to call you that. I’m a little bit awestruck here, so I’m going to calm my nerves. But, Lenny, you grew up on 103rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. What is your first memory of being creative?


Futura:

Well, I’d have to tell you, I think it was the World’s Fair in 1964/1965. And it’s funny, because I heard Seinfeld mention that, or someone else of my same demographic, numerics. I think the World’s Fair was huge for me in terms of the time spent that it existed out there in Flushing, Queens. And the fact that as a result, New York City Board of Education at the time was looking at it as this unbelievable resource right in town. And so, I remember being bused out there a lot as far as trips. But it was very inspirational and eye-opening in seeing the globe. Because I had been looking at TV, and the only thing I knew about the world other than what I read in books was what I saw on television, and it was basically sports and Olympic Games. I was always excited about the international-ness of the world.


Debbie Millman:

Knowing this now has suddenly put your body of work, utilizing the atom iconography—


Futura:

It makes sense.


Debbie Millman:

… in a whole new perspective.


Futura:

Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing.


Debbie Millman:

Completely new perspective.


Futura:

Yeah, because you’re also at the dawn … well, not even the dawn, we’re in the Atomic Age. I mean, I’m going to school and the whole drill of what good is it going to do for a little kid to get under a desk? We grew up with drills like that. Now, OK, that’s just the ’60s for you. For me the atomic symbol and atomic energy was obviously a thing. I mean, we were at war, or basically holding a war at bay, over the threat of such an attack. So I was very aware as a kid about a lot of those things. I was curious about science. I’m a big Kubrick fan, as you probably have heard, Dr. Strangelove.


Futura:

So I’m a child of all of that, but the World’s Fair specifically, and the nuclear age was the impetus for some of my symbolism, sure. And, for me, that symbol, personally, it’s just the energy within me and I sort of motifed it, right? I kind of found something to symbolize that for me.


Debbie Millman:

You were first introduced to graffiti riding the subway back and forth to school. What kind of work do you remember seeing at the time, and what kind of impression did it make on you?


Futura:

Well, it was like amateur hour, you know? All of that initial timeline, right? Because it’s just one level up from a Magic Marker to a can of spray paint, and it was very primitive. It wasn’t as if it had evolved. Now there were the Phase 2s, and the Riff 170s, and the Flint 707s. Some writers of the early ’70s who were already expanding beyond what we thought a spray can could do, i.e., replace a marker, pencil or pen in your hand and just write something, some sort of stylized version of your name, but now elaborating on that.


Futura:

The first book of our culture is called The Faith of Graffiti with the foreword by Norman Mailer, and has a European title called Watching My Name Go By. There’s a great graffiti writer, rest in peace, named Stay High 149. He was kind of an inspiration for me in his sense of what his tag, his signature, looked like on the wall inside a subway car, outside of a subway. Wherever he put his name, it just looked amazing, and he had a backup name called Voice of the Ghetto. And Voice of the Ghetto and Watching My Name Go By, those two phrases, or combinations of words, are everything for me as far as how do you explain what it all is.


Futura:

On one hand, yeah, it is Voice of the Ghetto, and AKA Stay High had really immortalized a kind of sensibility, because that’s what it was initially. And Watching My Name Go By is this idea of later looking at trains, riding through our system, from rooftops in the Bronx, street corners in Brooklyn, anywhere there was an elevated train. Now, sure, you could see trains roll through the system underground, but they look better upstairs. And I still know what that feels like, though I’m far beyond that kind of sensation. I do miss that, being that young artist doing things like that, just kind of for the fun of it. Because I think initially it was just the thrill of writing your name. And when I took the train, those names spoke to me. I wanted to be part of that bigger movement.


Debbie Millman:

You picked up your first spray paint can in 1970 and you started spraying the subway system as well as the entrance to the Statue of Liberty. Did you have any sense at that point of what you wanted to create, and did you get in trouble for painting the entrance to the Statue of Liberty?


Futura:

See, what happened was TAKI 183, he’s the recognized kind of godfather here in New York. T-A-K-I 183, a Greek kid—just to say TAKI was immortal in the sense he got published in the Times, I think, in ’69. This was way before Faith of Graffiti, which, I said, was ’74. So TAKI was already being written about in New York, locally. And then, in a public service announcement, I believe it was an anti-smoking commercial of a family walking up the torch of the statue, because back in the day you could literally walk up her hand, into the torch, and look out on the torch. I think that’s all been closed, right?


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I remember that.


