Leading up to the launch of Converse's second collaboration with the legendary artist Futura, we had the privilege to build with him in Toulouse, as well as create something very special and unique with him in support of this project. Words and interview conducted by Gary Warnett, photography by Yamandu Roos.
Leonard “Futura” McGurr’s art career spans 45 years. This NYC legend has been active in galleries globally in addition to work on walls, record sleeves, trains, phone, cinema and computer screens, plenty of paper and — thanks to an open-mind with collaborative opportunities — shoes, bicycles, bottles, watches, toys, cotton and GORE-TEX shells.
During the decades there have been down times that he filled with cab driving, courier work and a brief stint in the military, but somehow that fed back into his creative output. Graffiti was the foundation, where Futura was part of the culture’s generation 1.5, initially active in the early 1970s, though the super-scientific vision he debuted at the start of the 1980s is what led to international recognition.
Beyond art, Futura’s contribution to clothing can’t be underestimated. As part of the GFS crew with his associates Gerb and Stash, in 1991 he helped form a New York strain of streetwear in a scene dominated by the west coast that would flourish into a world of its very own.
Amsterdam’s Patta store, brand and collective were founded in 2004. Born from a diverse range of local and global influences, this modestly sized shop has amassed a formidable reputation. Like Futura, restlessness has fuelled their output and they embody the next generation. Like the rest of us, they were raised on some of the cultural contributions that luminaries like Futura have supplied. One tenet from that world was to form your own style and bring something new to the table. Thus, Patta co-founder Guillaume “Gee” Schmidt and regular visual partner, graphic designer and artist Vincent van de Waal, are intent on avoiding pigeonholes.
As a habitual Chuck wearer, Futura’s latest collaboration with Converse is a logical partnership. Capitalising on the canvas that the All Star silhouette offers, the Lunarlon cushioned Chuck II — in high and low forms — has been given a reflective treatment and covered in his Skyfall pattern. He met Vincent and Gee while out in Toulouse working on a project at Les Abattoirs museum to assist on some unique apparel and talk history and creativity.
The Patta team have been discussing the death of exclusivity and lamenting the lack of true limited editions of late, so, rather than opting to flip Patta’s logo with that iconic hand style and printing it, they commissioned 50 one-of-one tees with a pick of five slogans, each handwritten by Futura. That specially translated sloganeering is a tribute to the zero-regrets sentiment in the late hard-living actor, singer and Amsterdam resident Ramses Shaffy’s 1978 hit "Laat me" (“Let Me Live”).
Lenny, your Break train from 1980 really put your name out there and was the blueprint for this abstract, futuristic style — it’s interesting that that piece famously, jettisoned lettering as a focal point, yet lettering is something that you’re famous for.
Futura: My best friends at the time were guys like guys like Zephyr, Dondi and ultimately, Rammellzee, plus previous to meeting those guys in the later 70s and early 80s, someone like a PHASE2. I was always conscious of who held the crown in terms of style and when I returned to graffiti after my military service in the late 1970s, I just wanted to do something different. There was no master plan. I was just sort of messing around with paint and watching everyone else painting at the time. Some were extraordinary with letters or shadowing, backdrops and effects and everything revolved around the name. That’s how it was in that early era — the most outrageous forms of self-promotion.
What was the process behind the pink train you painted in Toulouse last week?
Futura: Painting that train was crazy — I couldn’t believe that they organised that. You see walls and an exhibition space at these jams usually, but for them to truck out a train for me was pretty incredible. It turns out that Toulouse is called the ‘Pink City’ so that’s how the train wound up being pink. There’s also a vibe around that structure — prior to renovation to become the museum, it was a slaughterhouse for meat and prior to my arrival, when they showed me photos of the train in front of that building, it had a real weird Schindler’s List or The Pianist vibe to me. You had the train and it was all rusted and this structure looked imposing. I knew that the juxtaposition of the train and the building was unfortunate and could cause some bad feeling in some people, so I decided that this thing has to be bright and pink and crazy colours because if someone saw that it would take those negative thoughts away. It was fantastic to paint a train again — it had been 30 something years since I last painted one. That was around 1983, and 33 years later I get to do it legally!
