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Futura, the Unsung Hero of Modern Streetwear

By Bianca Husodo

The 63-year-old godfather of street art Lenny McGurr, better known as his pseudonym Futura, at his first Southeast Asian solo exhibit and residency at Gillman Barracks, titled ‘Constellation’.
 
Melvin Wong
The 63-year-old godfather of street art Lenny McGurr, better known as his pseudonym Futura, at his first Southeast Asian solo exhibit and residency at Gillman Barracks, titled ‘Constellation’.

Unless you Googled his Wikipedia page or were already aware of his decades-long influence in cracking open the insular world of art, you wouldn’t be able to pinpoint Futura’s age. Not that it should matter, but it’s fascinating, still.

On a sweltering Sunday in June, the polymathic artist, trailed by his team of T-shirt-wearing 20- and 30-somethings strolled through the pebbled pathway of Dempsey Hill leading to Dover Street Market Singapore. His appearance was deceptively meek. His visage, an atlas of wrinkles, receded into his wool beanie and thick-framed spectacles; his frail silhouette clad in a navy boiler suit, splattered with dried paint that went on to his beaten-up shoes. Outside the store, a platoon of thrilled “homeboys”, as he referred to them, had swarmed to form a line and have him scribble his thin-lined signature on their newly bought Futura alien toys.

“Thanks for rocking our shirt from 20 years throwback,” the artist called out to one, pointing at a Wu-Tang Clan T-shirt from his now-defunct ’90s streetwear label Project Dragon.

The artist was days-fresh from debuting his first solo exhibition, Constellation, a graffiti residency at the Gillman Barracks. The evening prior, a new mini-documentary film on his artistic journey was screened at The Projector, followed by a panel talk and an afterparty. Yet, here was the 63-year-old, bouncing and spurting with energy.

The crowd, and Futura himself, were there for an unveiling of another massive project: the relaunch of his streetwear label, Futura Laboratories.

Sophie-Bramly (Courtesy: Futura)Futura with fellow artist and friend Keith Haring at the former’s opening night at Fun Gallery in New York. Sophie Bramly, the photographer of the above image, recalls in an interview with The Guardian, “… they were good friends, and I asked them to stand back to back, as if in a western. There was something in common for me between a spray can and a gun, and I also thought that back-to-back fitted the way their careers were moving: Futura in the black world of hip-hop and Keith more in the white downtown world.”
Futura with fellow artist and friend Keith Haring at the former’s opening night at Fun Gallery in New York. Sophie Bramly, the photographer of the above image, recalls in an interview with The Guardian, “… they were good friends, and I asked them to stand back to back, as if in a western. There was something in common for me between a spray can and a gun, and I also thought that back-to-back fitted the way their careers were moving: Futura in the black world of hip-hop and Keith more in the white downtown world.”

Fashion’s intermingling with the street and vice versa is, by now, something of a platitude. However, long before Virgil Abloh, streetwear’s reappropriation auteur, was named head of Louis Vuitton’s menswear department; before street artist Kaws’ X-eyed characters made appearances as a giant pink figure at the centre of Kim Jones’ Dior Homme runway show or as Uniqlo’s hysteria-inducing T-shirt print; before Supreme was invited to stamp its red rectangular insignia alongside Louis Vuitton’s unmistakable monogram — there was Futura.

A light-skinned child adopted by biracial parents, Lenny McGurr found a sense of belonging when, at 15, he discovered what the graffiti sphere could offer him: self-invention. “The writing on the wall spoke to me. It was like, “Come join us.” I can become one of these guys. Take an alias — no one will ever say that wasn’t me. It was creation of identity,” McGurr recalled. He then christened himself as Futura 2000 (he discarded the numbers at the turn of the millennium). “It sounded and looked cool, the way I wrote it.”

Over the decades, McGurr has continuously and rapidly switched hats. He is best known, of course, as Futura, the Krylon-wielding legend of the New York streets. The city was his canvas. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, his psychedelic extraterrestrial creatures and sharp expressionist-influenced abstract work covered the entire exterior of trains, station walls, bridges. But often at the same time, he was and is a graphic designer, author, toy designer, postal worker, bicycle messenger, clothing painter, illustrator. He surfed mediums and genres, often riding multiple waves simultaneously.

Along with similar-minded contemporaries Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura championed the elevating of the underground. Their deft fluidity lent sophistication to what was then considered a lowbrow guerilla form of art. Backed by the uprising of the punk wave, aerosol art soon entered white cubes, breaking prescribed conventions.

Yet what is unbeknownst to many is, perhaps, Futura’s role as a pivotal catalyst to modern streetwear.

Tung PhamFutura’s  iconic vinyl alien toys were part of Futura Laboratories’ exclusive launch at Dover Street Market Singapore.
Futura’s iconic vinyl alien toys were part of Futura Laboratories’ exclusive launch at Dover Street Market Singapore.
Tung Pham“I have a flight suit, with a camouflage pattern I created with my characters. What’s cool is that it’s not made by just like, “Oh, run the machine!” and boom, it’s done. On each piece, the pattern falls differently. So essentially no two piece is the same,” said Futura.
“I have a flight suit, with a camouflage pattern I created with my characters. What’s cool is that it’s not made by just like, “Oh, run the machine!” and boom, it’s done. On each piece, the pattern falls differently. So essentially no two piece is the same,” said Futura.

To Futura, streetwear was a natural progression. The street was, after all, his natural habitat. He witnessed the cusp of hip-hop and skating culture — and as they burgeoned, so did he. “I was always doing streetwear-ish products, T-shirts, clothes, hats, jackets, pants,” the artist said, referring to his epoch in the ’90s, collaborating with fellow graffiti artists Gerb and Stash on a streetwear venture dubbed after their initials. If the West Coast had Stüssy, the East had GFS. The trio’s label went into viral recognition after their landmark piece — a graphic T-shirt printed with a non-copyrighted “Phillies Blunt” logo — was worn by a member of the punk-rock band The Clash on an MTV music video. Much ahead of its time, their controversial bootlegging upstart was too subversive to remain afloat. After GFS, Project Dragon (a label of a similar vein started by Futura, Stash and Bleu) and Subware (a graffiti-inflected label) followed. These nascent streetwear projects, albeit short-lived, encapsulated the era’s rebellious zeitgeist against the corporatism that reigned the previous decade.

At the end of the ’90s, Futura and Stash — by then, cult juggernauts in the young streetwear industry — looked to Japan. They worked with the likes of Bathing Ape’s Nigo and Undercover’s Jun Takahashi on collaborative projects. Nike took notice and invited both graffiti artists to reinterpret the classic Dunk Low sneaker. It was the first time that non-athletes were given the liberty to stamp their mark on a pair of Nikes. The first of many to come.

“Truth be told: I like to say that Stash and I were at the forefront when artist brand collabos were in vogue, or even potential. So it’s not like, “Look, Futura is doing this now.”,” the artist lightly shook his head. “No, it’s not new territory. Futura is bringing this back.”

By “this”, he really meant Futura Laboratories or FL, as he nicknamed it. FL was a passion project that began in the early ’00s. Based out of Fukuoka, the label’s apparel — mostly technical outerwear and utilitarian gear — hardly travelled beyond Japan’s borders. Before the recent relaunch, it had been dormant for eight years.

Tung PhamFutura Laboratories x A-Cold-Wall*’s paint-splattered boiler suit.
Futura Laboratories x A-Cold-Wall*’s paint-splattered boiler suit.

Now its return rides on the fluidity Futura is known for, and is meant to travel wherever. “The kind of world we live in today — music, toy culture, sneakerheads, all of these kids on fixies [fixed-gear bicycles] — there’s a lot of crossovers. All of these movements are spinning in their own orbit, but ultimately, these orbits catch other ones,” mused McGurr. He then revealed that on top of the debut’s surprise collaboration with Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall*, FL had another in the works with Virgil Abloh.

“I have a great relationship with Virge,” he sheepishly acknowledged. Futura and Abloh first met sometime in 2014 in Shanghai, at a time when Abloh’s Off-White was still comparably under-the-radar, but their creative alliance was instant. Last year, on a culturally significant ignition point, Abloh was appointed as the creative director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear line — the second black man to head a luxury fashion house in history. And for his second collection for the house, Abloh had Futura perform his graffiti art live at the show’s New York-inspired set.

The parallelity of their trajectories is rather uncanny. Despite belonging to different generations, both figures flourish in an ecosystem of multidisciplinary interests; both are hell-bent on tackling the ivory tower of their respective fields. And as it turned out, they succeeded.

Louis VuittonFutura performed live at Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter ’19 menswear show, which was staged within a set inspired by the New York sidewalk in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ music video.
Futura performed live at Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter ’19 menswear show, which was staged within a set inspired by the New York sidewalk in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ music video.

“I’m part of a bigger movement that I’m able to have my identity,” said Futura. “I often say small worlds collide. Meaning, I’ll discover people I don’t even know in other places, and at the core, we’ll all have the same interest. We all have these points of references in our world that connect, and that we can find. Like that kid with the Wu-Tang shirt. We’re boys; we share the same emotion about the same thing. I’m just one of the older ones.” He chuckled, “I’m probably the oldest teenager you know.”

For the past 40 years, Futura has spoken both to and for generations of outcasts. Asked if he ever thought he would still be doing so at the age of 63, Futura answered with a solid no. “Today, if you have an idea, or if you want to tell a story, the internet provides a platform for that. Electronic data, wherever that cloud is, that blows my mind. It’s crazy for me, child of the ’60s. I used to think as a kid I would never grow old; or growing old is boring. I wanted to be young and cool, get into a car accident and that was it. Now, the older I get, I know that was stupid. I would like another 25, maybe 30 years.”

Propelling his right arm into the air, he announced, “The Futura rocket ship is only about to blast.”