Graffiti artist and designer Futura has been through enough ups and downs to appreciate the ups. Sitting in the courtyard at Wynwood Walls, looking at an enormous mural he painted, an abstract color-block version of the moving masterpieces he used to spraypaint on subway trains, he’s happy to pose for pictures embracing a bottle of Hennessy cognac with a special edition label that he designed.
“I really do like to paint,” Futura says. “Now that I’m back, I’m having a lot of fun.”
The concept of Wynwood Walls, and many of the artists who’ve covered Wynwood and neighborhoods around the world with paintings, owe a debt to Futura. Together with the likes of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Phase II , Futura was one of a tiny group who got people linking the words “graffiti” and “artist” in the early ’80s, exploding onto the New York scene along with hip-hop dance and music.
A scifi fan who took the name Futura2000 because it sounded “cool and optimistic,” Futura, now 56, got his international break when a promoter for legendary punk band The Clash asked him to paint a banner for the British group’s first New York concert. He was only expecting some concert tickets, but then the Clash took him along on a European tour.
“I would have done it for free, but they paid me like $100 per diem, which was crazy money back then,” Futura says. “Of course, I just sold a painting for $194,000, so it’s all relative.”
He really learned about relativity in the mid-’80s, when the graffiti art craze collapsed and he had to get a job as a bike messenger. One day he delivered a package to Chase Manhattan headquarters, and saw one of his paintings in the gleaming lobby. “I was standing there looking at it, thinking ‘Wow, I used to be a painter,’ when the security guard came over and told me, ‘You guys have to use the other entrance,’ ” Futura says. “I didn’t even tell him it was mine, ’cause I didn’t think he would believe me. I just said, ‘OK, sir.’ ”
He became a painter again in 1990 thanks to French retailer Agnes B., who commissioned pieces and paid enough for him to get a studio and relaunch his career. Since then, Futura has designed for commercial clients like Nike and Levi’s and been shown at a street art retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
But he’s most grateful for his kids, Tabatha, 22, and Tim, 27, and for survival and the quiet satisfaction of art making. “I could name you 10 people who passed away because they lived too fast,” he says.
“Having had a great career is only half the story.”