In that regard, did it parallel the juxtaposition between the Break train running through a broken city back in 1980?
Futura: That particular train line was the number two and the number five and those were the best train you could paint on because, essentially, they ran the longest through the New York system. They run down the top of the Bronx, down through Manhattan and all the way to Brooklyn. Only in Brooklyn and the Bronx does the train come outside. It’s all subterranean tracking in Manhattan. What was interesting is that the South Bronx was quite run down at the time and if you were on that train riding through the Bronx six, seven stations up, all that was around it was in decay and fucked up. Those great whole cars looked so amazing outside and we loved to watch the trains inside the stations and meeting other kids around the city. Those exterior stations in the Bronx and Brooklyn are where a lot of the photos that Henry [Chalfont] took were taken, because obviously you need natural light and there’s a whole different perspective. The Break train looked really cool running through that overhead track.
WORKING WITH PATTA
What’s the appeal of Lenny’s work to you?
Gee: He’s very approachable and still straddles so many mediums and cultures. He’s an originator and he’ll have that forever. He transcends time and taste — he’s Futura! People interested in him will always know about him.
Vincent: He came up in a time with a lot of great names. That interests me a lot. That timeframe in New York was interesting, you know?
Gee: And a lot of people that Lenny came up with have gone — some have died and some are just not relevant any more. We did a lot of work ourselves, but he paved the way for a lot of people to walk on. Personality helps a lot too when it comes to longevity. If you’re a straight-up guy who’s willing to work, who doesn’t make things hard with blah, blah, blah and who has actual skill, it will stand up in the end. He is all these things. It’s important to surround yourself with good people and stand behind what you do too. In that way, we have the same morals.
Lenny, how did your very recognizable writing style emerge?
Futura: It wasn’t that I couldn’t do letters but my hand style came a lot later in life if you will — I always had a good handwriting, but it didn’t equate to the graffiti hand style. I couldn’t write like BAN 2. There were a couple of writers from the early days before someone like José Parlá would come along who had unbelievable graffiti hand styles. Thin, chiseled letters, with amazing E’s and an S that was swirling around — the beauty of a NYC or global graf hand style. What I did was reinvent my own handwriting and I honestly don’t know how it became as popular as it did. Looking back I always thought I had a sloppy but stylistic handwriting.
Vincent, as an artist, how important is lettering to you?
Vincent: Lettering is very important to me. I use it less in my uncommissioned work. When it comes to my free work now, I feel text can be so direct that I’m not sure if I want it there at the moment. I want to keep it open a little. Lettering is a universe — it’s huge. You go so many directions that you can take a turn and get lost.
Do you think that style can translate to a typeface?
Vincent: The flow matters. You can’t fully turn a hand style to a typeface and keep that. Type it in and it always looks like shit. You have these flows in there.
What was the story with the copy you chose?
Vincent: We came with this copy and it’s originally from a song by Ramses Shaffy who’s a singer from Amsterdam. We knew that we wanted Lenny’s handwriting on the t-shirts but then what’s on there makes or breaks it. It needed to be something that represents the attitude and style of Patta, and Converse had told us to take care of the copy. We stripped the song down to just a couple of words. We think that they’re very powerful because they stand for the kind of attitude that we want to show.
Gee: It was a real process. We knew that we had to use part of the text and we also had to translate it. Sometimes you translate things to English and they don’t really flow any more. First we had the whole song, then sentences and ultimately, just words. That’s the most powerful way of giving a message — especially knowing where the song is coming from and the kind of artist that Ramses Shaffy was. It works with us and it works with Futura’s persona — the punk attitude. It matches like crazy.
Was Lenny’s script part of your plan from the start?
