Stevio...LA LA Lovin' It?

I'm British-born Chinese from Bristol, UK. I’m LA-based. I’m a hip hop aficionado. After 15 years in London I moved to LA to pursue a new career and outlook on life.

Back in the 80s I was a DJ. In the 90s I contributed to the world's first street style exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. In 2011, I had my first interviews published. Today, I’m keeping busy with music, art, photos and writing.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

#UNleashed Magazine: "The Past According to Futura" #ArtInTheStreets #Futura

This is the last of four articles I wrote for UNLeashed Magazine in 2011 to celebrate the "Art in the Streets" exhibition at LA's Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art.) Reviewing my interview with Futura over two years later I am still in awe of insights he shared with me and the context he gave to the fragments of hip hop history I have experienced since I fell in love with the culture in 1982-83.

My other three UNLeashed Magazine articles can be found here: the beginnings of street art (Patti Astor and Fab 5 Freddy;) the appearance of branded street art (Tats Cru and Scion;) and the business aspect within street art (Nick Walker and Lainya Magana.) 

Photo credit: courtesy of Futura

A 30-year career for a graffiti artist is rare. It takes a special breed of talent and the confidence to take your art beyond the train yard, basketball court and gallery to new platforms and levels of creativity to reach broader audiences. Futura [2000] is one of the few artists who has constantly reinvented himself, always looking forward and rarely looking back. UNleashed Magazine spent an evening talking with Leonard McGurr, aka Futura, at his home in Brooklyn, ahead of his participation in the Art in the Streets show opening at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Los Angeles.

MOCA exhibition entrance (photo credit: Stevio)

Futura’s graffiti career started in 1970 when McGurr invented his tag (a graffiti writer’s nom de plume), to represent himself in the graffiti underworld and disguise himself from the authorities. “Coming up with the name ‘Futura 2000’ – there were a lot of things that I stole that from…The ‘2000’ was my inspiration and the name became something I live by…and I [have] actually survived 30 years…”

In the 70s, what made Futura 2000 stand out wasn’t his catchy sci-fi tag - after all he was preceded by Paul Renner’s 1920s typeface and Lincoln’s concept car of 1955. He stood out because he painted ‘whole cars’ – trains painted from top to bottom – in what became his signature; abstract and emotional blaze of color. His 1980 painted train raised the bar and created a new aesthetic in graffiti art. Futura lays out the milestones in his long career, “1980 I decide to break with tradition and discover the unknown. The abstract wholecar painted over a three-hour period on a cold night in March would ultimately become iconic. Whoa. who knew?”

Futura 2000 whole car 1980 (photo credit: Henry Chalfont and Martha Cooper)

He made the transition to canvas in the 80s and shared a Lower East Side studio with Fab 5 Freddy. This is the period that will be the essence of Futura’s installation at MOCA. “I have a fantastic painting from 1984, [a] kinda large important painting - seven by nine feet. It was a large painting for its time. This particular painting I gave to my wife when she was pregnant…in the summer of ‘84…that’s 26-27 years ago and it’s a great painting to have as a retrospective [of my work]. And I’m gonna match it with another piece that I haven’t even made yet. I’m gonna make it out there [Los Angeles]. It’s not the ‘yin and the yang,’ but the ‘then and the now’.”

Futura paintings 1984 and 2011, Art in the Streets (photo credit: Stevio)

On the importance of the MOCA show, Futura is very clear. “It is great that Jeffrey [Deitch] has done this, because...people [will] want to talk about the history of the movement…[And] being selected as one of the artists [at MOCA] is awesome…this is probably the first real recognition by an American institution…of the entire movement.[Not just] individuals like Basquiat and Haring who had already been recognized.” As an elder in the graffiti world, Futura is philosophical about what the exhibition will do for the street art genre as well as artists’ careers. “I’m not looking at the show [to say] ‘hey I’m in MOCA!’ It’s one aspect of me as a person. It’s not that important! I’m sure to some of these kids this is it! This is like ‘oh, God dude I’m in! I’m gonna cash in on this,’ or whatever the motivation will be. I’m grateful and I will represent myself very well.”

