At a glance:
- A tagging, an accident, being king of the art world and odd jobs.
- How his first Singapore solo artshow, Constellation, ties into his past and more.
- Futura and the art of the hustle.
- The future of Futura and what remains.
We know of the past from the stories they told us. Oratory tales, passed from generation to generation, keeping history alive. Or through writings, ink half-legible on yellowed parchment; runes etched in well-worn tablets. As archaeologists continue to dust off the sediments of time, we’re made privy to a world that came before us: a tomb filled with stone soldiers, standing vigilant over a long-dead emperor; an analogue computer fished from a wreckage along the Antikytheran coast; carbon dating of skeletal remains of Homo sapiens putting the origin of these species at 300,000 years, the oldest yet in our timeline.
But there are also the less earth-shattering discoveries. Some are just a voice in the wilderness. In the ancient Semitic city of Palmyra, in present-day Homs Governorate, Syria, graffiti dated over 1,000 years ago, was found. It reads: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand. My hand will wear out but the inscription will remain.”
The identity of the writer remains unknown.
‘’Graffiti was a way for me to exist. I wanted the world to know my name. I wanted to be somebody.’’
Modern graffiti found its Mecca in the streets of New York. In a time of charged social and political upheaval, graffiti abounds. Bolstered by hip-hop culture, rising anti-war sentiments and the advent of aerosol cans, the graffiti world percolated in the circuitous subways, covering the bowels of trains.
Like our anonymous Syrian vandal, many of the graffiti were tags—stylised signatures—that either marked territory or indicated that the tagger was here. In a sprawling city like New York, perhaps, it is the perpetrator’s own way to be seen and among the growing assemblage of Taki 183s, Phase 2s and Stay High 149s, ‘Futura 2000’ started to appear.
In 1970, a 15-year-old Leonard McGurr was exposed to the graffiti scene whenever he rode the train to school. He was drawn to the artistic approaches—from wildstyle to softies, how the alphabets with the swooping ascenders and the bold stems stand next to one another like passengers during rush hour. Commuters forced to acknowledge the presence of another, much like how the Transit Authority has to reckon with the interloping glyphs upon its once-pristine convoys.
As an adherent to this movement, McGurr embedded himself into other tagging crews. He needed a tag that could travel. He needed to be reborn. Prior to this, his mother took him aside and revealed that he was adopted. “She was crying when she told me this,” he said. Raised by mixed-race parents, McGurr had always felt like an outsider. While this revelation provided the answer he needed, it also robbed him of his identity.
With the abandonment of the past, McGurr cast his sights to the future. He chose Futura 2000. Inspired by the typeface (“die Schrift unserer Zeit”), Ford’s Lincoln Futura car (the model found its way as the Batmobile in the 1960s Batman series) and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“It was supposed to be Futura 2001 but I didn’t want people to come up to me and say, ‘oh, like the movie’. So, I knocked down a number,” McGurr explains. "Graffiti was a way for me to exist. I wanted the world to know my name. I wanted to be somebody.’’
Futura 2000 ran with Ali, aka Marc André Edmonds, who attended the same public school with him. They motion-tagged trains and painted walls. It was exhilarating for Futura 2000 to watch his work pass by on a subway train.
In September 1973, the graffiti scene lost some of its illegality when the collective, United Graffiti Artists, presented an exhibition at Razor Gallery in SoHo. This was a pivotal moment for the scene. A month later, Futura 2000 and Ali sneaked into a lay-up tunnel between the 137th and 145th Street stations. Armed with over 50 cans of spray paint, the two planned to do a number on all the six trains parked beneath Broadway.
Suddenly, a live rail ignited the aerosol cans. A flash erupted. There was the sound of air being sucked in and exhaled in a mighty puff and Ali was engulfed in flames. Futura 2000 was unscathed but Ali had to undergo skin grafts. Ali would recover from the incident but for Futura 2000, he was so shaken by it, he laid down his can and enrolled in the US Navy in 1974.