Futura:

But back then you could walk up the spiral staircase and there was a TAKI tag on that spiral staircase. Because I think what the smoking PSA was, the father started to walk up the stairs and he’s stopping and coughing. It was one of those things, very subtle, but wow, the dude shouldn’t be smoking. That TAKI tag to me was, “Oh, wow. OK. Well, I’ll never have the balls to do that. I’m not going up in there and get caught.” But I’ll write on the fence or some … as a kind of homage actually, to him. But yeah, I was trying to join. Like I said, I wanted to be a graffiti writer. And Futura 2000, the name, the tag I had at that time was kind of elaborate. It had arrows, and I look at it now, I’m like, “Wow, very aspirational.”


Futura:

But my tag, I felt, was also very important, as was my name. TAKI was using his own name. He lived on 183rd Street. A lot of the kids were not being very clever. Joe 136, so—


Debbie Millman:

That meant Joe lived on 136th Street, right?


Futura:

Pretty much. Yes, exactly. As did Joe 182 and Mike 171, so there was something “like you’re the guy up on North Pole, you just put your flag there.”


Debbie Millman:

You own that territory.


Futura:

Yeah. That’s your spot. But then the kickback or the reward with the graffiti community is, well, “now go out and do that as many times as you want, increase over space and time and visibility and stuff.” That is the whole premise behind Getting Up. Getting Up is another book written by a man named Craig Castleman. And his idea was basically just putting your name up there as a sense of like, “There I am. This is my identity. I exist.”


Debbie Millman:

And maybe “I belong here.”


Futura:

Yeah. Well, the taking over of public spaces, I mean, I think in the beginning there was a kind of code. We had rules and we frowned upon private property, in the sense of like, “Let’s not be destroying people’s stuff, but the city’s open game.” But that just kind of got out of control, kids tagging on everything. Me, personally, I would never do that. I’ve always been offended actually when I go to, like, Europe, at a time in the world when one could go to Europe. And then see Italy just tagged horribly, as is France. Europe has a graffiti problem, for sure, as does, I guess, New York, as well.


Debbie Millman:

But is it really a problem? Who is it a problem to?


Futura:

Well, I feel like it’s very difficult to control the lowest level of what’s happening on the street. Whoever is a 14–20 year old in any of these areas that have a graffiti community that’s not really based on any sort of, at least of now, thought of advancement, and kind of rise up out of that into something else where one might be more creative and could financially benefit from their creativity in some way. But at the moment I’m talking about the core of kids that are the real graff heads that just bomb. They’re tagging up, they’re doing throw-ups, they’re going over each other.


Futura:

It’s pretty easy for me, even 50 years later, to read the writing on the wall. It’s just all there. You see it. And I think that is a bit of an eyesore on society that is always going to be the demerit to the greatness of what this culture’s become, because on face value, there is nothing really interesting about that. But it’s hypocritical or almost paradoxical, but I can’t not understand their, I don’t know what, their angst, their feeling, and where they are in the position. I get it. That’s why I don’t ever really want to tell young people what to do. I think they’ve got to figure that out. But I do think there is still a community that’s not interested in really making art.


Debbie Millman:

Lenny, you said as a light-skinned teenager raised by interracial parents, you grew up confused about where you fit in. You didn’t find out that you had been adopted until you were 15 years old, and stated that while this revelation helped you make sense of some of your sort of innate confusion, it also robbed you of your identity, and that’s really when you turned to writing graffiti. How did you find or discover your identity through writing graffiti?


Futura:

Bingo, Debbie. Yeah, that’s it. Because I get that information, right? “Hey, honey, we’re not blah, blah, blah.” And I was already confused because I was growing up as a mixed kid, or so I assumed. But I never was like, “Woe is me.” There were plenty of other kids who were certainly less fortunate. And I had a lot of love, I appreciated that a lot. Fortunately, somebody got me in the right hands and then these guys took care of me. Then, as a result, of my, “Oh, wow. Who am I? What am I? I’m not them. I’m not who I thought I was.” Graffiti just lent itself to, “OK, I’ll create an identity. I’ll join this. And I know that I’m Futura. I know I am Futura now. This much I’m sure.”


Futura:

That was my impetus, I feel, to become the graffiti writer. If I could take something that I always felt was, to most people, quite important, their whole upbringing, and family, and all of that. Well, hey, when my mom passed in ’75, and I just picked it right up from there and dealt with my grieving pops, who was super distraught. And for another 10 years he was on earth, and when he passed, it was kind of a, “OK, that’s …” I just sort of had a way of removing myself, really, emotionally from it, because, “Well, duh, I’m on my own. I’m on my own, right? So I need to get on with my own life.”


Futura:

And I did have dreams, not about being a famous artist, but about being a father, actually. And trying to succeed in that part where I felt some things weren’t necessarily in that classic … not like Rockwell, but you know, the family, whatever that is. And as a result, I think my own desire to ultimately get that done in my life, I did. And whatever my art career was, I balanced that along the way. I’m of the good fortune, I think, just not of my own labor, effort, talent, whatever, maybe it was my upbringing. My mom was very strong with me.


