Leonard McGur aka Futura 2000 has a career spanning over 40 years that goes back to the earliest days of the modern street art movement.He got his start painting on the New York subways back in the ‘70s when that was still possible, but soon built a career in the fine art world, beginning with his gallery showings alongside such famous New York artists of the 80s as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He worked extensively with The Clash during that same period, doing artwork for their single “This Is Radio Clash” and a guest vocal on their album Combat Rock, as well as appearing on tour with them, doing live paintings while they performed. In the ‘90s, he created artwork for the covers of many releases on Mo Wax Records, as well as for the electronic music project UNKLE. He’s designed his own clothing under the label Futura Laboratories, and collaborated with many other clothing companies, from Nike and North Face to the NYC-based streetwear company Supreme. He released a coffee table book in 2000; has designed collectible toys; and made appearances in music videos, documentaries, and video games.
A true renaissance man, there are not many creative endeavors that Futura has not turned his hand to at some point.
The conversation began with him telling us about the last time he’d been in Richmond, and how pleasantly surprised he was to see the changes it has undergone since then.
Futura: I might predate some of your DOBs out here, but ‘77 was the last time I was [in Richmond]. So when I rolled into town I was like, “Wait a minute.” I know cities grow, but damn, what’s up with Richmond? All the shit by the OMNI [hotel], where I’m at, that wasn't like that. I’m psyched to be here. What I saw this morning, I was like, “Oh shit.” Totally not expecting. From what I can tell, you’ve already upgraded the city status. [You’re] doing a good service locally, and it might take a few years to catch on. You'll probably have people coming back to you now, who you may have wanted to work with initially. And you know how that works. That always happens. The conservatives that want to hold on to shit and keep it as it was, stopping progress in whatever form it takes. I think street art… It doesn’t scare people, but...
It has bad connotations.
It does, but I think that's all been diminished from the recent work that everyone’s been doing. It’s obvious. They’re not vandals, they’re commissioned. So that’s exciting. Maybe next year I'll see the issue that features me, and be thinking, “Man, you guys are all right!”
So, that was the last time you were in Richmond--at that point were you doing graffiti work?
Actually, I wasn’t. I was in the military. Well, I started writing before I was in the military, let’s say ‘70? High school. Fifteen years old, I’m looking at graff, going “Oh wow, what’s this?” Got in there. ‘73, I went into the military. Went back to New York in ‘79, right about the time when things were starting to percolate and people were about to take it from the streets, [having] initial ideas of doing alternative exhibitions in galleries that weren't really galleries, spaces in the Bronx. Then it all started to snowball in New York. So for the next five years, you have a full-blown art movement with gallery support. Kids [were] still doing trains in the morning, then having an exhibition. It was just a melange of everything. Then in ‘85, you had the death of street art as we knew it then.
What was the reason for that?
Everybody was done with it. Anything that could be sold found every buyer that would buy it. The market’s over. It’s done. Then I fell back to a position where, fuck, I have an infant baby--I don’t want to run to Europe and continue being an artist through European support. I’m not going to expatriate just because people are buying work there. I live here, how can I support my family? It’s not going to be through art. [So I] found other ways to make a living.
Here come the ‘90s, someone comes and pulls me out of it. “Let's give you an exhibition.” So I had another little push, and that was very short-lived. That was the introduction of street wear, computing--the ‘90s are here. Everyone was off the streets now. Kids who were good at graff got good at graphics, once they learned how to use Illustrator. Mid-90s, I’m a fucking computer wizard, I’m doing DOS, backstage on a PC. I know how to do all that. Internet? What’s that? [I found] Art Crimes--looking at graff all over the world. How can you see photos from there? What is this platform?
Seeing the influence of what you guys did earlier being spread all over the world.
