XLR8R February 2001
James Lavelle appears in the November 2002 issue of XLR8R.
This partial transcript was from the XLR8R website in 2002.
Text: Eric K. Arnold, Images: Futura 2000, Photos: Tina Tyrell
Alien art. The eyes of his meanacing characters are locked on you. There’s no escape. Futura 2000: part of the vangaurd spray can revolution of the ‘70s, a b-boy who rapped on a Clash record, the man who created a strong identity for Mo’Wax and just plain Lenny. Futura has always been different, always been himself.
Futura 2000 sits in front of me, hunkered down in a bunker somewhere in the 220th parallel of the Western perimeter. No, wait—actually, the precise coordinates are the basement office of Recon SF. He’s wearing a nondescript beanie, a dark blue Arc’tyrx Gore-Tex parka, black Air Force I’s and some bugged-out prescription spectacles. He also sports a pair of limited-edition Levis embroidered with his trademark tag. To all the world, he presents the kind of b-boyish figure you might see outlined in spray paint on a wall somewhere. However, Futura’s not your typical graffiti character. "Yeah, I’m Futura," he says. "[But] I’d rather you guys knew me as Lenny. That’s who I am. I’m actually Lenny, [but] I’m in the role of this other character and that’s what people know me by." Understandably, Lenny/Futura is proud of his old school credentials. "I was part of some of those early rap shows with Bam back in the day. The real back in the day. People say ‘back in the day,’ [but I mean] the real shit. Not 1990, not even 1985. It’s not to say on any level, ‘you weren’t there, you don’t know.’ It’s just a realistic expression. The movement I come from is dated by its historical period. What existed then in its purest form never did exist after that. It exploded out of what it was."
Back then, Futura was an iconoclastic visionary who zigged when others zagged, whose art wasn’t so much about self-promotion as it was about abstract composition. In the ‘80s, he became known as a wildstyle-rocking subway king of New York; later, in addition to doing extensive gallery work, he was one of the first graffiti artists to cross over into the music world at a time when hip-hop, new wave and punk were closely linked.
Futura was there when Keith Haring became the darling of the downtown art scene and Jean-Michel Basquiat cast himself in the role of the next Andy Warhol. He was there when his good friend Fab 5 Freddy hooked up a five-single series for Celluloid Records (the back covers of which Futura illustrated) and a subsequent European tour on which he took Futura (and during which the painter met his future wife in France). Futura was there when Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash and their videographer Don Letts hung out in New York, playing dates with the cream of old school hip-hop as their opening acts. He toured with the Clash in ‘81, painting live backdrops every night. He featured in Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s seminal tome, Subway Art, rapped on the Clash’s "Overpowered By Funk," and just made it into the film Wild Style before shooting wrapped (look closely: Futura’s in the final concert scene, bobbing his head in a red hoodie and shades.) And between 1980 and 1984, when subway artists broke through to the international art scene, Futura’s spraycan works were featured at galleries in Germany, the Netherlands, England and France.
Exhaling thick billows of chronic smoke from a bong, he reminisces on those times. "It was really that period where we were considered very avant-garde. We came from the street community, [and] we were embraced by the art world, which was kind of an exploitative experience. Still, I learned a lot about our [place in] art history and people wanting to take it to that level, although that was very short-lived. I mean, the people who live in the name of graffiti in America are Jean-Michel Basquiat [and] Keith Haring. Not to their discredit—they were great artists. But no real spraycan artist or true subway artist from anywhere, on any level, will ever be recognized by any high art institution. I don’t think we require it. I’m not looking for it. But I don’t think they’re gonna ever acknowledge anyone to any professional degree."
Futura was also there when graffiti and breaking "died," when DJs were shunted to the background, and when MCs rose to the forefront of hip-hop culture. He recalls, "The music element of hip-hop [blew up], not the visualization or the dance element, b-boys breakdancing or artists providing visual backdrops for that whole kinda show. The art was the first thing [to go] during the mid ‘80s, what I would call the ‘death’ of graffiti. The music of the community and culture survived and went on to be much more. The other kids, the writers, the dancers, kinda got caught out there for a while. There was no more for them to really do."