Debbie Millman:

But she did make you a jacket you could put your spray paint cans in, as I understand?


Futura:

She absolutely did.


Debbie Millman:

Not only for being able to take them into the subway, but also for taking them into stores to potentially acquire spray paint cans in a manner that wasn’t necessarily legal.


Futura:

You’re right. My mother was very supportive, actually, in a lot of ways, and creative, too, way more than me. I think you had asked about my creativity, and I had mentioned the World’s Fair. But my mom was really great with her hands and could just whip up stuff—not just great food, but any number of kind of MacGuyver-y things, in the sense of putting stuff together. I really loved my mom growing up, and the beauty for me and my mom was that she was actually 40 years older than me. Her wisdom, at her age, I feel, was awesome because it was very much antiquated in an old-fashion-y way, but with these value systems that I still think are … there is still some really good stuff there. So I’m grateful for that upbringing and, strangely enough, when I went into the military for four years, those guys were nothing compared to the sort of regimentation that my mom delivered to me throughout my life.


Debbie Millman:

So she was really the one that taught you discipline?


Futura:

Without question, and responsibility, and all of these kind of qualities that I feel most individuals should have, just on face value. The same things I tried to impart to my kids, like being decent, obviously, but beyond that, being helpful in ways in which you can and stuff. I’ve carried all of that, and I also learned a lot in the military, too. That was my four years of university, and when I came back from that experience, none of my friends … well, some had been educated locally in colleges and whatever. Some went out of state, but some had never even left the block.


Futura:

So it was remarkable how I felt I had matured as a man, as a person, just in that experience. And having the ability to tell someone, if they were interested, “Oh, I was in Mumbasa, Kenya,” or something. And they’re like, “What?” So that was amazing as a 22 year old, I guess, coming back with all that new information, which, back to the World’s Fair, was why I chose to … the expression at that time was, join the Navy, see the world. And I was like, “That works.” And I did wind up traveling, I could say, extensively, and went to a lot of different countries.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I saw you went to Kenya, Pakistan, Australia, Asia. You came back and moved to Savannah, Georgia?


Futura:

Yeah, I did.


Debbie Millman:

You were a shrimper, a truck driver, you even gigged at a radio station. Well, first, what sent you to Georgia? And then, what summoned you back to New York?


Futura:

Well, I came out of the military and I wasn’t ready for the civilian life, if you will. It was just too abrupt. You come out of that system, you’re back in the world, and I just felt out of place in New York. My friend had moved to South Carolina, and I was like, “You know what? I’ll drive down.” I had a car, “I think I’ll drive down there and come hang out with you.” That’s how it started, I went down to see him and then he’s like, “Oh, I’m moving to Savannah. I’ve got a job at a radio station there.” So I just followed my friend, actually, but then my friends in New York, they’re calling me, “Hey, you should come back.” And I heard a lot of stuff about what was happening on the street, even though I had no idea how I was going to reenter and it was going to be through my friend, Mark, and the solo artist, and that’s kind of how we got the ball rolling in ’79.


Debbie Millman:

Your work evolved quite a bit after you came back to New York. You shifted to abstraction, you weren’t using words or specificity. You included shadows and shading, three-dimensional perspectives. How did your work evolve so thoroughly, given you had taken such a long break from graffiti writing?


Futura:

Graffiti 1980 was a famous wall that Lee had painted at the time; however, in 1980, the [inaudible] Studios Project went down during the summer months, May–June, June–July, of 1980. So that year, myself and Zephyr, one of my contemporaries and another artist of that era, were asked to kind of organize and curate a bunch of artists who were modern-day, real-time, bombing, subway artists come into a controlled environment, paint on canvas, and which this collective would be saved. Zephyr and I ran that studio, and over a two-month period we saw maybe 35 different artists come through and paint for us. It was that observational period, right, of watching all these young boys … Lady Pink may have been one of the only females who participated, but watch all these kids paint, do their thing.


Futura:

Painting on canvas had already been realized a couple of times and had been tried in the early ’70s with the United Graffiti Artists, the UGA, and later with a group called NOGA, Nation of Graffiti Artists. So we were attempting to do the third version of what had been done now. And it was powerful because we got some great paintings through that whole studio session, and I learned so much. After watching everyone doing letters and characters and drop shadows, and all of these, every trick in the book, I was like, “All right, well, I think I want to abandon the letter.”


Futura:

So my arrival at abstraction was, after everything that I saw—what could I now do? And what I thought of doing was what I didn’t see being done. Right after the SE Studio, I’d go out and paint my abstract, what I call my opus. Because it’s like I knew I was arriving to the scale in which the gold standard was of that moment, which is a whole subway car. In the same way Fab 5 Freddy painted Andy’s soup cans on the side of his train to kind of talk to the … not sophistos, but anyone who thought this was just nonsense and garbage. “Well, hey wait. Whoa, wait a minute, that’s Warhol’s soup cans.” Something that was in the popular culture that was being yanked out. By Freddy doing that, he was speaking to the art world.


