Graffiti artist Futura talks street art at Samsung Galaxy Note II launch event.
Photo: Getty Images
It’s an under-celebrated thing to be afforded the opportunity to make a living by doing what you love most. At MTV Style, we get that every day, being able to meet and talk to inspiring people making things happen, but it’s also a truth for the people we interview. Certainly for Futura (née Futura 2000), the New York born and raised graffiti artist who came up in the game with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring and is now enjoying a full-plate of solo and collaborative design opportunities. We were able to sit down and chat with the living legend (shout outs to Chelsea Welsh for the reporting teamwork) at Samsung’s Galaxy Note II launch event where he dropped knowledge on the rise of street art culture and shed light on his collaboration strategy shortly before a very special Kanye West performance.
MTV STYLE: It’s a huge honor to meet you! You’re such a legend.
FUTURA: I hear that a lot, but I don’t live there. [Laughs] But thank you!
Being one of the OGs of the street art movement as we know it, we have to ask you about the very beginning. When you were tagging the underbelly of New York City as a teenager, did you ever think that street culture was going to translate into this larger commercial movement? Into the tangible, profitable enterprise that it is today?
That was like 40 years ago! [Laughs] I really didn’t. I don’t think anyone did. But it showed its face, even back then, in the ’70s. I mean, at the core of graffiti writing, every young kid, male or female who’s doing that, the name they choose — and you can look at the junior high school level, you’ll see it on book bags, books, this is my name, this is my nickname — everyone’s sort of into that identity thing. But for graffiti writers that go public with it? They don’t know it at the time, but it’s branding. It’s self-promotion. What has happened and what happened earlier in the ’70s after we jumped on board was Madison Avenue started looking at that.
I mean, no one exactly calculate the effect that public art has on public consciousness. But over time, those young kids who grew up around this movement — I’m hip hop, I skateboard, I’m into punk — eventually, they all start growing up together, sharing stuff, and then, now everybody knows about all that. And who knows more than anyone? The people that want to monetize it. Now, I’m gonna be 57, okay, this November, next month, and now I’m starting to get paid.
I was always famous but never rich. I figured you could be famous in New York City just by writing your name on a train, you know? If you painted it on the right train, like a number 2, or a 5, it would go from Brooklyn to the Bronx! In a span of a week, the public at large didn’t know who you were, but every kid that was out there looking at names on trains knew exactly who you were so to go from there to becoming a globally recognized artist? That’s pretty cool.
That’s almost the goal inherently built into tagging and branding and getting your name out there, right? To become as widely recognized as possible. Do you think the meteoric expansion of the street culture movement has cheapened it or do you think it’s helped make it stronger?
Well, I’m only one of many pioneers. Take Basquiat. Let’s go back to the beginning of when our movement really gets put on a credible art map. When people were looking at it with some academics, really talking about how important that painting is. There’s that period, and that kind of all ended in the ’80s. But then you’ve got, like, Shepard Fairey who comes along and becomes sort of the founding father of wheatpasting and how to do this kind of outdoor exterior promotion. And then you’ve got Banksy, who’s the stencil master and just a really clever kid.
And you’ve got The Twins from Brazil (Os Gêmeos) who paint in this traditional, naïve kind of way, but very intense. And then you’ve got an artist like Blu from Italy who, in my opinion, is the most outstanding street artist on the planet. You should look up his website. It’s so amazing.
So I mean like, I don’t know how or if all of these thing affect the street because all those names I mentioned, they’re in both worlds. They’re on the street. They’re in the gallery. They’re on a product. They’re on a Louis V bag. You’re going to find this melding of all of that now because I feel there’s always a frantic pace to take things to market.
Would you say that has an effect or is part of your process?
It’s not part of my process. I never let money dictate what I do, but it runs the world, and it runs how the movement is handled. For me, I could say, “F*** it,” or “No, thank you,” to anyone I please. I’m grateful for this opportunity, but it’s also like, “Oh, really? Do I get to meet Kanye?” [Laughs]
What is your creative process like?
Spontaneous. Abstract. You know, whenever I feel like it. But mostly also organized. I have a studio. I had an exhibition in September. A pop-up show. It was the opening night of Fashion Week, Fashion’s Night Out, September 6th. It was on Washington Street, quite successful! Not quite this big of a space, but pretty big. I had a couple dozen paintings, one of which sold for $170,000. I mean, that’s a record for me.
Do you find yourself, even at this stage in your career and being very established in the world of street culture, still trying to break barriers in the art gallery world?
You know, the gallery world is more fickle. There’s less security in people buying art. We’ve been coming out of a recession for the past couple of years. Who’s got that 90K? That 180K? It’s, like, some Swiss buyer or something, you know? But I mean, it’s not like I’m in my studio now trying to bang out painting because there’s money to be made in selling paintings now. I do other things. I’ve been on the Hennessy campaign. I did the new Deftones album cover which is wrapping next month.
To that point, your collaborations seem to have been so strategic. It’s interesting to look at the big picture trajectory of your career. It really feels like you didn’t just say you would work with anybody. It feels more like you said, “No, I’m going to work with Supreme because Supreme knows what they’re doing, and I stand behind it.” Same with Hennessy or A Bathing Ape or Levi’s or the billion other huge names you’ve been linked to.
As far as your collaborations go, is there a strategy behind how you decide who and what you partner up with?
Yea, yes, of course. If it’s not financially driven, then what’s driving it? It’s gotta be the right thing. I like to have relationships with the people I’m collaborating with. I knew James [Jebbia] from the very beginning of Supreme. Like, before Supreme, I knew Supreme. I have a relationship with these people, and that’s most important to me. The Hennessy thing, it’s corporate, it’s major, but you know, the way they talk to me and handle me… And Colette, I’ve known Colette, I’ve known Sarah and her mom. I’ve been in France for a long time. I predate Colette. [Laughs] But I showed with Colette more than 10 years ago. All of these things, they’re not necessarily new. If you look back, they’re kind of calculated to the point of yea, being strategic. It’s true. I’m not a gun-slinger, open for hire. I’m not a mercenary. I could be. But I want to think that I’m doing a good event, part of a good exchange.
Do you have any advice for the young aspiring creatives of the world? Words of wisdom about hitting road blocks and the like?
Sure! I mean, it’s hard to explain to young people to be patient and to have more willingness to even endure some difficulties in their creative quest. And whatever that journey is, it certainly ain’t gonna be paved in gold. [Laughs] I mean, obviously, we’re living more in this, like, hater universe where everyone’s sort of so emo about not being into s***. But don’t be deterred by the hard times.