Graffiti legend Futura comes to Wex 38 years after creating large-scale OSU painting

Leonard McGurr reflects on his early NYC graffiti days, the diverse career that followed and the piece he made at OSU in 1984, which is now on display at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Leonard McGurr aka Futura

Back in 1984, Ohio State’s University Gallery invited three New York City graffiti artists — Zephyr, ERO and Futura2000 — to exhibit their paintings. But rather than making work in New York and bringing the pieces to Columbus, the artists painted inside Ohio State’s galleries while onlookers, separated by a temporary plastic wall to guard them from spray paint fumes, watched the large-scale graffiti works take shape. 

Even in 1984, Futura2000, aka Leonard McGurr, who also goes by Futura, was an elder statesman of the graffiti world. At 28, he had already sold many pieces and painted live on tour with the Clash. Looking back now on the OSU show, “Writing on the Wall: Works by New York City Graffiti Artists,” Futura remembers the odd sensation of painting for spectators behind plastic, which felt like putting on a live performance in a fish bowl. In the end, he saw the huge painting, which spanned 36 feet, as a demonstration piece rather than a masterpiece.  

While graffiti is often thought of as a temporary art form, the Futura2000 painting has stood the test of time. Ohio State purchased the work for its collection, and now, nearly 40 years after its creation, the piece is on display at the Wexner Center as part of the retrospective exhibition “To Begin, Again: A Prehistory of the Wex, 1968–89.” On Wednesday, March 2, at 4 p.m., Futura will join Zephyr and moderator Carlo McCormick for a free “Diversities in Practice” conversation in the arts center’s Film/Video Theater. (The event will also be livestreamed.)

The 36-foot painting created by Futura2000 in 1984, now on display at the Wexner Center for the exhibition "To Begin, Again"

“I’ve never been like the rest of the guys. … If you look at my work, you know it’s Futura’s work. It’s not your average graffiti kid from the block,” Futura2000 told a TV reporter back in 1984, and the claim holds true. While many graffiti works of the era (and today) focus on lettering, Futura2000’s abstract, sophisticated painting layers precise, molecular-looking shapes over top of vibrant, amorphous clouds of color.  

Futura began developing his singular style in 1970 at the age of 15, which was still older than his graffiti contemporaries in the New York City subway. “Most kids were 10, 11, 12. … When you're 15 and they're 12, there's a huge difference,” Futura said recently by phone. “I think, in a way, that's always helped me, because my approach to everything wasn't as adolescent. I was a little smarter. And I was growing up as an only child, always hanging with older folks. … That was always me, punching above my weight.” 

In the early 1980s, after four years in the Navy, Futura2000 began exhibiting his work at Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery, a short-lived but influential Manhattan art gallery that also showed work by street artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. By 1984, when Futura2000 was showing his work at Ohio State, he began to see the writing on the wall.

“I could see the beginning of the end for what we were doing at that time. The movement fell under, I would say, by ’86. What was cool five years ago had run its course,” said Futura, noting that despite the downturn, the movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s helped spread graffiti culture around the world and inspired a new generation of street artists. “Everything we created got exported. All of the exposure — the books, the films, the photographs — got passed around to all these kids that picked up spray cans in the new millennium.” 

In the ’90s, Futura diversified and adapted. Instead of making paintings, he partnered with clothing companies on streetwear designs for T-shirts and other fashion items. “I wasn't married to the art world,” he said. “I was operating outside of it.” Futura also quickly adopted digital art, building his own website with hundreds of pages in 1996. “That, to me, was like writing graffiti, because here's this space that no one had stepped to yet. It was kind of like a blank wall,” he said.  

Over time, graffiti began to bleed into the online world. “Graffiti eventually became a kind of photo share on a site like Art Crimes or any other photographic database that's sharing graffiti images from around the world,” Futura said.  

In recent years, Futura, has continued his fine arts practice alongside collaborations with brands like BMW, Hennessy and Uniqlo (often through his company, Futura Laboratories). And while society's relationship with graffiti is often still a fraught one, the concept of public art has evolved since Futura’s early days. “There's so many ways to do public art right now, and I just think that's cool because when we came up, well, there wasn't,” he said. “There will always be kids tagging up on the lower tier. But from that initial training ground, there are people who are thinking beyond destruction and vandalism: ‘Hey, I'm trying to do something beautiful here rather than this gray façade.’” 

At 66, Futura is still actively making art, but he’s also begun to reflect on his legacy. “I’ve realized how fortunate I am, in the sense of coming from New York with limited resources and coming through this subway school, if you will,” he said. “Now, I'm the recipient of the last 20 years of all these other individuals out there who created what is now the global phenomenon of street culture, which expands beyond art. It's street wear. It's sneaker culture. It’s skateboards. All of it. And I'm connected to all of that. … My connection with the modern world is very strong, but it's only strong because of the foundations we laid.” 

“I don't want to take a lot of credit for any of that," he continued, “but I was there. There's no disputing that. I knew Jean-Michel [Basquiat]. I knew Keith [Haring]. I knew Andy [Warhol]. I've had experiences with these people in real life, and real great memories that are supported by the food at the table, the weed somebody was smoking, the music that was playing — all these things are super rich and strong for me. … But at the end of the day, I'm still a real guy. I didn't let any of this stuff get to me in some effed-up way where I think I'm above somebody. I don't buy into any of that, either.” 

True to his name, it’s not past accomplishments that get the artist excited. “I’m still Futura,” he said. “I'm about tomorrow. I'm not about yesterday.”