Photo by ShiLei McGurr

Futura: “Artists have got to stop compromising”

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Short Profile

Name: Leonard Hilton McGurr
DOB: 17 November 1955
Place of birth: New York City, New York, United States
Occupation: Artist

Futura's new retrospective, Futura2000: Breaking Out opens at at UB Center for the Arts and UB Anderson Gallery on 23 September 2023 until 11 February 2024.

Futura, is it true you that despite the fact that you spent decades as a graffiti artist in New York City, you’ve never been arrested?

I was never arrested! I’ve been stopped before, but I didn't go to jail. My experiences of painting trains were very stealth, I took every measure to be careful to not get caught. But you have to remember, this was a time of very little security, no cameras… I loved to investigate construction sites, you know, there was a lot of development happening around New York in the sixties and seventies when I grew up, and those were places that were very accessible after hours! No security at all! So as a kid, I used to ride those elevators and jump rooftops… And then the subway opened up for me. New York was my park, this was my playground. Some kids grow up having that rural Midwestern experience, but for me, I knew the city very well.

Were you ever scared?

Sure, but I was attracted to these dangerous things! I grew up as an only child, and I always felt a bit comfortable when I was alone. I started out in graffiti but then I spent some time in the military, so I feel like when I came back, I was a bit more savvy than some of my peers. I had a lot of experience in life itself, so I felt more aware… But at the same time, when it was scary, the fear was part of the thrill. We used to do this thing called “benching,” where we’d tag a train and then go sit on a bench in Brooklyn or the Bronx and wait for the train to go by, and that was another thrill, seeing the work like that. There’s this very famous bench at the Grand Concourse in The Bronx, where all these celebrated writers used to meet and hang out, and us graffiti artists, we would bounce from the rooftop to the bench to the street, just waiting to watch our names go by. It’s like dreaming!

“Anonymity is a big part of it. Back then, that was a lot of the fun, knowing that your work is driving by and watching the public react to it when they saw it...”

I can imagine there’s almost more thrill in seeing your work pass by, than actually doing the piece itself.

You’re right in that the anonymity is a big part of it. It’s what Banksy has achieved in real life, you know, people are not really sure who this person may be. Back then, that was a lot of the fun, knowing that your work is driving by and watching the public react to it when they saw it. And these were grand pieces, it isn't just scribbling your name on a wall or throwing up your tag or something. These were high quality pieces on the side of moving trains, and that was the apex for us in the seventies and eighties.

How do you look back on those years of your life and career? Are you nostalgic for the New York City of the seventies and eighties?

Well, now that I have adult children, I look back a bit differently, I don’t really look at everything I did back then and think, “Oh, this is cool and glamorous.”  It was an unbelievable experience, but I don’t know if I’m necessarily nostalgic, especially because in the latter part of the eighties, when my peers and I — meaning myself, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat — started getting into the traditional art world and showing in proper galleries, I became very suspect. The very fact that we were selling “graffiti” in a gallery… It bothered me because when you remove graffiti from its public space and you beautify it, put it on a canvas on a gallery wall... Does it somewhat delegitimize it? I was uncomfortable with that and with this system that was sort of set up to be elitist, like some cool club that you were in.

It was like playing politics, when you’d come from a world that was more anarchistic.

Right, so I kind of rejected it. I mean, I had a moment, I had a few years in that sphere. I had a run. But I felt kind of angry. Most of us were not art educated either, and people would be telling me, “Oh, your work is referencing Kandinsky,” and it’s like, I didn’t even know who that was at that time. I knew nothing about art history, nothing. I was at a disadvantage, so I kind of checked out, only to be rediscovered later on by the designer Agnès B., who helped me immensely in terms of bringing my art into a new world.

That’s when you started collaborating in the fashion world, and since then you’ve worked with brands like Louis Vuitton, Supreme, Uniqlo, and Nike. What made you feel more comfortable merging graffiti and fashion, than traditional art and graffiti?

First of all, fashion just felt more accessible than the gallery institutional systems at large, which to me were always very intimidating. I had this feeling of not belonging. Whereas with a brand like Supreme, that felt very organic. It’s a New York brand, the kids in New York City were wearing it, the origins of that felt natural. Louis Vuitton only happened later on when Virgil Abloh was at the helm, and that also felt like a good fit. He was super supportive of me, and I miss him deeply because in the five years prior to his passing, we had gotten to know each other really well. He was an amazing mind to talk to about stuff. So yeah, I mean, somehow this world was an easier assimilation than in the gallery world.

But what about now? You’ve stepped back into the art world recently, what’s different about your experience these days?

Oh, it’s a classic situation! Back then, we artists looked at galleries like, “God, I need to show my work! I need exposure!” But now I think the galleries are really looking for artists, more than we need them. That’s something Basquiat said to me, and at the time I thought he was almost arrogant. But he's right! He was right. Now I feel in a better position, I have a bit more authority, I won’t let myself be taken advantage of because, I don’t know, what is your white wall worth? What do I care about your space? Who are you to assume I want to lend my name to you? I know my worth now and I can reflect that in my terms. Artists have got to stop compromising.

Is it ever difficult dealing with your success in a sphere where you initially felt uncomfortable and unwelcome?

I mean, sure, sometimes the whole idea of the price of art can be difficult to wrap my head around. I remember years ago I got paid something like 20K for a piece of mine, and I think growing up, that would have been my pop’s salary! My dad was busting his ass, working so hard… It’s just crazy to think about that. I have to keep all that in check sometimes!

What does that entail for you?

I don’t think it goes to my head necessarily, I’m still living in Brooklyn, I’m taking the train and riding my bike, I’m not a celebrity. But these days, I’m just trying to play the role of Lenny more than Futura. When I have shows and openings, I have to be Futura. But I also want to feel like I’m fine on my own, you know? I don’t want to live behind that guy, I don’t want to need him. He’s my man, and I like him, but… I’m 67 now, and I recognize that I’ve done some amazing things as the artist Futura. But I’m also fine just being Lenny.