Art

Futura 2000 is now

A hip-hop superhero returns

by Simon Spence

A graffiti legend from the very earliest days of New York’s underground hip-hop movement, Futura 2000 is presently being elevated to iconic status by his progeny. At 46, he is old enough not only to be their father but also to know better.

“I’m a fan of my movement,” he says. “I have respect for it, the history of it and my place in it. A lot of people ‘big’ me up, put me on a much higher pedestal than where I belong. I can’t believe my hype. Many times I’ve been flavor of the month, so I know the month will end. I’m not dependent on any of it. That’s why all of this is kind of a laugh.”

If the current craze for all things Futura does end tomorrow, he says, it’s “no big deal.” He’ll just go out and get a “proper” job, just as he did when the graffiti movement that made him a star dried up in the mid-’80s. For five years he worked as a cycle courier, up until the Parisian clothes designer agnes b. brought his art back into currency in 1989. A longtime fan, she commissioned a series of canvases from him, and with the proceeds Futura bought the Brooklyn studio he still works from today.

In the ’90s, Futura found a new audience thanks to the founder of London’s Mo’ Wax records, James Lavelle, an avid collector of graffiti art. Lavelle bought a few of Futura’s pieces and asked if he would be interested in having his art emblazoned on record sleeves.

“I think that my style of work — the paintings, the characters — just lent themselves to the sounds,” he says. “It wasn’t like . . . here’s the new UNKLE album and I’d just whip up a painting.”

In the early ’80s Futura had enjoyed a similar relationship with The Clash (check the “Combat Rock” album and “Radio Clash” single). It was his decision to move to London and cut some tracks with the group that resulted in him missing out on a starring role in the genre-defining New York hip-hop flick “Wild Style” (although he does appear in it briefly). Instead he wound up rapping, as well as live-action painting, on The Clash’s U.S. tour and as part of the influential “New York City Rap” tour that featured Afrika Bambaataa, Phase II and his best friend of the time, Fab 5 Freddy. A record was released (“Futura 2000 and His Escapades”), but “I play it down when I can,” he says.

Despite the offers, he hasn’t done any recording for Lavelle’s label and claims he has little interest in making music nowadays. His art, however, in all its multifarious incarnations, has been featured on numerous Mo’ Wax releases. It was the cartoonlike alien characters he created in the mid-’90s (the Robotronic regime from the planet Extron) that introduced his work to a new generation of hip-hop kids. Lavelle used them as the central image of his extravagant UNKLE recording project, perhaps most famously on the cover of the 1998 UNKLE album, “Psyence Fiction.”

“I hate to say I’m not into them,” says Futura, “but it’s not my big thing. They’re something that comes really naturally now, like a doodle. The fact is, a lot of people like them. A lot more people like them than I do.”

In Japan, Futura’s ongoing collaboration with the fashionable A Bathing Ape label (to which he was introduced by Lavelle) has seen these “doodles” turned into a multitude of T-shirts, toy figurines and other collectibles. His connection with the country “spans 25 years,” back to working with stylist Hiroshi and the Goodenough label, but it is only now that the clamor for his work has grown insatiable.

An exhibition in Tokyo at A Bathing Ape’s Nowhere store drew the sort of crowds one associates with pop stars. There were only six canvases on display, all priced at $15,000, and within a few hours all were sold. A month later his art was featured on the cover of Relax magazine, Japan’s ultra-hip style bible.

“With myself and Japan, I’m very popular,” says Futura. “It has a lot to do with A Bathing Ape, a lot to do with my Mo’ Wax connection, a lot to do with kids who just perceive me to be cool. I don’t really know what the appeal is. I guess I’m worth admiring.” In “Star Wars” parlance, he says he’s like a Yoda figure to all the young hip-hop Jedi.

Master of the Force

Japan, understandably, is now where Futura tends to focus much of his artistic energy. Late last year he embellished a limited-edition 500-piece Levi’s collection exclusively for the Japanese market: jackets, pants, sweat shirts and diaries embroidered and printed with his most popular space creature, 39 Meg. All the items sold out within a month; some were auctioned for upwards of $1,000. Ingeniously his signature was hidden under the Levi’s label to be revealed only through deterioration.

Futura sees clothing, particularly T-shirts, as an extension of a print of a painting. “In a way they have more effect than a framed object on someone’s wall,” he says. He launched his first T-shirt label, GFS, in 1992 and now he has one called Futura Laboratories (FA) that is exclusive to Japan. He also owns a clothes shop in Tokyo called RECON, which stocks the other clothing lines he is involved in: Project Dragon and Subware. There are also RECON stores in New York and San Francisco, but Futura leaves the running of these enterprises to his longtime business partner, Stash.

“The idea of retail, I hate it,” he says. “I hate being around the transaction of money. I’m a terrible business person. Money is not what makes me move. I’m more excited about doing things in limited numbers and watching them go. With my T-shirts, I do 12 designs a year, 200 T-shirts a design. People call and say this design is hot, let’s make more. I won’t do it. I appreciate the mystique of not being able to get something.”

Work from all phases of Futura’s career is included in “Futura” (Booth-Clibborn Editions), a lushly designed but biographically confusing compendium that has already sold 10,000 copies. “The one thing I hate about the book is everything in there is done already,” says Futura.

He gets bored easily, is bug-eyed from “keeping his mind occupied,” moving forward with what he’s doing. He says he is “brutal in his relentlessness” and only sleeps for three or four hours a night, subscribing to a “hardcore work ethic” which, he admits, can intimidate, or demoralize his contemporaries. One of the reasons he thinks he is so successful right now is because he is “approachable” and has a knack for remembering the names of his fans. It’s his way of “souping up” sales and it seems to be working.

In New York you may catch him “shaving, eating, smoking, computing, skateboarding, bitching and trying to be original.”

Or sometimes he’ll be making lists of his favorite arcade games (he’s a dedicated game player) or admiring his toy collection, which he keeps in “pristine” condition. “I exceeded my wildest expectations,” he says. “I collect anything and all of it; if I like it, I get it. It’s all about the presentation. Eventually I’ll open a store in Brooklyn, not retail, just an exhibition spot.”

In 1995 he started his own Web site and, perhaps of all the projects he is working on, this one excites him most.

“There’s an immediate gratification thing with it that you also get from spray-painting,” he says. “You do it and it’s on, and you don’t have to check with anybody. I’m not selling anything on there. If heads want to know about me, I would prefer you get your information from me, even if it’s very confusing and I’m kind of being aloof. That’s my nature; I’m not giving it all away.”