Futura: Modern Streetwear's Unsung Hero

You wouldn't know Futura's age unless you Googled his Wikipedia page or were already aware of his decades-long influence in breaking open the closed world of art. It shouldn't matter, but it's still fascinating.

Man sitting on the wall full of graffiti
Photo by TRAUERKRAUT on Twitter

On a hot June Sunday, the polymathic artist strolled through the pebbled pathway of Dempsey Hill leading to Dover Street Market Singapore, trailed by his team of T-shirt-wearing 20- and 30-somethings. His demeanor belied his true feelings. His wrinkled face receded into his wool beanie and thick-framed spectacles, his frail silhouette clad in a navy boiler suit splattered with dried paint that bled onto his beaten-up shoes. Outside the store, a swarm of ecstatic "homeboys," as he called them, had formed a line to have him scribble his thin-lined signature on their newly purchased Futura alien toys.

"Thanks for rocking our shirt from 20 years throwback," the artist said to one, pointing to a Wu-Tang Clan T-shirt from Project Dragon, his now-defunct '90s streetwear label.

The artist had just finished his first solo show, Constellation, a graffiti residency at the Gillman Barracks. The night before, at The Projector, a new mini-documentary film about his artistic journey was shown, followed by a panel discussion and an afterparty. Despite this, the 63-year-old was bouncing and bursting with energy.

The crowd and Futura himself had gathered to celebrate the relaunch of his streetwear label, Futura Laboratories.

Fashion mingling with the street and vice versa has become a cliche. Long before Virgil Abloh, the reappropriation auteur of streetwear was named head of Louis Vuitton's menswear department; before the street artist, Kaws' X-eyed characters appeared as a giant pink figure at the center 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.

Lenny McGurr, a light-skinned child, adopted by biracial parents, discovered a sense of belonging at the age of 15 when he discovered what the graffiti sphere could offer him: self-invention. "I was moved by the writing on the wall. "Come join us," it said. I have the potential to become one of these guys. Take on an alias — no one will ever know it wasn't you. "It was identity formation," McGurr recalled. He then renamed himself Futura 2000. (he discarded the numbers at the turn of the millennium). "The way I wrote it sounded and looked cool."

McGurr has constantly and quickly changed hats over the years. Of course, he is best known as Futura, the Krylon-wielding New York street legend. His canvas was the city. His psychedelic extraterrestrial creatures and short expressionist-influenced abstract work covered the entire exterior of trains, station walls, and bridges throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But he was and is also a graphic designer, author, toy designer, postal worker, bicycle messenger, clothing painter, and illustrator. He surfed a variety of mediums and genres, frequently riding multiple waves at the same time.

Futura, along with like-minded contemporaries Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, advocated for the elevation of the underground. Their deft fluidity added sophistication to what was previously thought to be a lowbrow.

Streetwear was a natural progression for Futura. After all, the street was his natural habitat. He was there at the dawn of hip-hop and skating culture, and as they grew, so did he. He always did streetwear-ish products, T-shirts, clothes, hats, jackets, and pants. Referring to his time in the 1990s when he collaborated with fellow graffiti artists Gerb and Stash on a streetwear venture dubbed after their initials. The East Coast had GFS, while the West Coast had Stüssy. The label's breakthrough piece — a graphic T-shirt printed with a non-copyrighted "Phillies Blunt" logo — was worn by a punk-rock band The Clash member in an MTV music video. Their controversial bootlegging upstart was far ahead of its time and was too subversive to survive. Following GFS were Project Dragon (a label in a similar vein founded by Futura, Stash, and Bleu) and Subway (a graffiti-inflected label). Despite their brief existence, these fledgling streetwear projects encapsulated the era's rebellious zeitgeist against the corporatism that ruled the previous decade.

By then cult juggernauts in the young streetwear industry, Futura and Stash, looked to Japan at the end of the 1990s. On collaborative projects, they collaborated with Bathing Ape's Nigo and Undercover's Jun Takahashi. Nike took notice and commissioned both graffiti artists to reimagine the classic Dunk Low sneaker. It was the first time non-athletes were allowed to customize a pair of Nikes. This is the first of many.

He meant Futura Laboratories, or FL, as he dubbed it. FL began as a side project in the early 2000s. Based in Fukuoka, the label's clothing — mostly technical outerwear and utilitarian gear — rarely left Japan. It had been dormant for eight years before the recent relaunch.

Its return now rides on the fluidity for which Futura is known, and it is intended to travel wherever it pleases. "In today's world — music, toy culture, sneakerheads, all of these kids on fixies [fixed-gear bicycles] — there are a lot of crossovers." "All these movements are spinning in their own orbits, but these orbits eventually catch other ones," McGurr pondered. He then revealed that, in addition to the surprise collaboration with Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall on the debut, FL was working on another with Virgil Abloh.

Futura and Abloh first met in 2014 in Shanghai, when Abloh's Off-White was still relatively unknown, but their creative partnership was instant. Abloh was appointed as the creative director of Louis Vuitton's menswear line last year, marking the second black man in history to lead a luxury fashion house. Abloh also had Futura perform his graffiti art live at the show's New York-inspired set for his second collection for the home.

The similarity of their trajectories is uncanny. Despite being of different generations, both figures thrive in a multidisciplinary ecosystem; both are hell-bent on taking on the ivory towers of their respective fields. And, as it turned out, they were successful.

Futura has spoken to and for generations of outcasts for the past 40 years. When asked if he ever imagined he'd still be doing it at the age of 63, Futura said emphatically no. "Today, if you have an idea or want to tell a story, you can do so on the internet." That electronic data, wherever it is, blows my mind. It's insane for me, a child of the 1960s. I used to believe as a child that I would never grow old or that growing old is boring. I just wanted to be young and cool, get in a car accident, and be done with it. Now that I'm older, I realize how foolish that was. I'd like another 25 to 30 years."