Vincent: We knew that we were gonna work with Futura and we wanted to draw out what stands out to us the most. His writing is such an honest form of what he does. That handwriting is perfect to bring our vision to life.
Tight time frames can create great work.
Gee: It was important that our vision came through too. It has Ramses Shaffy’s mentality and personality in there but it also reads AMSTERDAM & NEW YORK and it also reads PUBS & CATHEDRALS. I like that it has thought behind it but it is also very abstract. You might just see a good-looking t-shirt with nice words on it. You can apply your own thought process to it.
What was the process for creating the shirts with Patta?
Futura: What Gee and Vincent did was interesting because they wanted something out of me that was original. I think me sitting there writing five phrases ten times makes a cool gift for someone. One thing I hate to do in all the world of accommodating people is signing t-shirts! It’s actually a little bit difficult. The marker drags on the fabric and it’s iffy and doesn’t work. You have to hold the shirt flat and taut, but for some reason it worked with the Patta guys.
Were there any mistakes?
Futura: I don’t think any of the shirts were fuck ups. There were a couple of dragged lines but they wound up being dotted lines and they worked. I was dreading doing that but it came out really cool and I’m glad they had me do it. You’re also talking about the entering and alignment of two words. The markers were good but it was silver paint markers on black. Gee and Vincent held them and we had a board and it was really perfect. When a job or some operation goes well, it makes you feel that you did something right.
Vincent: He was like a machine. I think it actually took less than an hour and he never misspelled one letter! We were holding and stretching the tees — it’s hard to write on one. He never hesitated. He has done this a long time, and repetition is key to learning too.
You definitely got up in Holland back in the 1980s, but had you had any dealings with the Patta crew before?
Futura: We definitely got up in Holland! But that pre-dates these guys. I’ve been to Patta though because I was in Amsterdam a couple of years back and you hear about cool stores so you pop your head in. Promotion-wise and in terms of their releases that I see on the web and their collaborations, I’ve seen their stuff. We wanted to do a release with a good European store and when someone suggested Patta, I said, “Yeah, let’s do it with them.” This was a few months ago and I had no idea what it would entail, but I’m super happy that it’s gonna happen there. It’s a great venue and I think it’s a good look for everyone. I like what they do.
ART & ACCESSIBLITY
I know that you get asked to draw your “Pointman” character that was popularised by UNKLE in the mid to late 1990s a lot— do you ever feel that you’re being typecast to a degree and have to put a character or element of your work on hiatus?
Futura: Sure. For the most part, wherever I'm at it's not like I'm steps ahead of where other people are, but I'm usually ahead of where they want to put me at. But I'm very appreciative of the fan base. If I'm at an opening and people want me to sign stuff, I'm always accommodating. So if they're like "Hey! Draw a Pointman!" I'll usually do it. So I'm also doing my variety of things right now, but I also have crossed over — I would hope — some creative threshold and I'm also trying to introduce some new stuff myself, because after damn near 40 years of creating my world, I get tired of things and bored with stuff and I want to see something new from me too. I feel like I'm crossing over some bridges and realising what I want to do and not what people want me to do.
Vincent, do you feel a similar way when it comes to a clientele who really wants an Air Max 1 or Patta script tee from you rather than the other more experimental pieces
Vincent: We really don’t care what people expect from us. We’re not busy with that. If people only want one style — like a script logo piece — then we’re going to hardly make any. We have big interests outside of the logo and we want to do more things, so we’ll follow that. Speaking for myself, that’s all I can do.
You’ve always been very accessible online and happy to sign and sketch for fans, but you’re also in the art world, where accessibility can diminish exclusivity and, subsequently, value. Has that ever been an issue for you?