Futura:

By me doing The Break Train, I was speaking to a new audience, because, truth be told, the graffiti writers of that moment were like, “Yo, what’s that?” It’s like they weren’t necessarily on the same wavelength, which, of course, is fine by me. Because this was also my moment of discovering where maybe I could be and what type of artist Futura could be, even if it wasn’t accepted at that time.


Debbie Millman:

Well, that mural is now considered a defining moment in street art history. It’s been described by The New York Times as an ecstatic explosion of cadmium and white, marking a stylistic rupture in the field, and is still referred to mythically.


Futura:

Wow. That’s very wonderful, yeah.


Debbie Millman:

I love that quote.


Futura:

I mean, we have to make mention of Martha Cooper, who took the epic photograph of that train running in nature on an elevated track, with a wonderful shot of a tenement building blurred a little bit, OOF in the background. I mean, to me, that’s wonderful, right? It’s like, “Oh, did you see a panther, did you see a cheetah?” Things that are rare, rare sightings, right? Because it’s a big jungle and there’s a lot of territory. So there’s only one or two of them, they can’t be everywhere, right? So the fact that you catch it, and that’s what really makes for mythology and folklore. Let’s be clear.


Debbie Millman:

Did the New York Transit Authority clean that train? Do you know what happened to Break?


Futura:

Yeah, Break got cleaned a little bit, because there was also what was called a buffing. B-U-F-F, shout out to Buff Monster. Buffing is what we call cleaning of trains, it’s sort of like a car wash. But normally, what happens is … once again, like what I was talking about before about the streets talking. And people are very active in the street; if other writers come into a yard and they see my train, they don’t care. I mean, it would have to be fresh paint. You walk into a yard and you smell fresh paint—“Oh, wow. That’s amazing.” You would dare never go near it. But you might see something that is half-buffed, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t like this guy anyway.” You see what I mean? There’s no law to what’s going to happen to the car, and it did get gone over. I believe it got buffed and then it got gone over. The real fever was ’78, ’79 where … I have a quote in a record I sang with The Clash; I have a song called “Overpowered By Funk,” it’s on the Clash album. I don’t mention the other—


Debbie Millman:

I was just about to ask you about that.


Futura:

I don’t mention my other recording performance, but I did sing on a record called “Overpowered By Funk” on Combat Rock that I’m very proud of. And one of the things I said in the lyrics is, “The T.A. blew 40 mil, they say.” The T.A., meaning the Transit Authority. “The T.A., they blew 40 mil, they say, we threw down by night, they scrubbed it off by day.” So back to the buffing story and the expense the city was spending to clean graffiti at that time, it’s pretty amazing.


Futura:

So yeah, the buff is the inevitable, I think, finale to the Break Train, as I said. More artists just going over it. And once again, I wasn’t there. I don’t know if it’s ill will. It is the way it is out there.


Debbie Millman:

You mentioned The Clash. At this point in your career and your life, your circle of friends was expanding, and another new chapter of your life was getting ready to be written with Joe Strummer and Mick Jones and the punk rock band The Clash. You mentioned singing backup vocals on one of the tracks, “Overpowered by Funk,” that was from their legendary, groundbreaking 1982 album Combat Rock, which you also designed. You designed the cover and wrote out the liner notes, so talk a little about that, because you’re also a designer.


Futura:

Yeah. Well, that was the beginning of that career, but I was mostly hired on to paint for them onstage. So you had the Break Train in ’80, you had me meeting The Clash in ’81, go on tour with them, do some live performances back onstage while they perform. ’82 is the making of Combat Rock, and at this point I was doing graphics for them. I had done some posters. I used to do backstage passes. Little zines we would design for just some events and stuff. Very primitive, all done by hand, all cut and paste, right? It’s only 1982.


Futura:

Art wasn’t my thing as much as design was my thing. Actually, it’s strange, but I always have more of a design interest. Even when I tried to go to college, it was as a graphics arts major, which was a pretty broad topic, but I felt that it involved basically some level of mocking stuff up. I was really into fake magazine ads for companies that didn’t exist. I’d just make up the name of a place, very George Lucas in the sense of how I used to think as just inventing things. Show an image of a planet, give it a name, all imaginary stuff.


Futura:

So that’s the core also of my … sort of like the yin yang inside of my creative flow is that one side of me is very design-orientated to the point where Coca-Cola, IBM, certain things just mark my design aesthetic as a child. And then, yes, the abstract painting part of me where it’s completely free and I don’t have to worry about the size of stuff, and stuff fits into a space.


