Origins examines some of the most iconic figures, brands, stores and neighborhoods in the Highsnobiety universe, breaking down how they left an unforgettable mark on street culture. This installment looks at NYC graffiti titan Futura.
The origins of streetwear and street culture are vast, sprawling, and difficult to pinpoint. Depending on your perspective, you might locate it in the British punk scene, New York City’s graffiti and hip-hop scenes of the ’70s and ’80s, ’90s skateboarding culture, or Japanese street style. And as scattered and disparate as these movements might seem, they all have links to Leonard McGurr — better known as Futura or Futura 2000.
From his early days tagging NYC subway trains to collaborating with the likes of Nike, Converse, and The Weeknd, Futura has put his mark on virtually every aspect of modern street culture. Like many of his New York contemporaries, his proximity to the pop art scene led him to ventures in product and commerce. But unlike a Warhol or KAWS, whose fascination was with the mechanics of commerce itself, Futura never strayed too far from his graffiti roots, even as his work spread far and wide.
The early days
Turning 15 years old just as the world entered the ’70s, Futura came of age as two of the most pivotal movements in street culture took off: punk rock and the birth of contemporary graffiti in New York City.
Like his peers, he started out tagging walls and subway trains. But whereas most artists were making text- and name-based tags, Futura expanded his style into abstract and symbolic patterns that covered entire trains. By the turn of the ’80s, his abstract expressionist-influenced style of painting saw him rubbing shoulders with other prominent figures from a new generation of NYC artists, such as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, and Dondi White.
When legendary British punk band The Clash came to the US on tour, they fell in love with New York street culture. The band had shown its willingness to experiment on 1980's epic 36-track triple album Sandinista!, so it was no surprise they invited Futura to join them on tour, where he live-painted backdrops on stage as the band played.
Futura went on to design the sleeve of 1981 single "This Is Radio Clash" and wrote out the liner notes for 1982 album Combat Rock in his signature lettering style. He even rapped on Combat Rock track “Overpowered by Funk.”
Work with Keith Haring and first products
As the new wave of New York artists put the city back on the map in the ’80s, Futura was exhibiting and working with many of today’s most well-known artists from that era. When Keith Haring opened his Pop Shop in downtown Manhattan in 1986, Futura worked with Haring to create custom screen-printed T-shirts. Around the same time, he also collaborated with European retailers on T-shirts and bedding.
The ’90s: GFS, Project Dragon, and Subware
With the start of the ’90s came the beginning of streetwear as we know it today. In this period, Futura worked on a number of graffiti-influenced labels such as GFS (Gerb, Futura, and Stash), Project Dragon (a collaboration between Bleu, Stash, and Futura), and Subware, a brand inspired by train-tagging and graffiti aesthetics. Although many of the labels’ designs feel dated today, they encapsulate the early days of streetwear, coming from a street culture that pushed back against the rampant corporatism of the ’80s.
Work with UNKLE and creation of the Pointman
One of Futura’s most well-known symbols is his Pointman character, which first came to prominence when British musician James Lavelle enlisted Futura to create the artwork for his band UNKLE’s 1998 debut album, Psyence Fiction. A fan of streetwear and Japanese street culture, Lavelle hooked up Futura with BAPE and the Japanese streetwear scene.
Over the next years, Futura would create artwork for numerous releases on Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax record label, effectively creating the aesthetic for an entire musical subgenre.
Around the same time he met Lavelle, Futura met Hardy Blechman, founder of renowned British streetwear label Maharishi, which is best known for its expansive use of camouflage and military aesthetics. Futura collaborated with Maharishi on a number of products, including pants, jackets, and accessories, even creating custom Futura camouflage prints and collaborative artworks. They continue to be some of the most coveted Futura products out there.
With the connections between Futura, Lavelle, BAPE founder NIGO, and Japanese street culture now established, it was only a matter of time before Futura would collaborate with A Bathing Ape. Futura has worked with BAPE on a number of releases, from apparel and footwear to accessories. One of the most noteworthy was the Spray Can series, which featured T-shirts sold in metal packaging resembling an aerosol can.