Sure, because your first book is Subway Art, the first bible of the ‘80s. Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant. Spray Can Art, which is the second coming of that bible--new testament, old testament. The new testament is not the subways of the city, it’s the walls of the world. So, Spray Can Art was the first look at the world and what kids are doing in Auckland, New Zealand or Guangzhou, China. So that all started to percolate. I created a website, looking at the web as a possible next venue for exposure. What I was getting off on was, here I am in my little apartment, writing fucking webpages, there's my shit uploaded, and I'm getting messages from kids in Germany and Sweden. I’m thinking, “This is amazing, this connectivity thing.” Now, [though], I think it’s gotten to overdose proportions. It’s just too much of a pool of information, it’s very hard to sift through.
Suffice to say, [with] my webpage, my commercial graphic clothing company collaborations, Mo’ Wax record covers--I rode that wave into the millennium. [I did] my Futura book in 2000. I made some toys. I'm meeting all these [corporate] people and having relationships [that are] less business and more like [we have] something in common. I've worked in all of these different realms, and I decided not to be a gallery artist. I was not gonna pursue all of that, because I was doing quite well. I had a company in Japan, which I’ve subsequently shut down. But anyway, recently, all these other artists--Shepard [Fairey], Banksy, everyone else--have created a lot of hype over [their commercial work], and then people are like, “Hey, Futura...” Quite frankly, if I make a painting [for a commercial collaboration], there’s nice numbers there. Why am I going to deny that? I think I’ve been in denial, because knowing that my dad busted his ass, and at the end of the year, that small fucking number that he sweated, cried, and bled for--that’s a very small percentage of what I can make without lifting a finger. I’ve been blessed, but now at age 56, I’m like OK, OK. You guys want to compensate me for my work? OK, I think I’m happy in accepting it now. Maybe it will profit my daughter, maybe it will profit my son. Maybe it will do good for my friends and family. It’s not my ambition, but at this point I'm not going to deny it.
So in September, I've got a pop up show in New York. It’s going to be mega major. It's going to be my first exhibition in New York in at least ten years, and I’m coming with the heat. I’m really excited about it, because this project is a million dollar promotion. [It’s] what I couldn't do that these guys have helped me do now. After all of that, I'm going to go for the fine art world again, and see what they are offering. From what I hear, it could be OK.
How was that transition for you, especially starting out-- I've talked to a lot of artists, especially a lot of the guys who are doing the murals, they start off with the purity of just having someone see it, and then...
I think everyone has to grapple with that, with their own morality thing. It is hard. That was such a valid argument in the ‘80s when it was first happening. Like, how do you guys feel about putting your work in a gallery when it’s supposed to be free for the public? I had problems dealing with that in the ‘80s, which is why I’m never fast to run to [a commercial] opportunity. I could critique, artist by artist, who I think deserved whatever, but that would be wrong of me. I'm not a purist that says, “That’s fucked up, you didn’t pay your dues.” That’s kind of ridiculous. I can't decide who's entitled to what. I also don't know their situation.
If I think they are rising too quickly, I don't feel threatened by that. I think that they are going to burn out quickly too. I've been around for a few years. A lot of these kids are relatively new. Yeah, you can be a flash in the pan for 36 months, but at that five year window, shit’s kind of like, “Wait, what happened?” To me the short play, it’s not the one. But young people don’t have the patience and the vision to lean back and perhaps wait for something that they can’t calculate will happen. All these cliches about, “act now,” blah blah blah--I listen to my own conscience, I don't want to be led into something where...
A trend or something.
Or whatever, yeah. I’ll come and view something. Hopefully I inspire, I educate, I have something positive to say. But when I see too many people gravitating to shit, I’ll duck out the back. The funniest thing I can say about originality: Instagram, right? The new shit, everyone’s on it. I’m on it, it’s amazing. You have a community that is dying for visibility, dying for attention. Every popular tag that the instagram application has, whatever it is, whatever the generic crap everyone is drinking, this fucking wack Kool-aid--people are all about that. People say, “Let’s play within the rules.” I say, “No--let's break the rules a little bit.” I had a thing called camerathrow. My own tag. I’ve invented a hundred of them already. What am I doing? I’m combining words. I'm making something original. No one used it yet. It's mine. So what's happened? After a month or two, people are just taking it. Now, part of creating an original tag is that if I've got 20 different images with that tag, and you touch that tag, you’re going to come to that page, and that’s all me. It's my way of filtering you into another folder--”you saw that recent one, but now look at the timeline of all those other ones.” What's happening is everyone is jumping in there, because everyone knows now--”Oh, people are looking at his shit.”