Debbie Millman:

You hinted at another dabbling in rap that you did. You created an early rap writer–featuring mix over a dub piece by The Clash titled “The Escapades of Futura 2000,” and the track expressed some of your artistic manifesto at the time. I think you stated, “I guess I must admire the need to set things on fire.”


Futura:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Did you ever consider doing more work in the music industry at that time?


Futura:

No, I did not. Because, actually, what occurred in ’81 should have just stayed there, but as a result of what I did with The Clash, and actually Joe Strummer … rest in peace. It’s sad that a lot of my—


Debbie Millman:

Rest in peace.


Futura:

… good friends over time are no longer here. Joe was an amazing individual, as was Mick, as was the group, as was Don Letts, as was everyone associated with that experience, right? They were all proper gentlemen, OK? In the pure form of having Brit friends and having that experience really was incredible for me. But yeah, the rap record was just something I was inspired by, obviously, what was happening in New York. Wild Style was being filmed, Style Wars was being filmed. This is ’81.


Futura:

When I went on tour with the boys, I asked Joe, “Hey, would you guys mind laying down a track? I’d love to just do this homage. It’s an homage to the whole story back home, and that would be wonderful. I just want a cassette tape, Joe.” And that’s all I wanted, because cassette tapes went in boom boxes. I could take that home, I could play it to Fab 5 Freddy or one of my other homies, Dondi, anybody that would listen. “Yo, I shouted out a lot of people, want to check out my record?”


Futura:

The following year, the French organized the New York City Rap Tour, and that’s when my record got released as a proper record, if you will, along with four other records as a five-record package. So, sadly, my record did get released, and fortunately, no, there was no future in that. Because I knew that—


Debbie Millman:

I thought it was terrific. I love it. You can find it on YouTube now.


Futura:

I mean, please, let’s not. But just to say that, yeah, it was fun, I mean. And, of course, I painfully listened to it, I guess, and it’s sincere. There’s nothing—


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, it has a good beat.


Futura:

Yeah, the beat is amazing, of course. So you get The Clash, you’re making a pad, like a music pad for me, it’s incredible. But what happens was, we go on tour, we’re in Paris. The first gig, it’s all set, rehearsal, Futura was painting a background, OK. And Joe comes to me, and Joe says, “Oi, Fuch.” I’ll never forget, “Oi, Fuch,” because Fuch was the nickname they used to call me for Futura, Fuch. “Oi, Fuch, so we’re going to break after such and such a track.” They were performing the Sandinista! double album at the time, Combat Rock was not created yet. “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Rock the Casbah,” none of that had happened yet, right?


Futura:

I forget which song it was, but he said, “OK, and then we’ll bring you out, and we’ll do your record.” And I was like, “Ha, no. No, we won’t, Joe. What are you talking about?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We love it, mate. We’re going to …”


Debbie Millman:

Oh, we will.


Futura:

And I was like, “Wait, what?” It was like a wait, what, moment. And then, basically, I was out there and it was the worst performance. I mean, really, I wasn’t prepared, ready, and it was a catastrophe. So the good ending of that story is the finale of the tour, I was going to meet them in London for a big performance at the Lyceum there. The one thing I was encouraged about was I would be singing in English to an English-speaking audience. So I must admit I ended on a high note because I did actually get an applause. Then I remember thinking like, “Wow, that’s it, Lenny. Your onstage career, as you’re walking back to your painting, and your back’s now to them, that’s the last time you’ll ever face an audience.” And it was, actually.


Debbie Millman:

Well, it was from that side of the stage. You’re now facing audiences that are watching you make art or when you are showing your art. Shortly thereafter you began exhibiting with Tony Shafrazi and Patti Astor’s FUN Gallery. You were showing alongside your friends, your graffiti friends, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf. You were included in an era-defining exhibition of young artists at P.S. 1 titled, New York/New Wave. And you stated these were the wonder years in New York, and at that time you weren’t surprised by the famous Jean-Michel Basquiat experience.


Debbie Millman:

One thing that I read in my research that I was really struck by—and I’m also a really big fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work, as well, and have been since the ’80s—I was surprised to read your statement that no one understood he was interpreting Cy Twombly. That was the first time I had ever read that, and I just thought it was so interesting.


Futura:

Well, I think it was more Cy Twombly. It was Pank. There were other artists who were scratching and kind of doing something. The thing about Jean that I always respected about him, even more than Keith, because Keith and Jean were great friends—I spent time at both of their studios, and I used to watch them work. One of the fascinations is to be around an artist when they’re actually working. Some people don’t want you there; at that time it was pretty carefree and Jean was always … I don’t think it was a performance for him, but he certainly didn’t mind it. I know for Keith it was a bit of a performance and he certainly didn’t mind.