Looking back on those halcyon days, a much older and wiserFutura–he’s 45 now—has gained a perspective on the whole situation. "That’s one of the tragedies of artists, they’re unable to transcend [their pasts]. Certainly popular artists, because [the commodifying of their style] seems to have a negative effect where it can't evolve."
Luckily for Futura, heads in Europe and Japan maintained an appreciation for graffiti-based art and true school hip-hop. Even while he was without a studio, working as a bike messenger and postal worker, he was never forgotten by those audiences. "The Europeans have always embraced [the graffiti movement]. Europeans have continued to embrace it, and [recently, there’s been more] Asian interest. The people who seemed to back our movement were never American by any large number. That's a fact to this day… People can get funding to do XYZ project, but by and large, people are not supportive of that kind of experience. Because unlike maybe a hip-hop show or a concert, there’s really no money [in graffiti art]."
With the help of patrons like fashion maven Agnes B. and Mo Wax’s James Lavelle, Futura was able to reinvent himself as an artist and graphic designer in the ‘90s. Always a little ahead of the curve, he and his partners Stash and Gerb parlayed a graffiti-influenced clothing line, GFS, into the combination gallery/retail store Recon, which opened in Tokyo’s Harajuku district in 1993 (other stores have since opened in New York and San Francisco). GFS has since evolved into Subware and Project Dragon, with lines available in this country only at Recon. Futura was also an early believer in the Internet, launching his website, futura2000.com, in 1996.
Futura’s Mo’Wax connection began when Lavelle bought a painting in 1994, which led to cover art commissions for the label’s distinctive brand of alternative hip-hop. Among his Mo’Wax credits are DJ Krush’s albums Strictly Turntablized, Meiso and Milight, UNKLE’s singles "The Time Has Come" and "Berry Meditation," and the compilation Build & Destroy. For the 1998 UNKLE LP Psyence Fiction, Futura created a whole new character base, that was later made into a toy series by Bathing Ape.
His book, Futura, published in December of 2000, stands as more than just a coffee table art collection, yet stops somewhat short of a full-on autobiography. As he explains, "a lot of people don’t really know so much about Futura as the graffiti writer from 25 years ago. From obvious numerical denomination, they couldn’t really, because they weren’t there and they don’t have that education or a reference to that. Which is why my book, I think, serves as a good [reference]… It’s not like a definitive story told, because I don’t really feel like that’s necessary. I just want to show some images and get people a point of reference for my work in a more modern-day, virtual sense."
Though he describes life as an artist as somewhat of a "scam," for Futura, it’s never been about making dollars. Though he’s starting to see some return on his investments in 2001, he remains philosophical. "I just do my creative thing. I just wanna do that. I’m not greedy, I’m not trying to get paid. I’ve never been trying to get paid. That’s just not my style."
Being somewhat of a freestyle artist, Futura says he regards painting as a matter of following one’s instincts. "My approach to spray painting is that it’s a very spontaneous medium. I still do ‘abstract’ type paintings. There is no schematic or sketch of the artwork prior to doing it. I don’t really define what I’m going to do. The painting itself creates the direction. That’s how I work on paintings—I let the development of what I do be very random."
That’s not to say he doesn’t have an ill technique, yo. "I did a series of paintings in the early ‘90s where I used words like ‘stupid’ and ‘slamming’ and kinda things like that—very graphically done, very crisp, like sign-painting style—on top of my other abstract types of painting. So it’s about different languages. I’m open to that even now. I like that even more now, because graphic design isn’t about deconstruction, it’s about construction."
Currently, Futura spends most of his time in cyberspace, a medium he says appeals to his creative nature. "[The Internet] is how I’m able to touch people and communicate. I like to create a satellite environment where I have friends in every city and they’re creative people. Either they’re into music or photography, whatever. We just stay in touch and maybe I can contribute. It’s not even about making money… Like on my website, I have images that I’m willing to let go. You can just point and click and you can download them. You can have my stuff on your desktop. It doesn’t even matter to me. I’m beyond doing what I’ve already done."