Futura: I know what you mean, Allegedly, if you’re running around in the commercial world then you’re supposed to be diminishing your value in this other world. I’ve always been in conflict with that. Because, truth to told, prices for stuff can be outrageous. A young kid might want something by me or want to get an original sketch on paper but can’t afford something for 20,000 dollars. Does that mean I have to run to that buyer? No. I make that decision as it arrives. It’s emotional for me. What I’m just doing now, moving forward, is to have a way to be more inclusive for those younger people that would like to get involved and have something original. This Patta thing is going to be a good test of how Europe receives this kind of project.
WORKING WITH CHUCK
Where does the Skyfall pattern that’s on the shoes originate?
Futura: That pattern dates back to the late 1990s. That's when I really took to that technique. I actually did some work with maharishi in London that used it – it was on some shirts we made.
Camouflage has played a role in your work and everyday attire — even the pattern on the shoe looks like it could be modified into a camo. How much did your time in the military in the mid to late 1970s alter your personal aesthetic?
Futura: It was everything really. 1968 was the height of Vietnam and I was 13/14 around that time. Even more recently in Iraq, when you know you’re at war you see imagery on TV of soldiers. Back then we had limited resources and exposure to this stuff — like seven, eight, nine channels of TV. The information you got was something everyone got and then there was re-runs. I was influenced by the militarisation that was going on and the fact that my father was a WWII veteran, but I was too young to serve my country if you will. I joined in 1974 and the war was technically winding down — we signed the papers in 1975. I didn’t know what I was going to do and I wound up becoming a jet mechanic on an aircraft carrier. I couldn’t take that with me once I left the military. Camo stuff was always part of my aesthetic and I was going to different countries, doing manoeuvres with Pakistani soldiers and checking their uniforms. I was always checking uniforms. We have different flags and different camos. That aesthetic doesn’t mean that you’re a warmonger or preaching hate or killing. For me, even back in my neighbourhood there were people coming out of Vietnam, so I always saw guys in camo and I knew it would be incorporated into my aesthetic in terms of shit I like. That military thing really opened up what was out there — and military life is a bit like prison in that there’s going to be a point where you’re sitting around knowing that you have 18 hours where you don’t have much to do, so you just get into stuff and learn new things. I’m not the camo aficionado, but I can look at a camo and recognise Germany, North Germany or Brit. The Skyfall thing is a pattern, but if I did it in various colours I guess it could be made into a camo.
You’ve been a longtime Converse wearer — does that make this collaboration feel more organic for you?
Futura: The Converse thing worked out great because I did have all this experience with Nike, who is a parent of Chucks now. It was a good transition for me because both brands are organically part of who I am as a person. Not for nothing, Converse pre-dates Nike and my first arrival into the brand goes back to ‘68/’69 and when I was watching those reports on Vietnam, if I looked down, I had a pair of Converse on. Cut to the early 1980s and 1990s and the crazy running shoes in the Olympics and all this stuff and then, boom, Jordan, which kind of changed the game in our culture because the hip-hop kids went there. The Nike thing came later and I decided to do a 360 — well, a personal decision — in that now that I’ve gone through 30… 40 different combinations of an SB Dunk or an Air Force 1, now I’ve just gone back to my very simple black hi-top Chucks. It’s not a competition any more. At some point I just got out of that, because being a creative, a consumer, a contributor — all of the above — I realised that I want to break down some common denominators, and Converse is perfect for that. I’m very appreciative that I got a chance to work with them and they’ve been really great with me and I look forward to this continued relationship.
As a keen cyclist and former courier, was the reflective material on the Skyfall Chuck II added for safety reasons on a bike?
Futura: It’s funny, because in each drop, we have a high and a low. The high is a better template because you have more room to put stuff on and as it turns out, I like both lows even though I always wear a high. The first Atomic lows were simpler than the high version and I think that the Skyfall lows look really, really good. That reflective thing is gonna work in the summer, at the beach and whatever, but yeah, it’s very bike friendly if people want to cruise around from early evening into twilight because light is really popping off those guys! I suppose it does give them a little safety edge. We were exploring all types of patterns and materials, just as the first had the rubberised thing. One of the good things about this collaboration is that Converse opened the book on all of their resources and technologies. They were showing me things last year that they won’t even have until 2017 — new advances in fabrics. Before anyone else runs their hands through that stuff, they let me have a look.