Futura:

But yeah, Jean would tell me about that stuff. He’s like, “Yeah, when I was being compared to people …” And this is early days still, New York/New Wave, that’s also ’81. But Jean was already coming with the comparisons to Kandinsky, you know, “Don’t worry about that. You should read up on Constructivism and stuff.” So he was always the kind of go-to art Google for me. Because, yeah, I didn’t know a lot about that at the time. But I think Jean was looking at a lot of other artists, and it’s also beyond those guys. It’s African—I think it goes back to African art. And something he also said about trying to get that back, like what had been taken now could be reappropriated by a Black man.


Futura:

So at the time, I mean, who was a young Black artist of our generation? We didn’t really have any, right? Not on any level that Jean had arrived at. So I think he was brilliant in how he appeared to be naïve and, “Oh, I’m a little off,” but I think there was a lot of calculation also. Something I don’t possess, but I admire because I see like, “Wow.” It’s not Good Will Hunting, but there is something a little Good Will Hunting about him. You know he’s just very smart and maybe some of the everything is just a front for other reasons, you know what I mean? I think we’re all like that, obviously, but he was really good at it, I think.


Debbie Millman:

So many of your contemporaries from that time are no longer living—Jean-Michel, Keith Haring, Joe Strummer. What do you attribute to your staying power and your longevity?


Futura:

Well, not knowing my biologicals, I’d say it’s my DNA. I’m going to be 66 this year. It sounds ridiculous; I don’t feel like I’m 66. Like what is that supposed to be? The way I would think of it, it’s like, I don’t know. I should just feel, look, act older. I don’t. If anything, I’m embracing this time I’m in. Yeah, there’s a lot of sadness out there with what’s going on; the political climate has changed and that’s helpful, so just to say that … I don’t know. I don’t know how I have survived, and I just know it’s a blessing. I mean, at this moment in my life, I can look at it like, “Wow. It could really just be kind of beginning for me in a way.” Like this other level now that I can arrive at.


Debbie Millman:

Which is great and so deserved.


Futura:

That’s what I was saying back to like basic humanity, and hope that I treat my success with the humility I know it deserves, because I’m very, very lucky. I mean, I’m one of thousands of individuals that came out of this place, and I’m certainly one of the more celebrated ones, right?


Debbie Millman:

Well, it was hard, though. By the mid-’80s you stated that the house of cards that was the New York art scene crumbled, and by 1985 you could put a tombstone on the New York scene. This also coincided with the New York Transit Authority’s big-time effort to clean subway trains as soon as graffiti appeared, even if it meant service delays, which in the past it wasn’t doing.


Futura:

Right, right.


Debbie Millman:

And you essentially, at that point, removed yourself from the art world, and that’s when you took a series of jobs which included bike messenger, gas station attendant, you moonlighted for a gypsy cab service, and you sorted mail at the Post Office across the street from P.S. 1, where you had exhibited some of your work.


Futura:

Yeah, that was heartbreaking.


Debbie Millman:

What was that time like for you, to go from these sort of huge exultations of your talent and your ability and your pioneering use of a whole new genre to then suddenly having such a hard time making a living?


Futura:

Yeah, well, it wasn’t easy, but the little gem was that I had, even by ’88, ’89, I had a 4, 5-year-old son.


Debbie Millman:

Yes, Timothy.


Futura:

Yes, Timothy, of course. So that was beginning to fulfill something that obviously I had expressed that I needed in my life. And once that was accomplished, well, now I just have to get on with living, right? And how do I support them and feed people and all that? So I was working multiple jobs, just my thing. I don’t have a problem hustling and working and trying to get more than maybe I even need so we can enjoy ourselves occasionally.


Futura:

So I was always driven like that, and luckily I met a dealer, Philippe Briet, and then I found agnès b as kind of a patron of my work. She was very helpful, obviously, in ending my job at the Post Office and giving me a little bit of confidence moving into the next decade as to what was going to happen with my work. Kind of trying to get me back into painting, which I had abandoned for a few years at that time.


Futura:

By ’90, my daughter is born, then I really had to buckle down, if you will; however, I was never more happy. And that even in the hard times that followed, I was always optimistic and I was encouraged because I had my kids. It was just a great feeling and I was only, by ‘90, I am only 35. I mean, I’m not out of the game, I’ve just been sort of sidelined. If anything, there’s the constant understanding of what my responsibility would be in order to do something creative, however, to take care of those guys.


Debbie Millman:

Fab 5 Freddy, AKA Fred Brathwaite, your friend, said this about you about that time: “I’ve always been impressed with how brave, elegant and honorable he was when he became a bike messenger. True to form, he was the fliest messenger and adopted a road warrior bike messenger aesthetic.”


