Artist interview: Futura 2000
Matthew Eller: Today I am honored to chat with the living legend Futura 2000 for a couple minutes about his work, Branded Arts Festival, art, and his life in general.So Lenny, How did you get involved worth the Branded Arts project?
Futura 2000: Thanks for speaking with me, and yeah, great to be here. Well, luckily, I got invited to participate on this mural out here in Bayside, Queens, New York City, Benjamin Cardozo High School to be specific. An extremely well-curated project that I have been painting for over the course of a week or more with different artists coming out. We got Faust this year, Lady Pink was here earlier, I hear Swoon is in on it. Obviously myself and the twins (OSGEMEOS)… but this has been great. And yeah, working on something myself here personally, bringing my characters to the public eye and certainly ambitious in scale for me in terms of my murals. I don’t think I’ve done my guys quite this big before.
Matthew Eller: Have you worked with the twins before?
Futura 2000: I believe I met them 20 years ago and we did our first project together about a decade ago where we actually painted another school in Chelsea in Manhattan. Plus, we later worked in Miami together at Wynwood Walls when that kicked off. So, you know, we’ve been knowing each other for many years now and, it’s super respectful obviously for me. But when I saw their concept for what they wanted to do with me here, I was taken back in terms of the grandiose size, kinda like I’m not worthy. You know, the twins are really doing a wonderful creative homage to not just visualizing what maybe me, but even more so with their recreation of my break train from 1980.
Matthew Eller: They even got you down to the Pointman zipper pull on the track jacket!
Futura 2000: My point man on the pendant on the zipper pull. Yeah, that’s incredible! Also just look what they got going on here with the can! The transparent can they have created is incredible, the whole thing is super original, they’re actually kind of recreating this painting of mine, and it’s remarkable and just wonderful.
If anything, this project here in 2022 is a testament to the history of our movement, which did kind of originate in New York City. So it’s pretty cool that we can paint this piece in Queens for Cardozo High School and New York City in general. I also feel like New York City’s been lacking something like this in terms of bringing in artists on this large a scale to paint an academic facility for educational purposes, it’s really amazing! So when I heard about it, and found out that Ronnie from Kith was an alumnus, that was some connectivity there as well (Shout out to Kith!) And it was just all around super New York and I couldn’t be more psyched to be painting with all of these artists.
Matthew Eller: The train in the mural reminds me of a story you told me way back in 2014 when you were preparing to be on Anthony Bourdain’s “Part’s Unknown”. You were painting a mural in Williamsburg and you wanted to practice what you were going to talk about with me, so we sat for about an hour and I was lucky enough to have you tell me a bunch of stories. One I distinctly remember was you explaining to be what “Benching” was, and how you used to paint a train and then sit on a bench in the Bronx where you could see that train line and just wait there watching until your piece went by. Do you remember actually “benching” for this train and seeing it fly by?
Futura 2000: What a lovely memory! Yes, sure! You know what happened? The very first day when I went looking for it I guess I was benching it from an exterior facility, a rooftop or a platform, I remember seeing it coming in the first time from there. And I remember waiting for it to come back again. But mostly I remember the rush of being inside of it. That to me was more interesting than looking at it, way more captivating being in the train. I remember the feeling of it in motion and, you know, just being itself. Then I remember seeing it again subsequently years later in Martha’s (Cooper) photos, who was here the other day, too, and I want to mention Martha Cooper’s new book which is amazing.
But just to say, Martha, the individual, the documentarian, the historian, and the person, along with, a few others, obviously, saw something 40 years ago and said “wow, this is worth documenting. Maybe it’s not going to be around”. And of course, it wasn’t. And the fact that she caught my train running is incredible. You know what I often say? It’s like catching a fucking cheetah in the wild, It’s a very rare sighting. And I think to see my train running in nature, if you will, and her capturing it, it’s super epic. And it only feels more profound highlighted by something like this mural now.
Matthew Eller: So this mural is kind of like a 3 way collaboration?
Futura 2000: Yes. Well, she was up there on the on the lift with us the other day you know, because the boys did all that (points to the part of the mural with the subway train). And then they asked me “Can you write break? Can you write Futura 2000?” And honestly I was a little iffy on it, and God, that Futura tag on the train otherwise is kind of horrible.
Matthew Eller: But I like it!
Futura 2000: (Laughing) It is true to the period. I mean, have I done that tag in 10 years? 15 years? 20 years? Probably not. And we are going back 40. So you could say it’s not my thing to do that style really anymore, but I’m humbled by what they’ve done here and their recognition of me as someone within this whole structure they respect to such a high level. So, of course, I’m going to give it a shot! Further, I just have to say, this whole week has been a dream actually. I’m pinching myself and shit just seeing this project unfold in front of my eyes. Shout out to Warren Branded Arts and all the other people working with us on site as well like both Josh’s… Josh 1 & Josh 2 who are my drivers, and of course in a pinch, they are there and ready when I’m like “Hey can you help me with these fill-ins?” It’s just incredible support everywhere here. It takes a great team to achieve something like this, so shout out to the team, thank you very much.
