Here’s an interview I did with the charming graffiti pioneer Futura 2000 for Exit magazine.
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The Aerosol Optimist
Futura 2000 is a graffiti legend famous for an abstracted style of spraycan art. He has exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London, the Museo d'Arte Moderna in Bologna, the Picasso Museum in Antibes, and the New Museum in Manhattan, among others. Exit spoke to Futura 2000 recently about The Clash, his friendship with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the New York art scene.
MARGO FORTUNY: I love all those 80s movies about New York's early hip hop scene: Wild Style, Krush Groove, Style Wars… Were you in any of those?
FUTURA: When some of those movies were filmed I happened to be away in London with The Clash. When I came back I managed to sneak into Wild Style ; I’m in a scene in a club with the late Dondi White, and I’m at the end of Style Wars on the boat.
FORTUNY: What was it like touring with The Clash?
FUTURA: That was an introduction to Europe and ultimately, that helped create a name for me. I didn’t know those guys when they came to New York. It was their scene coming here as opposed to,“Oh yeah, I know London Calling. I know Sandinista.“ I didn’t know any of that. I met Joe (Strummer), he was an amazing individual, almost like an older brother, a very deep man, an emotional guy. That was amazing to meet someone who was so well-known and very talented in his field. I got to sing on a record with the Clash called Overpowered by Funk, on the album Combat Rock. You know how things are when you’re in it and it’s all going on and you don’t really even know what’s happening? It was quite a little tornado. That was the most amazing experience of my life- at that time- short of meeting my wife and having children.
FORTUNY: Did you hang out with Basquiat back in the day?
FUTURA: 1979, ’80, ’81, ’82, those were the wonder years in New York when it all started to incubate. People like Jean and Keith (Haring) were more conscious of being artists, that was their thing. Graffiti writers weren’t educated like that. We didn’t think, Oh we’re getting into the art world. These kids, Jean, Keith, Kenny, and all the more famous guys of that era, Clemente, Schnabel, were artists. They were educated, and so for them to do what they did ultimately was not a surprise.
There’s so much revisionist history, people can say what they want... but Jean was a very good friend and he was part of all of it. I remember thinking, “Wow, he’s doing a very permanent thing.” And people said, “Oh, my kids could do that.” But no one understood he was interpreting Cy Twombly, and he was showing relationships in art, which is what the art world wants you to do. What he created gave it respect. It’s cyclical. He was a master. I regret that he killed himself through his addiction. Keith is another story. Warhol as well, I knew all of those people, though with Andy I was a little standoffish because I thought he was a pretty strange guy.
I remember Jean giving me a hundred dollar bill once. He sold some postcards, sort of like that scene out of the movie (Basquiat) He sold them to Bischofberger or Warhol, I don’t know, but he had a pocket full of hundred dollar bills, and he was like, “Lenny, here you go, get some art supplies.” I thought “Wow. But I really shouldn’t take this.” He said, “No, you have to, come on. When you’re doing well, hook up artists, man. Tell them to do work.” I was like, “Wow, thank you.” And you know, I went and bought some canvas, some paint, whatever. I’ll never forget that day. Just before he passed away a lot of people used his generosity and his openness. People would hang around his studio and drink, do drugs, people were taking advantage of him because sometimes he would get so fucked up I guess he needed people around. That Basquiat isn’t here is a real tragedy. Everything that he’s done and everything that’s said of him is all worthy. He was way ahead of his time. He was a brilliant artist.
FORTUNY: How has your style evolved over the years? Is it more graphic or theoretical?
FUTURA: Yes, it is more graphic in a sense. You can’t really alter the aerosol medium as it is. It’s always going to be a quick dry response medium. It’s very workable. I like to think I’ve gotten better through practice but I’m still trying to discover what I really want to paint. I am returning as a painter now. All of my recent graphic art and design, I’m putting that on the back burner. In the last decade the movement has spun back around and now I’m getting caught up in this gravitational pull. It would be nice to get a little bit known in my own country, finally. My aim is to redirect traffic to other things I’m doing now. I made a lot of decisions for 2012. It’s gonna be a new me. I bought a suit. You know what I’m saying? It’s that kind of change in lifestyle.
FORTUNY: So your fashion collaborations are over now.
FUTURA: I have bigger fish to capture. I’m holding back on all those other things that are not quite as fascinating. Right now I have some potential clients that are very, very big.
FORTUNY: What kind of direction are you moving in? Galleries, public art projects?