What’s your process for working on collaborations? You’ve been prolific with them over the years, but are there specific criteria?
Futura: I’m kind of everywhere and nowhere, and working with a brand that you associate with, rather than just grabbing a paycheck, is good. I get emotionally attached to things — more than even things, people. So if the people that approach me from a company rub me the right way, I’m good to go. I could do it just to do it. I prefer to give it away sometimes — it makes me feel better. Of course, we get compensated for things and these days I get compensated rather well, but that doesn’t change me. I just always want to be able to take care of my kids and the people I love and myself to a degree, though I’m low maintenance! I just want to be around people that I like, so rather than being a mercenary about it and chasing things, I just organically hope that my energy will bring the right response and if I feel a bad feeling, but I’m being paid X amount of dollars, I just don’t do it.
What’s the criteria at Patta for collaborations?
Vincent: I think we are getting even more critical. We’re becoming pickier than before. I think it’s part of becoming more independent. I still think independence is the most beautiful thing — if you do something with someone else, it can be a celebration. A lot of the collaborations we’re doing are not for financial benefit.
Gee: There should be a common thought — something we like in a brand. We have different views and we always discuss. That’s what we do within our group. I might like something and Vincent doesn’t, or maybe Edson doesn’t like it, but Tim does. It should be about what Patta is about or what Patta likes, and sometimes the end conclusion is that we don’t do it, or sometimes it’s the right step to make. We like it when the outcome is something different. We really like to look to the future.
The Chuck II has this ‘Ready for More’ slogan — does that mirror where you’re at right now?
Futura: I just turned 60 and so now I’m kind of looking at things differently. When I was 15 I was already Futura. I had a long-lens back then and most people live in the moment and they can only see the next 60 days or however their jobs or relationship will carry them. My thing was that whatever the circumstances are, I’d deal with them, because people were doing okay with less than me. I’ve always had self-motivation because I only need the bare minimum to exist, so I’d look in the mirror like, “Hey! It’s on you to get it going and keep it moving.” So at this point in my life, I’m not chasing anything. I don’t want everything. I’m just checking my health and finding that I’m in very good health, so I’m happy. I’m at a point in my life where my children are half my age and they’re doing well — my son is doing amazing right now. I’m just adapting to whatever’s changing around me socially and hoping that I can make the right decisions moving forward.
What’s next for Futura?
Futura: As far as this collaboration goes, I think it’s going to be great, I’m very excited about the Detroit show that’s coming up this weekend, and I have some other exhibitions coming up later in the year.
Do you see all the work — from collaborations to exhibitions — as an extension of that original subway mission to be seen by as many people as possible?
Futura: I don’t really think about the stuff I’ve done. I don’t live my life by looking in the rearview. When I was 15 years old, I was looking 15 years down the road. I’m looking ten years down the road now! Where’s things gonna be at by 2020 or 2025? Where’s the world going to be with all this crazy shit happening? And what will happen to our community and the structure of this social community I’m part of as an ambassador and diplomat of the whole thing? But at the same time I’m promoting myself just as I did when I put my tag up, when I first tagged a subway station back in the day like, “Oh, there I am! There’s my signature — I exist.” I still get a kick out of that — there’s a double label on the Converse shoes with Chuck Taylor’s signature next to mine. That’s almost worth more than the money you’re gonna give me that I’m gonna spend on something that I probably don’t need anyway! The getting up part is the big part of my story.
The Converse Chuck Taylor All Star II Futura “Skyfall” collection will be available at Patta this Friday, June 24, 2016. They will retail for €100,00 (Ox version) and €110,00 (Hi version). Each pair comes with a very unique t-shirt handwritten by Futura himself, not sold separately or available anywhere else! More information and images HERE.