Matthew Eller: Speaking of the old days and interesting stories of being out painting with Martha taking photos or anything that comes to mind?
Futura 2000: Let me see… OK I got one…anecdotal… a Tarantino type story…. So I was in a 1 Train tunnel, which is my neighborhood joint, very close to where I lived at that time, and I was quite familiar with it.
Matthew Eller: Which part of NYC?
Futura 2000: Manhattan actually, between 137 and 145 on the 1 what is now the 1 and 9. Back in the day, there was no 9. It was just a 1 train. So you could catch 1 trains in there. Sometimes 3s. They stick 3s in there, but mostly 1 trains got left in this interior tunnel layer. It was called the “1 time”.
So we’re in there… and like I said, I went in there a lot! I’ve been going in there since before I was a graffiti writers! Before I was a graffiti writer I was already a little mischievous kid that had no fear of going down into the platform. “Oh, there’s an emergency exit two streets down… I’m going to go see it”. You know, I was not afraid. The electricity, none of that shit shook me, and I was down there. I mean, the graffiti writers, even in my era, seventies and eighties, they were starting young. I mean, look at Mare139 in Style Wars, He looks maybe 13! So to be 10, 12, 11, 14 it was totally normal to be that young in the tunnels for some. I remember my experiences were pretty much me as a young kid being adventurous.
But back to my anecdotal story. So we’re in there painting and I could see these two guys coming in from one of the stations…the Southern station at 137 coming in from that entrance, and the exit would be at 145. You could enter and exit from both ends of the tunnel. And I got under the train and I did that move where you hold on to the undercarriage, the shit you see in movies where people are riding on the train holding on under there.
Matthew Eller: Die Hard Style!
Futura 2000: Exactly, Like I’m in an action movie, but I’m not going anywhere. The train’s not moving, it’s parked. I’m simply hiding up inside of it. You feel me? Because it’s a negative cavity. You know, you look under there, you see where you can be. So, sure enough, I saw these guys coming. Now I was there with my other friend and some other folks I did not know so well, barely acquaintances at this time. And he was down at the other side of the tunnel and I was down at the southern end. And like I said, these two guys are coming in. I didn’t know if they were there to cause trouble, I was not really worried about them being graffiti rivals, more like could it be static? Are we getting robbed? Do they want to steal our paint? who are these guys in a fucking subway tunnel?
But then as they got closer I started to think they were cops. They could be detectives not in uniform. And then all of a sudden, as soon as I saw them, I took cover. I just stayed there. And I was right there at the point where I could kind of like see them approaching. I swear to God I was holding on so tight. I could see their feet, both sets of their legs, walking by me. And then they went past. Then all of a sudden, I heard, “Hey, what are you guys doing over there? Hey! Stop right there!”
And they started running to chase the other guys. And I remember I sort of quietly just like came out from under that train and I was absolutely not fearful anymore because all the negative energy was moving in that direction. And I just calmly went to the right and exited the tunnel and got up on the station platform. My hands were shaking from holding on so tight but with the rest of my paint and gear I got into the next train which was going uptown, got on it. When it pulled into the next station, I saw the kid who were chased out of the tunnel sitting on a bench, being arrested by those two individuals who obviously were undercover cops.
A lot of people don’t know I have never been busted or arrested ever in any capacity as a graffiti artist… that’s the closest I ever came to being caught. I’ll never forget those footsteps going by me.
Matthew Eller: I thought you were going to say it was Martha with her camera!
Futura 2000: (Laughing) That would have been great! You know, I did see Marty with Dondi one time photographing him coming out of the yard. Because even then Dondi saw something in her. You know, which is why Martha is a very special individual in that Martha was accepted not just by us, but really by Dondi and taking her into those spaces, I mean, it was unheard of at that time. But, that’s why her photos of Dondi painting are classic. I would say “You went in there with him?” And she would be like “Yeah, of course!” I know the history and nobody else went to those spots like her. Even Henry (Shalfont) with all his great archive is mostly static stuff.
I mean at one point I said to Diondi, “Martha is like your personal photographer and documentarian now.” And he would say something like “I don’t know what to tell you, she’s good people.”
And I remember, it’s like anything else, someone that’s very respected, they put someone on or they okay someone and then you’re in. And Dondi did that for Martha.
