On his birthday, the artist looks back at his singular journey from graffiti writer to industry game-changer.
On the 17th of November, FUTURA (born Leonard Hilton McGurr) turns 68 — but you would never know it from listening to him talk. Fuelled by a lust for life to rival Iggy Pop, the native New Yorker speaks truth to power just by remaining true to himself. “I’m always going to tell you the truth,” Lenny says. “One: it’s the easiest thing to remember. It’s exactly what happened. I don’t need to inflate something for my ego. I started out writing my name because I wanted attention. Now I can’t even walk down the streets of New York without somebody coming up to me. That’s money on the table.”
Speaking with i-D from his product brand and design studio company, Futura Laboratories, Lenny regales with tales of the city from an earlier age, speeding down the track at 55 miles per hour like the trains he used to tag during the early days of subway art. Half a century later he looks back at his singular journey from graffiti writer to the top of the art world in FUTURA2000: Breaking Out, A Retrospective.
The exhibition traces Lenny’s evolution from graffiti writer to fine artist, with stops along the way collaborating with iconoclasts including the Clash, Kenny Scharf, Comme Des Garçons, and Virgil Abloh's Off-WHITE. But for all his critical and commercial success, he remains down to earth, a man of the people equally comfortable in penthouse, on the streets, or in the subterranean realms where few dare to tread. No matter where he goes, it’s always love and respect.
Lenny’s principles are grounded in the ethos of New York’s working class, which forms the backbone that supports the city politically, socially, and culturally. Yet for all their brilliance and resilience, few could catch a break — unless they dared to subvert the system itself. For a new generation growing up in the 60s and early 70s, the siren song of counterculture sparked a DIY movement that would transform art, music, and youth culture forever.
Against a backdrop of liberation and war, disaffected youth began to see through the mirage of the American Dream. “It wasn’t bleak, but there wasn’t a whole lot going on,” Lenny remembers. “If I would have followed my dad’s wishes I would have just checked out with a civil service job: health plan, benefits, retirement, all that stuff they tried to sell you on.”
But like many who come of age in this town, New York offered something far more alluring: the freedom to forge your identity on your own terms. Graffiti quickly became a natural extension of this energy. Anti-authoritarian, it stands against the proscriptions of the ruling class, where property is often accorded greater value than human life. When combined with adolescent rebellion, self-expression, and the desire for fame, graffiti proved far more potent than any naysayer could have ever dreamed.
“I’m kind of a knucklehead in a way, too,” Lenny says without an ounce of self-deprecation. “I was just some kid, a wannabe graffiti writer, scrawling my name. I had to create an identity for myself, which was based on my sci-fi nature. Give me The Outer Limits. Give me 2001 A Space Odyssey. Truth be told, I would have been FUTURA 2001, but then I thought that's too obvious. When I started writing graffiti, I wanted to be an individual in this world.”
Lenny came up just behind the very first writers making their name, getting his start in the early 70s while writers like TAKI 183 were making headlines in The New York Times. Then, in 1974, everything changed when photographer Jon Naar and journalist Norman Mailer published the groundbreaking book, The Faith of Graffiti.
“The name is the faith of graffiti,” Mailer wrote, paying homage to a new generation of artists who refused to play by the rules. Like Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg before them, this new generation of painters proved total upstarts, rejecting all rules in favor of creating their own visual language of art. Eschewing the demands of polite society and respectability politics, the first generation of graffiti writers defied convention, risking harm and arrest for the unadulterated joy of watching their names rumbling down the track — a thrill that cannot be reproduced in any other format.
“There wasn’t any financial gain. I did that for free,” says Lenny. “That’s my pleasure. That’s a public service. I don’t want to be paid for that. That would ruin it for me.”
Although Lenny wasn’t featured in The Faith of Graffiti, he recognised it as a turning point both in the culture and in his own life. That same year, he joined the military, traveled the world for four years, and gained experiences far different from his peers. Upon his return to New York in 1978, things had changed. Subway graffiti was entering its golden age. With the evolution of style and technique, writers began creating “masterpieces” on top-to-bottom “whole cars” measuring up to 10-feet tall and 75-feet long.
In 1980, Lenny unleashes a masterpiece unlike any before or since, the legendary Break Train, which took graffiti to new heights. Possessed with a singular vision, he transformed metal into canvas, remaining the possibilities of public art as a kinetic experience that defied commonly held notions of vandalism. “I was 25; I wasn’t a child,” Lenny says. “I had already worked out exactly what I wanted to do. More than being a tagger, writing my name, and trying to get attention, I wanted to make a statement about where I was in this school and what we could do. I wanted to define my work in that format.”
Break Train proved to be a seminal work at a pivotal time as graffiti rose out of the underground and took its rightful place in the art world. Excoriated by both politicians and mainstream media, its electric energy brought new life into an industry that had reached its logical end with the embrace of minimalism in the 70s. The raucous, rococo artworks, often painted illegally in the dead of night, captured the imagination of gallerists and collectors alike. For a brief, shining moment, graffiti defined the zeitgeist — only to go back underground when Mayor Ed Koch succeeded in killing it off the trains.
But like all true believers, Lenny soldiered on, forging his own path as an artist. “I never thought I would live to see this moment. When 2000 rolled around, I was like, ‘Oh wow, I really didn’t date myself properly. When I created that identity in 1970 I wasn’t going to live 30 years. You kidding me?” he says.
But life has a funny way of working out. “I’m a firm believer in crossroads. All those wonderful things in life that occur or didn’t occur because you hang a left instead of a right, or stopped for a moment because you ran into someone and got delayed. It’s a minute-to-minute thing,” Lenny says. “So I would tell my younger self, ‘Don’t do anything differently’ because I don’t want to change a thing. I don’t want to act differently or make different moves because it wouldn’t get me here.”
‘FUTURA2000: Breaking Out, A Retrospective’ is on view through 11 February 2024, at University at Buffalo Art Galleries in Buffalo, New York.