At Home With Futura: For a Graffiti King, the Family Reigns


Phyllis Galembo for The New York Times
AEROSOL AESTHETE Lenny McGurr, an ex-graffiti writer known as Futura, with action figures he creates and collects.

YOU start off as a teenager, writing your name on the inside of subway cars, and then one day you're 45, with a wife and two kids. What kind of home do you make for yourself?

On a sunny afternoon last week, Lenny McGurr surveyed his duplex apartment in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. Mr. McGurr has been many things: graphic designer, author, bicycle messenger, postal worker, toy designer, painter, clothing customizer, illustrator. But he is best known as Futura 2000, a legend with a can of Krylon. In the early 1980's, he was one of the most sophisticated of the graffiti writers who moved aerosol art from the New York subway system to the embrace of the gallery world.

Mr. McGurr has been living in the apartment for three years, the neighborhood for more than 15. But for an artist who has customized even his cell phone, the home feels oddly off the rack, with little trace of the aesthete who made even the hostile environs of the subway his own. A collection of DVD's lines one floorboard, all the cases in fastidious alignment. A laptop computer played old hip-hop and punk rock songs. A rectangle of orange cloth hung brightly over the front window. One of his canvases adorned a wall.

An efficient packer could move the whole family out in a long lunch hour. Or, with a minor change of the painting and some of the music and movies, the place could be anyone's.

"I've always been really transient," Mr. McGurr said. "I find comfort in all my spaces, but I don't find permanence. You take my life in the military, and the art scene of the 80's, my tours with the Clash, and all I've been doing all my life is travelling."

For the last two years, he has been assessing the ups and downs of those travels. The results snake their way through "Futura" (Booth-Clibborn Editions, $45), published last December, a coffee-table book and nonlinear autobiography, recounting Mr. McGurr's adventures in the art world, from global celebrity to the lows that followed when the graffiti bubble burst in the mid-80's.

The book also includes Mr. McGurr's resurgence in the 90's, as well-wishers like the designer Agnès B. and a British record company called Mo'Wax helped him translate his designs to fashion, CD sleeves, toys and the Web. Mr. McGurr sells many of his designs at Recon, an East Village store he runs with a partner, Josh Franklin, whose graffiti name is Stash.

"Futura was one of those artists — and they were very, very rare — who had the original style to evolve beyond graffiti," said Charlie Ahearn, who directed the 1982 movie "Wild Style," about the rise of rap and graffiti. "Most graffiti artists are really folk artists. Futura did a train that was totally abstract art. And he had the most beautiful tag of anybody," Mr. Ahearn said, referring to a graffiti writer's identifying signature. "It defined the seriousness of what a tag meant."

Mr. McGurr still paints as Futura, but now he works mostly with brushes, and only on canvas or a computer monitor. His past identity as a graffiti writer, he said, has become a ball and chain. "I'm 45, raising a family," he said. "It's offensive. You say graffiti, and the majority of people are going to be offended by it.

"I don't have a marker in my pocket. I don't deface anything. It almost shocks me to remember I once had that impulse. I don't feed on that desire to say, `Check me out.' "

Like most hip-hop stories, the narrative found in "Futura" is at heart a search for identity and family.

In its broad contours, the phenomenon of hip-hop — the creative bloom of language, fashion, rap music, break dancing and graffiti that came together in New York in the 1970's — was as much as anything a response by urban teenagers to a breakdown of the family. The self-invented names and tribal crews, the self- aggrandizement, the macho strut can all be read as projections of family and male lineage, wrought against a backdrop of gaping fatherlessness.