I remember through history you would have friends that were associated with you or whatever. And I used to tell my guys “Hey, you’re in” You know, there comes a point when you realize you’re either inside or you’re not. Once you’re inside, just chill, you’re in, it’s all good. We don’t need any more compliments on getting in. Relax you’re in, enjoy yourself!
Matthew Eller: Then you hand them a badge to make it official?
Futura 2000: Exactly! Hey I’m a card carrying fan of certain artist out there as well. I probably printed up an OSGEMEOS fan membership card…I mounted a photo on it, you know. I mean, I’m a fan. Ever since day one when I was a toy, I was always fanning out on my Phase2, Snake1, Coco144, StayHigh149.
Matthew Eller: This project’s pretty crazy because this is really a collaboration in its purest form from two, arguably three artists. But the image you chose is one of your “Pointman” characters. For those that do not know much about them can you give us a little background?
Futura 2000: Well it pre-dates Mo Wax and Unkle’s Psyence Fiction which a lot of people don’t know.
Matthew Eller: Exactly… because that is where most people including myself know it originally from.
Futura 2000: Those characters existed when James (Lavelle) from Mo Wax arrived, met me, saw the painting in my studio and was like “Wow, who are those blokes kind of things”… right? And that was the vibe of my characters early on. What happened was the imagery, those two characters that I had in the Triangle. It’s the genesis of all of what they did. But those paintings existed before James purchased them and then decided, “Oh, well, this kind of matches the vibe of what I’m doing” because it was him and it was another guy initially. It was one particular individual that was doing music with him, and then he linked up with DJ Shadow, and then it became Unkle which was a kind of a partnership, but it was always a duo. James and another guy then James and another guy. So the two guys, the characters, the Pointman just became synonymous with the imagery.
Actually I would give credit to all of that exposure because yeah, it did turn people onto my stuff because James was into it, and he wanted to use it in visual form for records. And it was beyond them. It was tons of my artwork and other things. So it was a great moment in the late to mid nineties, from 94ish through the year 2000 when my first book came out which was published by them. So I’m always respectful of that relationship.
But also if you want to get technical, that stuff existed already, it’s just that it didn’t have the identity that it was given yet. Once you make a toy, and you make it this, and you make it that, and then people start giving it an identifier.
But truth be told, the word Pointman comes from the military. It’s more of a reconnaissance individual in a military recon team. It’s like the guy that’s out there in front of everyone else, doing Pointman shit, like being up in front and looking for shit and making sure that before everyone else arrives things are ok… no booby traps, and there’s not a fucking thousand guys over there waiting to ambush you. So it was a metaphor for me as a person in life that I was always like, that guy. Plus I am ex-military, so I understand. And then when my exploits of going around the world early in the 1980’s with Dondi, with Zephyr, with with all these other people. But I was always somehow in advance of it… going to London, going to France, going to Japan, going to China… I was always the first one from our group to get there. And so in a kind of way, I see myself that way, for all the right reasons. Firstly, I wanted to go there. It’s just by virtue of my good fortune, I’m up, “hey, you want to trip to whatever? Sure. But then I can come back and I will use that intelligence to help the team. “Hey, well, this is what’s up!”, and “check out on this person”, all of the information before any information is how we existed, it’s just someone’s going to be out there collecting intelligence. There’s no difference in the history of man. These things are important, whether it’s fucking farming or whatever the fuck you’re doing, having some lay off the land and understanding kind of what’s going on there.
And one thing I could tell you I learned from all my experiences as a foreigner arriving in foreign lands, you need to collaborate and work with local folks, that’s the number one thing. You can’t come in flying some flag like you’re the shit (Americans tend to do this) and suddenly everyone else’s local life and work get interrupted. It’s like saying “I don’t care about you. I’m here and that all that matters”. And that’s so wrong, you know? So maybe part of my longevity is how I operate. I’m fully aware, and I’m open to everything, whatever, all of it. But mostly I want to be generous, I want to give because I know how lucky I am.
Matthew Eller: I can attest that you’re one of the nicest, giving people I know for sure. You always make time to help anybody out you can (including myself over the years).
Futura 2000: It’s just like for me, it’s so fucking easy, because at the same time, point of fact, look at who I’m up against. It’s not hard because a lot of people don’t help others.
Matthew Eller: And you get to do what you love!
Futura 2000: Yeah, for sure, I do. But like I said, just being generous and giving and trying to hook people up sometimes… that’s all part of me, and how I’ve been able to give back in whatever capacity.
And of course like dumb shit, little chachkies. That’s not really what I’m talking about. That helps me as much as people enjoy them. Like those vests that I gave out, at some point someone’s going to be wearing it, and then there you go, there’s my hit. It’s like a tag on the wall kind of thing, all of that branding. But, it’s still kind of applicable in the umbrella of, “hey, we’re working and we need these to work”… it’s within the range of all this kind of feasibility. So I just fuck with all that. But like any other knucklehead and whatever, this is how life is, there’s always going to be somebody who is like, “Yo, I got these 10, or 20” or whatever, just trying to make a buck off of everything, you know? But, that’s not my style.