It's sort of like a graffiti wall, where I come up and I write my name. If I go back a month later, there’s a hundred names right there. I get it, it’s like alignment. “I’m with so-and-so.” But like, come on, guys, really? It’s so boring that it just forces me to want to leave. It’s like, “Wow, you turned something cool into wack.” You made it too accessible, I don’t want to associate with that anymore. It’s about maintaining originality, and Jesus, man, it doesn’t take much. I'm just going to lay back and let my work speak for itself, as it always has. You know, all these sneaker heads and all these Supreme kids, everyone is just a part of this feeding frenzy. I gotta get them off that. You won’t be seeing any of my stuff like that anymore. You know, commercially available. I think it diminishes things. It takes away your super powers.
You’ve seen a lot of the scene fluctuate in the way it has developed. A lot of the large mural guys came from the street and went to the gallery. Then they thought the gallery was getting commercialized, went back to the street, and now are doing these giant things.
That the gallery couldn’t support, because the gallery doesn’t have space like that.
What can happen after this? After you go six stories high on a building, where do you go from there?
You keep going, and you look at the global. You start thinking, “I’m a citizen of the world.” I don’t just live in America. Look at Blu. Blu did something exceptional. He redefined how you do this shit. Stop animation. “I painted it. I took it away. I had a character move across the wall. You don’t even know how the fuck I did what I did. But I did it. I’m autonomous enough that I can do all of it. I can paint it, I can whitewash it, I can photograph it.” That kid, fucking... Really, he’s the best right now on the planet. In my humble opinion. And his genius of going to Jerusalem, going to Colombia. He’s an Italian, he can do shit Americans can’t do. America has got, sadly, a little stigma about who we are. Some people ain’t feeling us. What’s dope about Blu, he can go to places we can’t go and do fantastic shit that we can’t even dream about. So I envy him. I envy his European status, and the fact that he can just go around the world and do what he does.
And yeah, Banksy kind of showed us how to do that too, but I'm over Banksy. Banksy lost me with Exit Through The Gift Shop. That shit is a fucking travesty. Mr. Brainwash [the subject of Exit Through The Gift Shop] is a fucking travesty. It ruined everything. Brainwash set everything back ten years. In my opinion. And I dig the fuck out of Banksy, but man... you just took a piss on the whole culture. You just shit on the whole shit, and introduced this knucklehead as some fucking... whatever. The whole thing is mad insulting. And in fact, some of that got me back.
Got you pissed off and got you motivated?
A little bit, a little bit. Like, something about Banksy, he continues to inspire. Although my problem is, he's also part of that Shepard Fairey, “I’ve got a production team” world now. I don’t even know what I’m seeing anymore. And quite frankly, his shit is so clone-able that... I don’t know. He gave away too much. He revealed too much, and in the process of revealing too much, he gave away [the way] to do it. And to me it lost the power of the originator.
So you are doing the show in New York--what's after that?
We’re going to pop up in five cities. The beauty of the pop-up show is that you aren’t allowing a gallery, because they have a reputation and white walls, to profit 50% of your sales. There are ways that I can be involved financially, and that maintains my ability to not give away half. Something about that whole art world half/half thing still bothers me a little bit. Especially like the new kids on the block--like, who are you? Why should I tie you into me and let you make paper? Now, mind you, if you are cool and you are my peeps, then I want that opportunity for you, because I want us to do well. I don’t want to put that money in my pocket. I want to put it in our pocket. I mean, am I Robin Hood? Yeah, a little bit. Can I rob from the rich and give to the poor? I hope so. I hope I can keep doing that. That makes me feel good. It gives me pleasure.