Futura 2000 travelled the globe to Kenya, Pakistan, Australia, Asia. He became somewhat of a global citizen. He may have stepped away from the graffiti scene but his fascination with the future still burned. “There was a lot of equipment on the ship,” Futura 2000 says, “computers and navigational systems, this was the future, man. I was interested in how they work.”
After his conscription, Futura 2000’s homecoming in 1978 wasn’t the welcome he had expected. His mother died during his time in the navy and his father sold everything from Futura 2000’s childhood. The world had moved on and Futura 2000 was catching up to it.
He moved to Savannah, Georgia for a year, working odd jobs like shrimping, being a truck driver and gigging at a radio station, then returned to New York, where the graffiti scene had elevated. “The style that the kids were doing was something else,” Futura 2000 says. Tagging techniques encompass shading, 3D perspectives, shadows. Filled with a new-found rigour, Futura 2000 returned to graffiti, but this time his focus shifted to abstraction. No words, no specificity. It’s like jazz on the walls. The art world took notice, gravitating towards Futura 2000’s style.
The 1980s were the halcyon days of graffiti. Futura 2000, along with Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and others, were put on a pedestal. They were revered, courted by the press. Futura 2000 illustrated the sleeve cover for The Clash’s ‘This is Radio Clash’ seven-inch single. He accompanied The Clash on their Combat Rock tour, spray painting in the background while the band played on stage. Futura 2000 and his art peers rode the wave. And five years later, that wave crashed.
In previous interviews, Futura 2000 would remark that he was relieved the bubble had burst. “If I’d tried to stick around I maybe would have killed myself the same way Basquiat did. You have to be fake, play the fake game.”
He has a family to support. Someone needed to care for a wife (CC) and two kids (Timothy and Tabatha). Futura 2000 laboured at the post office, drove a cab, became a bicycle courier. With the map of New York etched into his mind, Futura 2000 was a speed demon on two wheels, zipping through traffic.
This skill would propel him to participate in the inaugural Cycle Messenger World Championships held in Berlin in 1993. That is when he would meet with Mo’ Wax’s James Lavelle. As an art collector, Lavelle bought a few pieces from Futura 2000 and soon his artwork was featured on many of Mo’ Wax’s releases as well as on Lavelle’s first Unkle album, Psyence Fiction.
Interest in Futura 2000’s work returned with interest. This is when he transitioned comfortably as an artist. He ventured into retail, opening his own clothing store, Futura Laboratories, in Fukuoka, Japan. His art appeared in galleries in Europe and China. He worked with brands like Uniqlo and Nike.
The ebbs and flows of Futura 2000 seemed to have plateaued. It was a good life and he continued forward.
When the year 2000 rolled around, Futura dropped the ‘2000’ from his name.
“Remember the end of 1999?” Futura asks. “People were worried about the Y2K bug. I just felt like it’s about time to lose the ‘2000’.”
Upon hearing that I’m from Esquire SG, Futura shows me the cover of Esquire US May 1974. Designed by Jean-Paul Goude, the cover is of a black kid painting with a spray can.
The image is a homage to Norman Rockwell’s ‘The Old Sign Painter’ that was The Saturday Evening Post cover. That issue’s cover story was a report by Norman Mailer, titled "The Faith of Graffiti", which talked about graffiti’s appeal to marginalised urban youth. (The article also touched on Ali’s accident: “…and another had been close to fatally burned by an inflatable spray paint catching a spark.”)
We are meeting at Gillman Barracks, two days before his inaugural solo exhibition in Singapore opens to the public. Called Constellation, the show features 30 original works produced on-site inspired by his visit to Singapore in the 1970s.
It all came about when local pop artist, Jahan Loh, introduced Chong Huai Seng and his daughter Ning to Futura. In 2017, the father-daughter team, who operate The Culture Story, a boutique art space and advisory company, visited Futura’s Brooklyn studio. It’s a loft with wide windows to the side and shelves and boxes filled with video games, electronic paraphernalia, toys. Ning was taken by his artwork while Chong was impressed by Futura’s generosity with his time. The three of them decided to band together to put up a solo exhibition.
The largest show by far, the planning and logistics for the exhibition took about a year. Then, last October, Futura was flown over to Singapore for a hush-hush two-week residency at the atelier’s space on Leng Kee Road.
In the studio, Futura’s canvases lie on the floor. Stooped, Futura dances around, over it, an aerosol can in hand, his mastery over the spray pressure yielding works like ‘Rainforest’, a succession of quick sprays that spreads out to look like the silhouette of a pine tree. Or ‘Landing Position’, a 3.7m by 1.7m piece that depicts planets in their respective orbits.
“Constellation came from the aircraft carrier that I was on during my navy days,” Futura says. “The USS Constellation. I first arrived in Singapore in 1974 on the USS Hancock, then again in 1977 on the Constellation.
“It was crazy. I remember seeing the Merlion and the Fullerton, those were cool. And the food. Man, that was wild. Every time I return here, there’s always something new.”
“I remember seeing the Merlion and the Fullerton, those were cool. And the food. Man, that was wild.”
On one of his smoke breaks, Futura recounts a time when he was approached by a fan.
“He was nice. Said he liked my work. I gave him a lanyard with Futura Laboratories stitched on to it. Soon after, I saw that lanyard on eBay and it’s going for several hundred dollars. Can you believe that? I mean, I admire his business savvy. But… that wasn’t cool.”
He’s thankful that he’s still relevant in the art world but Futura is at a point where he can cast off the artist life and return to something innocuous as a civil servant. He sees his current fame, the things he has, as ephemeral. He doesn’t live an extravagant lifestyle and a huge percentage of the profits he makes is reinvested into his company.
“My career feels the same as it was the last time,” Futura says. “I’ve learned that even in the worst of times, if you keep at it long enough, something will happen.”
What? Like your craft?
“Anything. You just need to keep moving. Don’t stop. Just keep moving.”
In the afternoon heat, he looks almost at peace when he says that.
The ancient Greeks believed that life is a thread. The Moirai would spin the fibre, measure it out and cut it. Imagine one end of the cord pinned onto a corkboard. That, Clotho, one of the Moirai, would point out, that is when you’re born. Then the filament is pulled taut and your eye follows the line before the second Moirai, Lachesis, plucks at it. A middle G sounds. This is what you’ll make of it, she says.
The thread is still tightly drawn but before you can see the end of the string, Atropos, the final sister, the inevitable, asks a question. In a tinny breath, each word is weighted: do you really want to know when?
For a man who blithely said that “I never thought I’d live to see the year 2001”, Futura isn’t ready to meet his end. He hopes to work on his art for the next 20 years. But he has reluctantly accepted the certain finish. “I’m meeting with lawyers,” he says, “in creating a foundation. You have the Keith Haring Foundation. Andy [Warhol] has a foundation. I want to give back, even after I’m gone. Tabatha will be in charge of this.”
But he’s occupying himself. He has projects lined up that involve another collaboration with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White brand, which featured some of Futura’s designs. Down the line, Futura might put the ‘2000’ back into his name. (His website URL still retains the ‘2000’).
“And the Tokyo Olympics.” I wait for him to elaborate but he grins, “that’s all I’m going to say.”
Futura’s not religious but he maintains a certain Zen approach in what he does. He doesn’t believe that death is final, instead, he’d like to be reincarnated. The soul is an energy and energy can’t be destroyed; it can only be transferred from one form to another.
And this is how Futura can maintain his longevity, even after he is gone. Never destroyed, you can see him in his paintings, his presence is felt in the stitch of a lanyard. His afterimage appears in an artwork that’s hanging in someone’s house. Futura’s children, Tabatha, a writer, and Timothy, a photographer (“On my Instagram, his is the only account I follow”) remain his magnum opus.
We know the world by the evidence of its past. Through ruins or scars; the things that remain. A signature. A photo. An obituary.
Here is proof. I was here. I exist. I matter. Facio ergo sum. I create, therefore I matter.
Feature photographs by Ronald Leong
Header photograph by The Culture Story
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