Like many of his contemporaries, Futura’s experimentations in product and Japanese streetwear encounters led to the creation of his own label in the early ’00s, Futura Laboratories. Vastly evolved from the products he had created with Project Dragon et al in the ’90s, Futura Laboratories took a more premium, technical approach to apparel, applying his razor-sharp, futuristic aesthetic to technical outwear and tactical gear in the vein of BAPE, ACRONYM, Maharishi, or The North Face.
Rarely sold outside Japan, it was one of the most coveted labels of the ’00s. Although Futura Laboratories has lain dormant in recent years, Futura recently announced the brand’s return via Instagram, so let's hope to see some movement on that soon.
Like BAPE’s Baby Milo or KAWS’ Companion, Futura having a distinctive character of his own in the Pointman positioned him to take part in the flourishing collectible figurine culture of the early ’00s. Teaming up with Japanese toymaker Medicom Toy on its popular Kubrick line, Futura and UNKLE created a number of collectible editions of the Pointman, as well as Futura-edition Be@rbrick figurines.
From the mid-’00s onwards, Futura had firmly established himself in the streetwear scene, leading to collaborations with many of the usual suspects, from footwear and sportswear brands to streetwear heavyweights, lifestyle brands, and high-street giants. His simple but versatile aesthetic meant he blended perfectly into the design language of virtually any brand, and his cultural cache as one of the originators of street culture meant his touch added an aura of cool to virtually any product.
Some of his most notable collaborations in this period are listed below.
Futura has collaborated with numerous footwear brands over the years. In 2004, he worked on the Nike SB Dunk “FLOM” (For Love or Money), which featured embroidered lettering and a distinctive money print. The design was later revamped by Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation in a striking black/gray/yellow colorway.
He has also created a number of Converse Chuck Taylors decorated with his signature atom motif and abstract expressionist-style prints, and has worked with British footwear brand Clarks on special editions of its popular Wallabee silhouette, elevating the simple moccasin with laser-etched and paint-splatter details.
Futura has crossed paths with Supreme on multiple occasions. Unlike most of his collabs, his work with Supreme generally eschewed trademark details such as the atom, paint-splatter, or Pointman motifs, instead adding simple text graphics in his familiar style, including phrases such as “DIVIDE & CONQUER” and “FUCK YOU PAY ME” on T-shirts and hoodies.
Although not generally considered an “official” box logo design, an exhibition at the Silly Thing store in Hong Kong in 2006 led to a Supreme box logo T-shirt in Futura’s handstyle, produced in collaboration by Supreme, Futura Laboratories, Silly Thing, and UNDERCOVER.
Like KAWS before him and Shepard Fairey afterward, Futura collaborated with liquor house Hennessy V.S on a collector's edition bottle of cognac. The 2013 release transformed Hennessy’s bottle with a number of Futura motifs, including handstyle text, atom logos, and splatter effects, while a friends-and-family edition packaged the bottle with a pair of paint-splattered black Converse Chuck Taylors.
A likely product of NIGO’s appointment as creative director of Uniqlo’s UT T-shirt line, in 2017 Futura announced a collaboration with Uniqlo, placing his motifs on an affordable range of tees. The release reaffirmed Futura’s place as one of the most recognizable figures in contemporary art and demonstrated the universal appeal of his aesthetic.
Futura x The Weeknd Starboy merch
Bringing his career almost full circle, back to working alongside musicians, last year Futura was enlisted by The Weeknd to contribute to a range of merch for the singer's "Legend of the Fall" world tour, blending elements of Futura’s style with The Weeknd’s lyrics and XO line into a range of T-shirts, outerwear, and other goods. The collaboration even produced a selection of skate decks featuring the names of tour cities in Futura’s handstyle. _
The career trajectory of an artist such as Futura demonstrates the fundamental power of streetwear and street culture as a meeting point of art, music, creativity, culture, and lifestyle. He started out tagging trains in New York City, but his talent led him to virtually every corner of popular culture worldwide.
Far from "selling out" through making products, Futura's creation of and collaboration on affordable and accessible items in the form of T-shirts, figurines, sneakers, and so on meant he has always maintained creative control and a connection to his graffiti roots while still supporting his artistic friends. Many of his individual projects, such as his work with UNKLE or Futura Laboratories, are relatively unknown in the grander scheme of fashion today, but his influence can be seen today in the output of countless brands.