“I think this show will inflate some peoples’ prices and that should be good for them. I’m grateful for MOCA and I’m excited, but I don’t see it as the defining moment in my career. I think it’s a great moment for the movement…but how many people are in the space, literally inside the show? How many kids who didn’t make it in the show are part of the exterior events? [Ask yourself] not who’s in, [but] who’s out!” 

Art in the Streets artist group photo (credit: Stevio)

Futura Past  You have to understand Futura’s past to truly understand his point of view. He got recognition during the first gallery love affair with graffiti art in the 80s. He exhibited in the Tony Shafrazi gallery in 1982 alongside Kenny Scharf, then again in 1984 with a solo show. But he was given the cold shoulder after galleries and collectors turned their backs on graffiti art and moved on to more traditional, highbrow art. In response to that boom and bust era, he looked for other avenues to channel his creativity. He reflected, “I didn’t want to be part of the movement 24/7…I diversified my creativity is how I see it. I did a lot of things with my talent and I wasn’t a one-dimensional player. [Now, with MOCA] the art world has come to me. I’ve tried to avoid it…but here it is.”

Earlier this year, fine art auctioneer house, Bonhams, sold one of Futura’s installation pieces painted live in 1983 while he was on tour with the UK punk rock band, The Clash. The four by eight foot painting sold for just under $60,000. “It’s an awesome price and it’s great for the person who profited from that,” said Futura, “I’m not bitter [or asking] ’where’s my percent[age]?’ I don’t worry about those things or play the numbers game.”

credit: Bonhams

“I’m not a collector of my own work, or for that matter of fact, anyone’s work…there’s only one painting in my apartment [and it’s] of my kids. It’s not like I need to be around my work…if there is some potential business [from MOCA I will look at it], but I will [continue to] be as stingy and cheap with my own work as I’ve ever been. Hey, I don’t even have [any of] it! So it’s hard to come by. Just because there’s going to be a rush on it doesn’t mean I’m going to fill it either…I’m never drawn by that [money], that’s not my motivation.”

Outernational  As with many things, foreign collectors seem to appreciate the graffiti aesthetic more than at home. Collectors of Futura’s work outside of America have been consistently supportive over the years, so why not move abroad like some of his contemporaries? Futura explained how it was in the early 80s, “People like Jon One, Toxic, Quik, didn’t really expatriate until ‘83/’84…First of all, I’m from New York so I’m not going anywhere, although I have been to 70 countries…and I loved it. All the subsequent exhibitions were based on European interest in our work. [It came from] the people in France who bought; the Dutch who bought a lot, as well as the Germans and the Italians. They all supported our art, whereas no one in New York was supporting it, except for the high-end guys – Basquiat, Haring, Scharf. I sold some paintings; no doubt, I had a moment, but no one was buying graffiti art with any consistency. I was never going to leave [New York]; but people left because that’s where the money was.”

Bonjour hip hop  In 1982, Futura visited France for the first time as part of the New York City Rap Tour. This was masterminded by journalist Bernard Zekri who befriended Afrika Bambaataa (founder of Hip Hop’s influential Universal Zulu Nation) and Jean Georgakarako (better known as Jean Karakos) the man behind French new wave record label, Celluloid Records. This period is one of folklore, but it is clear that commercial interests had already infiltrated hip hop. Futura recalls that time, “Prior to the tour, there was a French rush on our movement [hip hop] and it occurred with a few articles that were done with [Fab 5] Freddy, myself and Bambaataa about this new phenomenon…it wasn’t called hip hop yet. The creation of the records [I painted the sleeves] was all part of Jean Karakos’s marketing strategy.”

Talking about his work for Celluloid and the 1982 Celluloid release of his record Escapades of Futura 2000, “I did those covers [for Celluloid] but those records were an exploitation event and I never got a dime, but I know that they cut a deal with The Clash to get their music. That record was meant to happen as a cassette tape and it predates the [New York City] Rap Tour by seven months. So, when I came back to New York I said to Fred [Fab 5 Freddy] ‘Yo, you gotta listen to this little rap record I did…’ It was my homage to graffiti, but I never wanted that to be a fucking record…and Celluloid cut other records (Fab 5 Freddy’s Change the Beat, DST’s Megamix II and Phase II’s The Roxy). All this record shit gets done prior to this tour. Why? Because they have to sell something on the tour. At the time, I was totally manipulated, but I didn’t mind because ‘we were all going to Paris!’”