FUTURA: I like public art more than galleries. The gallery I’m working with in Paris, Jerome, they’re amazing. However, I am looking at other ways of exposing my work and some of those could be public art . I’m trying to work with some hotels, and painting a private jet. I’m looking at art that doesn't have to be in a gallery. I want to do murals around the world as well. There’s Os Gêmeos and Shepard Fairey, Twist, I want to do something like that in the public view. Where can I take my work to reach a new audience? I think that’s the most important thing. Everything’s already starting to line up. I’ve got a book deal with Rizzoli. They’ve done Murakami, KAWS, but that’s not until 2014.
When I was a kid I would write my name on the wall. Now I can figure out a better way to save my signature.
FORTUNY: What artists inspire you or your style?
FUTURA: I would say that no artist has inspired me. I always try to find a negative space. When I first started writing graffiti I had a signature. Everyone did. But when I started painting I wasn’t looking at who was doing what. I was looking for what didn’t exist.
I’m influenced by life itself, whatever I’m exposed to. Because painting is an emotional experience it’s not like “Oh let me do a logo for Supreme,” where it’s going to be crafted and clinical. We know what they want, whereas with painting it’s more like “Let me show how I feel,” and based on my feelings that’s how I’m going to work.
Thirty years ago I was mad scared. I needed to know who’s Kandinsky, who is this, what is the Bauhaus movement... I never had access to that.
FORTUNY: What do think of Banksy?
FUTURA: After this many years he’s put graff or street art on the map again in some commercial fashion. There’s a limit to how long you can be witty. I come from a different school. We don’t stencil. Yeah, I’ve always dug him as a clever kid very much trending, but I’m not drinking all the Banksy Kool-Aid. Everything else: the movie, all that, it’s a lot of hype. To the uninformed, or to the people 30 and under, they think he’s the greatest thing ever. They don’t have true historical perspective. They don’t know any better. I saw his show at the MOCA at last year. Your Banksy, your Jeff Koons, any other artist that has a team of people- it’s not my cup of tea.
FORTUNY: It becomes a factory.
FUTURA: Totally. Warhol taught everyone how to do that. I don’t like that as much. Whereas if I go up to someone’s studio, like Space Invader in Paris, and I see this kid surrounded by work and it’s all him, all these creations worldwide, I appreciate that more. Don’t try to sell me a theatre. I don’t want a theatre. Give me a performance.
The thing about Banksy is that I don’t think I would be back in the art world if it wasn’t for him. I don’t want to come off bitter; I just want to be honest. I think the guy’s amazing but he’s lost it.
FORTUNY: If I came to your birthday party and my present was a work by any artist, what would you want?
FUTURA: I would highly recommend you didn’t do that but if you were set on it I need a Michelangelo, a little sketch. The thing is I don’t live with art, so that would be one of the pieces I would have. Michelangelo, he’s my favourite.
FORTUNY: What do you think of social media and art?
FUTURA: I’m in contact with KAWS. He’s commenting, I’m commenting back. But I don’t know if I’m talking to Brian (KAWS) or someone who works for Brian. It disturbs me that we’re creating all these buffers and filters between each other. It’s bullshit. I can be real in a place that’s very fake. That’s one of my missions right now. Because we’re living in a very fake world. It worries me. I’m very old school. There should be more interaction between us.
FORTUNY: Do you think social media and apps help or hinder interaction?
FUTURA: Well, as a rule, I think they’re garbage. But if you want to go in and do something really interesting they can help. Obviously you can touch a lot of people.
FORTUNY: What’s something you wish people knew about you?
FUTURA: At the end of the day, whether it’s a really nice hotel or restaurant, I’m more likely to be chilling with the kids in the kitchen than all the important people in the crowd... No matter what happens I hope people know I haven’t changed.
I've become what I wanted to do. Creating a family has been very important for me. I’m so grateful. In the 80s when things fell apart, ’85 when the house of cards that was the New York City art world crumbled, I thought, I predict that I’m going to live to the year 2000, so things were bound to get better. I was very optimistic even though I was in relatively hard times. In 1985 you could put a tombstone on the New York scene- but there was another inspiration at that moment: my son was one years old. My children, my family, that’s been the support I’ve always needed. Finally, in some crazy twist, the stars are aligning again.
Exit Magazine, Spring/Summer 2012
Futura 2000 is currently exhibiting at Gallery Magda Danysz in Paris from February 21 – April 42015.
Here’s a video of young Futura talking about working with the Clash: