Futura (real name: Leonard Hilton McGurr) would make a successful influencer, and it’s not just because he’s already got the catchy alias to match. In town for the opening of Constellation – his first solo exhibition in Southeast Asia that ran at private art salon The Culture Story till early June – he’s a natural in front of the camera. Zero awkwardness and zero airs; just plain, relaxed cool in his street style-worthy uniform of discreetly chic streetwear staples: beanie, black-rimmed glasses, subtly logoed tee, cargos and sneakers. For all its randomness (snapshots of his paintings, cityscapes, assemblages of objects ranging from remote controls to Lotso plush toys, and pop culture icons including one Off-White bodysuited Celine Dion at Paris Fashion Week), his Instagram account (@futuradosmil) is a tight, tasteful edit of visual ephemera for the street art and graphic design crowd. Laconic, often playful captions typed exclusively in upper case add to its offbeat appeal (he accompanied the Celine Dion photo with a single word: “TITANIC”, to which Virgil Abloh – an active follower – commented with a rowboat emoji). Like many a post-millennial, he is in person vocal and articulate, answering questions at length, but the man is far from your typical Gen Z – he is 63. And all that charisma and social media-friendly savvy have been honed through a decades-spanning career in the street art scene that started before most of the chieftains of Hypebeast culture and Instagram were born. If the late Karl Lagerfeld was fashion’s exemplary renaissance man, Futura can be considered the street art equivalent. That he’s outlived equally seminal peers like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat has sure helped with that title.
Born and bred in New York, he found fame in the ’80s as a young downtown scenester with a unique, abstract brand of graffiti art. Evolving over time into a sought-after gallery artist, graphic designer and fashion collaborator with that signature hand, he has worked with everyone from Brit punk rock band The Clash to Levi’s, Nike and Supreme, and introduced his own streetwear label Futura Laboratories in the early 2000s. (Put on hiatus for years, the latter was officially relaunched during his recent visit here under the auspices of Dover Street Market.)
In short, when it comes to living artists at the crossroads of fashion and street culture, he is – to quote Run-DMC – the baddest of the bad, the coolest of the cool. And here’s what he wants you to know about him and the scene now.
HE DOESN’T CONSIDER HIMSELF AN “OG”
“I’m actually part of the second wave of graffiti artists from New York. I arrived on the scene in the mid-’70s, but there was already (literally) writing on the wall – very primitive, first-generation style (earlier graffiti art comprised mostly of letterings) with not much embellishment; just the artists’ names and numbers. With Singapore as an exception, most cities around the planet have a graffiti movement – a type of ghetto street culture that’s always going to be there... I just happened to be one of the more celebrated ones from that school.”
STREET ART IS NOW MAINSTREAM – FOR THE BETTER
“(This development started) in the early ’80s when not just graffiti, but also hip-hop and streetwear culture got exported to the world and (the way graffiti art has thrived) is beyond anything I could have imagined. There was a moment in the ’80s when I thought that it had had its moment and was over, with local governments cleaning it up. While there’s no graffiti on trains (today in New York City), it exists publicly on walls. In Europe, artists are painting everywhere. It’s evolved to the point where there are more possibilities from the higher end, with street artists commissioned to paint buildings and murals. Some are capable of painting on a formidable scale – we used to paint on a milk crate, but now we have the likes of German artist ECB painting on the facade of a building over 70m high. That blows my mind, and I’m really encouraged by where the community has taken this art form... Everything that’s been created only enriches the scene.”
STREET ART X FASHION COLLABS OPEN UP NEW WORLDS
“One of the first instances of street culture crossing over into high fashion was when Stephen Sprouse did that Louis Vuitton collaboration. Even though I didn’t know much about Vuitton at the time, I was shocked that that could happen. Is something like that exploitative? I don’t know, but it’s a good question, and the answer depends. Thirty years ago, the idea of what we now know as streetwear was an interesting new avenue because we were evolving into graphic artists. We were manipulating logos and coming up with original compositions that were perfect for T-shirts. I started my own label with some friends in the ’90s, which was the beginning of me getting into this streetwear culture. And now many years later, I’m about to partner with Virgil (Abloh) on some stuff (Off-White’s S/S ’20 collection will have some Futura elements, he reveals) and that’s exciting because he represents a new platform for me to be exposed to a new audience. Looking at what he’s been doing with Off-White and now Louis Vuitton, (the shift has) really been quite revolutionary, and leads LV to a culture that it perhaps didn’t have as much access to previously. Is it exploitation? It could be, but it could also be seen as an evolution, with the community that is supporting this move being quite a youthful one.”
HE DIGS SOCIAL MEDIA – BUT IT DOESN’T AFFECT HIS ART
“It’s amazing that photo-sharing platforms such as Instagram are like an open court that allows everyone to see and hear stuff, yet also has a back door that allows people to talk privately via DMs. (It’s how I do) a lot of my outreach to people who are interested in what I’m doing... I can visit the account of someone who visited my page and scroll through their private lives and comment on a photo from, say, three years ago, and the beauty of that interaction is that that person knows exactly how this happened... (At the same time) all that we see on Instagram has nothing to do with the way I work as an artist... My work exists in a real space, in real time. I could put it on social media, but the two things are quite separate. As a rule, I don’t really use Instagram as a portfolio per se, like the majority of artists do. My posts show a mix of my interests, my friends’ works and a bit of my own work, so it doesn’t feel like it’s all me, me, me.”