Fast Forward to the 90s  “1985 the Eighties peak; mid decade... those with skills and talent find new opportunities. those without; are trapped in history. Bummer!” Futura moved on to the next phase in his career. By the 90s, the fate that Futura firmly believes in continued to push his brand of art internationally into other avenues. “…I met James Lavelle from Mo’Wax in Berlin. As a result of meeting James, I met Hardy [Blechman of Maharishi for whom Futura designed a range of clothing]. A few years later, I hooked up with the Tokyo ‘Harajuku’, über-cool set. Things were happening without any plan or forecast. The gates opened up in Japan. Japan wound up being this place that supported me…and gave me opportunities that I’d never seen before in America…I love Japan. And James was my key…as he was always in with those guys.”

Cultural Overload   By 2005, Futura saw the urban culture swelling in popularity. “2005 the MOVEMENT is not just GLOBAL it’s GARGANTUAN.” When asked to elaborate, he added, ”I don’t just mean the art world. It’s the lifestyle and culture…street art, social networking and blogs, in addition to all the consumer culture like Hypebeast and Freshness. No longer do we live in niches; all the circles cross over each other. There’s the community of artists and designers and the ‘cool boy’ stuff. In ’05 it hit a curve, [and became] another movement that was bound to explode – it was too much – and now we’re in this recovery period. I think the movement glutted on itself, it got too high on itself, fed off of itself and it got sick. I’m weary of all that. I can be in it, but when I’m in it, I am never really believing it.”

In April, Futura travels to Los Angeles in preparation for the Art in the Streets show. “I’m looking forward to going to LA just to check out the work on the street, ‘cause I’m sure there’s a ton. I think I’ve seen all there is to see in New York, which is almost depressing.” As the MOCA show shines the spotlight on him once more, like many forefathers of a movement, he’s protective of what he’s pioneered and outspoken about those who follow in his footsteps. Referring to the new wave of street artists, Futura opines, “I take a lot of photos, so I’m aware of the new kids on the block. I don’t mean the bigtimers like Twist, Swoon, Barry McGee or Shepard Fairey. I’m talking more about the people who haven’t made it yet.”

Futura, Art in the Streets 2011 (photo credit: Stevio)

“It kinda makes me angry that artists who are out there today don’t get the historical perspective; they simply jumped on a bandwagon that had gained momentum…happy to jump aboard and reap the benefits; and they don’t care about, or respect the forefathers or pioneers. I claim some stake in the way it has all panned out 30 years later.”

Talking about street art, Futura says, “I like some of it, but I don’t get anything [emotional from it]. It’s very strange.I get that in galleries also.” He continues, “It’s not just technical ability; it’s energy and emotion which I think certain artists [need to] deliver which is beyond even the work. You [need to] get more of a feel for the person, and that’s hard to translate with a lot of street art. It’s very cold, I don’t get a lot of warmth from it…”

Futura, the artist, is multi-faceted and his work has seeped into every aspect of urban culture, but Futura the man is very much centered around his family whom he considers to be his greatest achievement. “I’m proud of my kids –they’re children of the globe, but Brooklyn is at the heart. My wife laid out the plan...If I need technical advice I call my son, if I need the truth I call my daughter…”

So, what’s next for Futura? “I’d still like to make a movie…I’m still young enough to do a lot more interesting things…that’s why I don’t like to reminisce, although this [MOCA] show makes us look back. It’s not what I do…I’m Futura, I’m the guy who’s looking ahead. It’s no disrespect…I’ve always been that guy.”

Art Of Facts (Feat. FUTURA) from 13thWitness™ on Vimeo.

by Stephen Pang (re-published with permission from UNleashed Magazine)

Copyright 2011 by Stephen Pang/UNleashed Magazine.

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