Futura:

I used to see everyone on the street during like that couple-year period I was out there. And yeah, I was really into it; I used to ride a bike, it’s called a fixed bike. It’s got no brakes. It’s just dangerous, for sure, but I went from the subway cars of New York City to an aircraft carrier launching airplanes at night in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, then I wound up on a bike with no brakes probably going 30 miles an hour down Fifth Avenue. So, I don’t know. It was just in me, and even at that age, yeah, I’m close to 35 now, I certainly wasn’t afraid. The fact is, I did get injured. I got squeezed by a bus and a cab, and I broke my foot. That got me out of it, actually, but as timing would have it in my life, something rolled right though.


Debbie Millman:

But it’s so interesting how each phase led, almost organically, into the next. Your cycling skill qualified you to participate in the inaugural Cycle Messenger World Championships held in Berlin in 1993, and this is where you met James Lavelle, who owned the British record label Mo’ Wax, is that correct?


Futura:

Yeah, I mean, God, if I don’t go there, I don’t meet James.


Debbie Millman:

Right, he was a big fan of your work. He commissioned you to create artwork for many of the Mo’ Wax’s releases as well on his own debut Unkle album, Psyence Fiction. What was it like going from painting on wide-open spaces and trains to a more confined space of an album cover?


Futura:

This was now … for me, I saw the potential of a new audience, though. A lot of people who have come to know me now, that’s really the Mo’ Wax moment. And after that, figures we would have made, and the book that we would have done, that’s all the result of my relationship with Mo’ Wax. They were enormous in the sense of almost taking me from what people had known in the ’80s, but yet reintroducing me now through my artwork to a new audience in the ’90s.


Debbie Millman:

Lenny, let’s talk about Pointman. When and where did he originate?


Futura:

So the Pointman goes right directly to where we were with Mo’ Wax because ’94-5, I had sketched out some characters that had appeared either on canvases or in some drawings, and James had the idea of making a figure. And the figure kind of lent itself to the titling of it, and subsequently everyone refers to that pointed-head character as the Pointman. For me, it was a … not a self-portrait at all, but that’s the name I was giving myself. It comes from the military in terms of someone who is on point. Not like in the street, “Yo, he’s on point,” like “he’s dope,” or “he’s good,” but on point meaning, “I am ahead of the group. I’m out in front of everyone else. I am sort of reconnaissance. I’m looking around. I could draw maps for you, I can see stuff. Then I come back and tell you what I see as we’re going in that direction.”


Futura:

So as the older one, whatever, The Clash trip, me in the Navy, whatever I had been doing in my life, I was always kind of out in an advance party of everyone else. And it’s self-described—I’ll go first, I’ll volunteer to do that. So the Pointman was a metaphor for me being out here in advance of the group. And then it just became wordplay and, “Oh, his head is pointed,” and I was like, “Yeah, OK. Whatever.” So if you want the truth, that’s the truth. And that’s basically the genesis of it. And all the characters, all the Pointmen I draw, it’s all a part of that world and those guys.


Debbie Millman:

There’s quite a market, an underground market, for it in the auctions and online.


Futura:

I’ve seen that, it’s crazy.


Debbie Millman:

It’s really interesting to see. Yeah, they’re really popular. Lenny, you said it wasn’t until the early ’90s that you started to consider yourself an artist. What changed, either externally or internally, to allow you to feel that way?


Futura:

Well, it’s a lot to do with not just how you’re making your art or what it is you’re doing at any one moment. But it’s also the arrival of computing in the ’90s and technology, as it was really going to become something I felt, “Yeah, I could do something here. I could be a graphic artist. I could create a portfolio perhaps and I could go shop that portfolio and some agency might want to work with me.”


Futura:

So artist in the sense of I was confident in my creativity to the point that I would even consider myself to be an artist. Whereas, I think, in the ’80s there was just a lot of going through the paces, being with the crew, following other people’s lead, but lacking a bit of the self-confidence. So I would say that it’s more self-confidence really in what I was able to do now. Plus, I’m getting older, it’s also a natural, OK, I’m feeling much more secure and assured, whatever, about my work.


Debbie Millman:

No one, no one can draw a line like you do with spray paint—thin, perfect, straight line. Any secrets you want to reveal on how you do that?


Futura:

The simplest thing I could say is all you have to do is turn the can upside down. It seems pretty simple.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, it is not that simple, but OK.


Futura:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Simple for Futura.


Futura:

That’s the starting point. I know it sounds crazy, like, “What?” But yeah, try turning the can upside down.


Debbie Millman:

Alongside your art practice, you’ve also collaborated with a range of brands. They include Nike, Supreme, Motorola, G-Shock, BMW, the New York Yankees and the New York Mets. Is there a difference in how you approach your corporate work versus your art practice?