Matthew Eller: I know you had to leave five minutes ago but before we say goodbye… today is the Notorious BIGs 50th birthday! Any favorite track?
Futura 2000: Hypnotize. Yeah. That’s got to be it. Wow, look at that. You went there!
Matthew Eller: It’s today… I had too!
Futura 2000: Hang on.. Hang on! You know, Cernesto? Yeah. It’s my man. Back on site!
Matthew Eller: Surprise guest here? Of course I know Cern? If you could ask Lenny any question? What would it be? We’re asking about Biggie Smalls right now. (Hypnotized starts playing from Futuras’ car speakers).
Futura 2000: Well it’s probably the funniest shit in this is when Puff is the front man but in the back. He’s just saying dumb shit in the back. Yeah, damn, I remember I seen biggie on some shit one time, man he was massive. I didn’t meet him. I just saw him once in person.
Cernesto: (Laughing). If you listen to Juicy Biggie is like “condos in Queens endo for weeks” but I was going too Cardozo when Ready to Die came out and this was before you could look up the lyrics on the internet we all for sure thought that he was saying “Cardozo Queens, endo for weeks” (everyone starts laughing). It took three years before we found out we were wrong!
Cernesto: Ok, so here’s my question for you. Have you ever painted in Bayside?
Matthew Eller: That’s your question? Lenny had to leave ten minutes ago and that your question!? (Laughing continues).
Futura 2000: I have never painted in the borough of Queens.
Cernesto: WHAT!?? That’s real??
Futura 2000: That is a fact… But I had tags running in Long Island City. That’s Queens, technically, and Maspeth. But no not out in like flushing or bayside.
Matthew Eller: When did you guys meet?
Futura 2000: We met about 21 years ago I believe…
Cernesto: We met on a rooftop… I smelt spray paint and was like “who else is spray painting up here?” And I went around the rooftop and Yeah, there Futura was rockin’ on some shit.
Futura 2000: I had a spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn…
Cernesto: I remember that spot! Anyway, Ten years later… Lee (Quiñones) invites me to paint the MOCA museum. Just to say, historically, you are rocking with twins today, but yeah, at that point in time, I got to collab; Lee sketches, Lenny fills, and I come with the effects and the three of us collaborated on this one mural and I was like… dreams do come true…
Futura 2000: At that time the Italian artist Blue, who was really the shit at that moment, some of his fucking walls around the world were incredible, but he was going to sketchy places. I remember he went to Bogota and did the crushed up skulls into coke. I was just like, “wait a minute. Other than Banksy, who is trying to be political right now. Nobody by comparison… Shepard (Fairey)… Nope, sorry. This is so next level. And the shit he did at MOCA that they had the buff.
Cernesto: Well he covered the entire wall with coffins draped in dollar bills.
Futura 2000: Yeah. Yeah. And it was right by that military memorial though. Remember?
Cernesto: Yep! The real problem is this is where it gets hard for folks because you can’t see it on the Internet. Is that there was a memorial right there. So people would have to come and pass by it on the way to see the memorial!
Futura 2000: But it is published in the catalog. It just got buffed in real life. But they did publish it in the catalog, so that’s good. But it was a bit of a compromise and you know, it sucked. But I remember seeing it go up. I was like (Futura makes a cringing face), because he also used to do this cool shit back in the late 2000’s and he would buff a wall. And he was filming these animated walls he was doing.
Matthew Eller: Yeah! Yeah! Those video… Oh, my God! (Everyone talking over each other in excitement).
Futura 2000: I was like “WHAT THE FUCK!” So to me there was a moment where me Blu was just the best on earth like as far as trying to do new stuff.
Matthew Eller: Did You ever meet him?
Futura 2000: Yeah. Yeah. Sweet kid, sweet Italian kid. Yeah. My God, let’s talk about respecto!
Matthew Eller: Yeah, those videos were out of control. He did a bunch of them. Highly recommended for everyone to watch!
Futura 2000: Too good… just to good…
Matthew Eller: Anyway Lenny I know you squeezed me (you always do) in to do this interview and I’m eternally grateful to you, and Cernesto for the assist. The Branded Arts Festival Murals at Cardozo High school in Queens are finished and available to be viewed now if you can make it out there. These murals are incredible and just massive in person! Also a huge congratulations in advance for being honored by Free Arts NYC and Marc Jacobs next week!
All Photo’s & Text Copyright 2022 Matthew A. Eller. Follow me on Instagram @elleresqphoto