Connecting With Futura

words by natalie sim
interviewed by amanda
images by adam
04.10.2019

No stranger to street culture and art enthusiasts, the New York artist Futura is undoubtedly something of a legend. With a career spanning 40 years, Lenny McGurr, more commonly known as Futura, has seen the increased blurring of the lines between street and fine art. As a pioneer in this crossover alongside prolific artists like Jean-Michael Basquiat and Keith Haring, Futura is internationally recognised for his radically different approach to graffiti with his introduction of abstraction to the primarily letter-based discipline. His style of art, which reflects a clear evolution from the more traditional forms of graffiti, has allowed his work to exist simultaneously on the streets and on walls in notable art institutions and galleries.

While Futura’s legacy is certainly far-reaching, Constellation is the artist’s first solo show in Southeast Asia, a surprisingly belated debut considering how street culture and art has gained increasing prominence in the region. The show makes up for its belatedness, however, with 30 original works created during a residency with The Culture Story in Singapore. On top of displaying the idiosyncrasies to Futura’s art practice, the series of works also reflect the distinctive style that the artist has come to be known for; a display of Futura’s spirited creations abundant with the iconic motifs that have become synonymous with Futura’s career.

We take this rare opportunity to sit down with the artist to get his thoughts on originality today, family and love, as well as the social media age. Read the full interview below.

Touching on what you’ve actually said before, “Art is an expression of the self, but even some of the best artists have been likened to those that came before him. Satire, reappropriation, tribute and all things “inspired by” are all results of an interconnected world. We’re all unique, but it’s hard to be original in our ideas, expression and execution these days.” Where is the line now and how do you navigate the support of an artist’s self-expression if their work fringes on what has already been seen and done?

Being from this whole culture that I’m a part of, I benefit from the collective of it all, as an individual moving through space and time over 40 years. Whatever my contribution has been to this culture, it’s been enhanced by the whole community as well.

I’m just one individual that’s part of a bigger programme, with people coming from all floors of a building if you will. Young emerging artists coming from a level entrance level, who have either just arrived to do public work on the streets or have done so for the past decade are moving into other territories like galleries, and are having exhibitions, group shows, or solo shows.

For me, I look back and I think, “Man, time has very much been my ally and my friend because history has been kind to me”, history has put me into a context where you know that 40 years is quite powerful. With these 40 years of experience, I am hopefully wiser, more knowledgeable and able to help others to arrive at and fulfil their dreams, or at the very least, offer advice to younger artists, what to do, what not to do, how to handle certain business decisions, on photography, fine art, fashion, streetwear, illustration… All of these things I feel are part of our culture and certainly the subculture of this global movement.

I mean, I stay positive, I stay above the noise and learn not to believe the hype. I try to maintain my own individuality whilst maintaining a moral compass about how to act and to be a force of positivity.

Touching on that, I feel led to speak about the fact that you’re a father and you’re a father to creative people as well. So much of what we look at out in the world and these anecdotes of doing things for the family, keeping it in the family, doing things for love or because of love. What is it to be a father to creative people and to have that moral compass in this day and age?  

Well, I mean, back in the ’80s when Timothy, my firstborn, was born, it was quite a challenge to just to walk down that road of responsibility, realness and seriousness. You know, seriousness is quite honestly an understatement, it refers to the sort of responsibility of not just bringing life into the world, but doing the right thing by that life and trying to be the best parent, father, idol, teacher possible.

As we’re standing here in Singapore today, me being celebrated for my art and all, I know very clearly where my best work is at, and that’s my kids. Although the public at large is aware of both my kids, Timothy and Tabatha, they’re also grown-ass kids and are creative in their own right. So you know, as much as I’m their dad, I also feel like I’m their best friend and that’s the kind of relationship I’ve always wanted to have and worked towards having with my children, so I’m grateful that it kinda worked out that way.

I’ve worked on projects at one point or another with both my kids but at the same time I’ve always wanted them to do their own thing and not have the public perception be like “oh so you’re only blah blah blah because your pops is so and so.” I want them to find their own way in the world and have their own careers. As much as I’ve turned them onto tech and all these stuff that I’m into, I’m glad that I’ve also wounded up being this sensei who’s learning from his students. That’s the evolution of a proper education, where a teacher will impart knowledge and wisdom and a bright student will take that, acquire even more, and come back with new information. The fact that I’m able to exchange information with my kids is amazing. I tap into both of them a lot, who both represent demographics and communities that are different, but also meld together a lot. I tap into my kids all the time to find out what words mean, there are a lot of words today being used in a different context as compared to when I was growing up. I need those guys too.

Of course, we stay close for all the right reasons, it’s all love for sure. While I try to keep them out of the public eye, you’ll find that I’m always touching them in some way, if you look really closely.

It’s a wonderful thing when you are able to engage with people over your medium, your art, and to see your relationships and how they blossom and to have a connection with people. And that’s the platform you are talking about. With Instagram, you can enter into a conversation with them about what you are putting out into the world…

You can do it on the open forum, where everyone can see your comment, but you can also do it through the backdoor where you DM them – a private thing that no one is privy to and that usually makes them go “go wow.” I mean if I look at my phone right now, I probably have 8 or 9 DM requests, and I’m like most other people, I scroll through everything until I’m right up to the last one. Then I usually choose who I’m gonna respond to, depending on how they hit me up, but if people strike a chord or say something cool or clever, then they get a response from me.

But I usually keep it private, because there are two games to play, the public game where everyone’s kinda all like “I’m over here” and then there’s the private game. So it’s playing both sides of the fence, but the private side is what really gets people going. For example, if someone comments something clever on my image, rather than answering them right there, I might go “oh wow” and check out their profile. If they have 612 photos I’ll scroll to picture number 1, 2, 7, and 12, like the pictures and hit them back, “hey man your stuff is cool” and he’s blown away.

Instead of blowing him up on my profile, I took it to his profile and it shows that I’ve scrolled all the way back through his feed. I couldn’t have automatically gotten to his third image posted 3 years ago, I had to physically scroll through the feed, so he knows I’ve been digging through the crates, really looking at his stuff.

You wanna connect with people, right? So, you’re using your art to do that… 

Truth be told, I don’t really want to connect with them, but what I do want to do is give them something. I know that I can never really control whatever their perception is, how they perceive me because there’s perception and then there’s reality. I just want them to know that I cared enough to reach out to them.

Once again, it’s based on what they say to me, I’m only reacting. I guess sometimes I’m the one to initiate it, but I usually react. Rather than saying it publicly where everyone can see it, I just want you to see it. And then you know or think, “wow, he took the time.” It could bring a smile to someone or make their day. And that’s boom, job done, I feel like I’m doing my little part. Of course, it’s a little calculated because I know what effect I’m trying to get out of these people; Lenny Mcgurr the person, who’s a good guy, actually. He’s a sweet kid.

A lot of artists are known to have weird tendencies, what’s weird about you?

Oh, I have so many weird tendencies. Certain noises, for example, bother me. You know, I have so many idiosyncrasies. I mean, as cool as I am, I also have certain things I just have no tolerance for, as anyone would. So as much as I’d like to think that I’m giving, kind and generous, I can also not be as well. I don’t know what sparks off these “off-Lenny” moments, but I’m just like anyone who has certain things that get under their skin.

But I do have self-control and I think that comes with being an older person too. It’s how I’ve learnt that I don’t need to make a big deal about certain things and I can let them rollover. In the past, however, I was more aggressive and wanted to challenge people. That came from a person who was a lot more insecure. There are a lot of reasons why we can get aggressive, but I feel if I can contain it, I can release it later in the studio, through my creative stuff.

For the most part, as I’ve said, I try to stay positive. If I’m in a bad mood or if someone says something I don’t like, rather than react immediately, I just try to count to 10, chill and think before I speak. When I react to something someone says on a post, it’s never against someone saying something negative. I’m not ever going to challenge someone in this world or on this platform (social media), because you can never win attempting to battle an anonymous person standing behind a screen. I’m not engaging on that level, I don’t come off with critique and I don’t have anything bad to say about anyone.

I mean I see it as a kind of theatre, where I play my part and I say my lines, but then I can walk out and I’m not playing that role anymore because I’m in the real world. In the real world, I can see your face and we can judge each other better in real-time, as compared to what we do over constructed accounts. It can all be fabricated and although it’s seemingly more real today, the earlier days have shown how there was a lot of deception and people fronting behind whatever projection they wished the public at large to see. I do think that a lot of that has been weeded out and people have gotten to the point where they realise that being genuine is a better approach than a fake one. I mean it’s all to be determined, but I am still very cynical and untrusting of stuff. There’s this saying in Missouri, the “show me state”, meaning that I have to see it to really believe it, it’s not based on words.