As one of the greatest graffiti artist "elders" and one of the most recognised visual artists, Futura is fit to pass on the wisdom he has collected over the years.
"I would have liked to be a teacher. I don't have the patience for it, but I would have liked to try. Maybe not even of art, but something like social science," the 57-year-old said.
During his short stay to promote his collaboration with Hennessey entitled "Hennessey V.S Art Collection by Futura" in Bangkok last week, the "Godfather of Graffiti", among other media activities, conducted a hands-on workshop to inspire aspiring street artists and designers, and explained the thought process behind his impromptu artwork after an intimate talk.
The available special edition bottles were snatched up at frightful speed at the launch party last week in Bangkok, which Futura attended with his family. It shouldn't be a surprise, as anything with Futura's touch almost instantly becomes a collectible. Try searching eBay for a taste of his continuing popularity measured in pretty pennies.
It's been a long journey for Futura (real name Lenny McGurr), who became enamoured with graffiti as a kid riding a New York City subway to school every day.
"I was 15 when I discovered writing on the trains. Some were bad, while some were interesting. I wanted to communicate like that. I wanted to get known. I wanted to get famous, as we say," he said.
He came up with his signature tag and a name, Futura 2000, which he borrowed from a Ford car and a Stanley Kubrick movie. The number has since been dropped. Futura and his friends fast became the first generation of taggers. He enjoyed it until one fateful day underground which put him off graffiti for years.
Futura and his friends went to paint a dead train with 50 spray-paint cans. The kids didn't know that the tracks were still alive, and there was an explosion that left one of his friends badly burned. The incident stopped his rising graffiti career, and launched him onto a military track. In 1974, he joined the US navy, which took him around the world, including to Pattaya. When he was discharged in 1979, Futura went back to New York.
"I had a car, and I was looking for a wife, but I didn't find one then. I never went on the subway. I heard about graffiti, but I wasn't interested. I thought I was different, that I had changed. My friend, Zephyr
[a well-known graffiti artist] told me to come see some new stuff, and just to make him shut up, I went," said Futura. "In 1979, every train was painted. Every train had graffiti. It was so different! The movement in New York was really happening. I was totally excited."
The excitement was enough for Futura to rekindle his passion, and the notion that graffiti could also be viewed as vandalism didn't (still doesn't) sit with Futura.
"It should be apparent. It's right in front of you. Is it destructive? Is it beautiful? What is it? Vandalism takes more of a destructive tone. I believe in beautification. The kids who go around and [destroy] will never be anything but bad elements. Unfortunately, there'll be always vandalism. It's part of the culture, and you have to accept it both ways. It would be great if people weren't negative about it," he said.
"I hadn't painted since the fire. Seven years removed, I was not good with the spray. I sucked.
"I wasn't good at characters. I couldn't do letters. I couldn't do what they were doing. I knew I had to do something different. So I painted the whole train and called it Break. It took me four hours. It was April 11, 1980. That night changed my life," he said.
Break didn't boast letters, shadows or characters. The train was an abstract colour field, which differed greatly from the kind of graffiti available during that era. In about four months, word spread throughout New York City, and everyone knew about the train. It was then that he became an abstract artist of graffiti culture.
"Many people give me credit that I was a founding father of this, or creator of that. The reality is that I was just a young kid looking for direction. I was not the first one. The first ones inspired me. I was lucky to have friends, to have become the artist I am today."
Futura was also an integral part of the movement that pushed system art above ground to street art, and eventually closed in on gallery space. In the early 1980s, he exhibited alongside other artists who came from graffiti culture such as the now dead Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, both of whom Futura credits as bridging the gap between underground art and the gallery realm.
Graffiti is heavily intermingled with hip-hop culture, but Futura's connection to the music world took an interesting swerve when he met The Clash in 1981 on his home turf.
The Clash ''needed someone to paint something'', so Futura painted live in front of the audience for the band, and later joined them on their European tour, as well as painting cover sleeves, and the lyric sheets for Combat Rock.
''I knew who they were, but it wasn't like I went out to buy their records. When they came to New York, they were interested in hip-hop, too. They were discovering us. They played for one week, and each opening act would be an NYC rap act. Their audience hated it, but they didn't care because they loved it! It was too early for cultures to clash like that. No pun intended,'' he said.
''I was discovering them, too. I'd never been to Europe, and they were offering me Europe. It was supposed to be 10 days, but ended up being 10 weeks. I was transformed when I came back. I was like a little Clash guy. I had a leather jacket with grease in my hair.
''The memory I had was so beautiful. I am so happy to get to have that experience with them. I had relationships with them up until Joe [Strummer] died. Joe was like a father, a brother to me. He was a very important man in my life.''
From that point, Futura's career took off. He has worked with the likes of Nike and Levi's. His works in the 1990s with Mo' Wax records and Unkle also brought him massive attention. His level of commercial success and mainstream visibility have always sparked debate on the commercialisation of street art, the age-old ''sell out'' accusation.
''I've been hearing that argument for a long time. In the beginning, it was maybe more valid because we were stepping into new territory. It was difficult to say what was going to happen when someone crossed over. To me, it's sour grapes. It's jealousy. Hating has escalated today in all forms. They're hating on everything,'' said Futura.
''You have to consider the source, who's saying it. If someone I respect is telling me 'Hey, this is a bad direction for you', I will listen. If I'm being critiqued intellectually, I have an ear for that. Working with big brands might be considered a sell-out. Well, perhaps, but I know my own path, and I know my path has never been driven by economics. It's driven by passion. Maybe at this time of my life, it's a reward for me? Thirty years ago, I could hear it. I could listen to this argument, [but] I really can't hear that anymore. I really can't.
''If you have an ability to make money out of your talent, you should be making money.''
These days, Futura enjoys working in his studio, and spends time with his wife of 30 years, and two adult children. He stresses that he makes sure he doesn't flaunt what he has in life when others are struggling.
He's also working on a book that is slated to come out next year.
As for start-up artists, Futura stresses the importance of style, technical ability and originality as well as commitment, passion and patience.
''Don't let money be the motivation in your life. It's nice to have money, but if you don't have money, you should find some happiness in other parts of your life. For many years, I didn't have money, but I had my beautiful daughter, my amazing son and my family. I had real s**t. My life isn't based around business. I have enough right now, and I'm totally satisfied. I have no ambitions. But there's always a purpose,'' he said.
''You want inspiration? Look in the mirror. Don't try to be other people.
''Be who you are. What if you're not so amazing? Then develop yourself to be amazing.''
About the author
- Writer: Onsiri Pravattiyagul
Position: Entertainment Editor