Futura:

Well, fortunately, the corporate collaborations, brand packaging with someone else on a product, we have a whole team there with me that’s able to help me realize that. So that makes that task or project quite easy as far as how we’re all working together. The painting world, once again, it is a little more isolated. It’s just kind of me off on my own little island. It gives me more freedom, I think. It’s not like a dance between yourself and client or yourself and other partners, if you will. But I enjoy both a lot, but I compartmentalize a lot, too. I don’t let things spill off, and I try to keep it just for me. It’s just easier how to approach stuff when I’m not all cluttered, and I just see one thing for what it is. And I try to do the best I can and immediately could switch over and do the other thing.


Debbie Millman:

Your most recent shows, which I believe just closed, were a show aptly titled Futura 2020 at the Eric Firestone Gallery in New York City, and an installation at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, where you created a suite of hand-painted Akari lanterns. I’ve been trying to get my hands on one of those lanterns. I’m assuming they’re all sold out.


Futura:

Actually, the exhibition at the Noguchi Museum with the Akari lamps, the museum decided they would not be for sale.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, that’s why I can’t find them.


Futura:

Yes. Yes, perhaps that meant though … that was a good sign though in meaning that they wanted to retain them for their own collection, so that’s—


Debbie Millman:

They’re stunning.


Futura:

Yeah, well thank you.


Debbie Millman:

The body of work that you’re creating right now, I mean, congratulations on two such epic shows. Your work has just evolved, you are a master, and it’s an incredible thing to see the body of a person’s work evolve in the way that it has for you over the last 50 years. So I have two last questions for you. Probably more than anyone in the world, you’ve seen an extraordinary revolution of the art of graffiti over the last five decades. What do you think of the current street art at the moment?


Futura:

I think it’s amazing what’s happening in the street art globally. Because there is a whole world of space available, and seemingly there are festivals on what used to be almost a bimonthly basis in some cities around the world where artists are being invited in. And then, those kind of group events set off what happened in SE Studios, where you’re there with other individuals painting. The global vibe is positive. Like I say, I mean, if I was a young artist right now, I would want to maybe join that place like POW! WOW! in Hawaii that sponsors large group events from artists around the world to come to various cities and do large works. I think it’s headed in a wonderful direction as far as giving artists a chance to get their work seen.


Debbie Millman:

Lenny, my last question for you is this. You mentioned Norman Mailer before. In May of 1974, right at the peak of phase one of your long career, Esquire magazine ran a cover story written by Norman Mailer, titled, as you spoke about the subsequent book, The Faith of Graffiti.


Futura:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

The illustration on the cover was a riff on Norman Rockwell’s The Old Sign Painter,which at one point was a cover of The Saturday Evening Post. It was designed by Jean-Paul Goude. The illustration is of a young, skinny African American man with a close-cropped haircut and round, wire-rimmed glasses painting an easel with a spray can.


Futura:

Yes, I’d reposted that image, if you will. It’s very famous.


Debbie Millman:

But that’s you—it’s you, isn’t it? Wasn’t it based on you?


Futura:

Oh, no. Oh, no.


Debbie Millman:

It has to be, there’s no one else at the time that looked like that.


Futura:

Oh, no. I wish it was.


Debbie Millman:

I’ve done research here.


Futura:

Oh god, I wish I could take credit. You know, it’s funny because—


Debbie Millman:

No, that has to be you.


Futura:

No, you’re too kind. As you say, the art director, Jean-Paul Goude, who I wound up meeting later in the ’80s—I met him, wonderful man, super genius, and I referred to him. I was like, “Oh my god, Jean-Paul Goude. You did the cover of Esquireback in ’74.” And he’s like, “Ah, oui, oui,” or whatever, right? Wonderful guy, and yeah, that’s an epic photo. No, it’s not … I certainly don’t think it’s intended to be me. Anyway, if we could do a remake of that, Debbie, and I would sit in for that reenactment …


Debbie Millman:

Let’s do that when normal times resume.


Futura:

Absolutely.


Debbie Millman:

I’m still going to maintain—I need to for my own sense of reality—maintain that it is you.


Futura:

OK.


Debbie Millman:

I am going to ask my listeners to … it’s very easy to Google Norman Mailer’s The Faith of Graffiti, Esquire


Futura:

It is, yeah.


Debbie Millman:

… and then Google “Futura 2000 in 1974.” You tell me, listeners, whether or not you agree that is, indeed, Lenny Hilton McGurr. Lenny, thank you so much.


Futura:

Debbie, thanks for having me.


Debbie Millman:

Absolutely.


Futura:

And I look forward to—


Debbie Millman:

Doing that reshoot.


Futura:

Yes. Yes, exactly.


Debbie Millman:

Once the world returns, yes.


Futura:

All right.


Debbie Millman:

Leonard Hilton McGurr, AKA Futura, thank you for making the world a better-designed place, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters. You can find out more about Futura and see some of his work at the websites of the Eric Firestone Gallery and the Noguchi Museum. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman