Why Futura, The Godfather Of Street Art, Should Be On Your Art Radar
Just minutes after the hammer came down on the winning bid of £1.04m at a Sotheby’s auction in London last October, British street artist Banksy remotely sent his Girl with Balloon painting through a shredder concealed within the frame. As far as pranks go—even by the elusive artist’s standards—this surprise intervention will go down in the annals of art history. The buyer of “the first piece of live performance art sold at auction” (later renamed Love is in the Bin) went ahead with the purchase, calling it her “own piece of art history”.
Such is the creative audacity of street art, which has steadily gained mainstream influence and rising interest in the commercial market among collectors in recent years. “Street art is gaining momentum and attention as a serious collecting genre, much like impressionism or abstract expressionism, when only a few years ago, it was considered a form of subculture that only a small community in certain parts of the world responded to,” notes Ning Chong, founder of boutique art gallery, The Culture Story.
To prove the investment worthiness of this contemporary art genre, Chong cites the recent Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong from the personal collection of Japanese streetwear entrepreneur Tomoaki Nagao. The sale in April set a new auction record for American street artist Kaws, whose 2005 painting, The Kaws Album, fetched US$14.8m. All 33 artworks and collectibles, which included those by street artists Futura and Stash, were sold above their estimates, for a total of US$28m.
The street art movement’s roots can be traced to 1970s and ’80s New York, where pioneer artists such as Futura, Dondi White, Coco144, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat worked their aerosol sprays on sidewalks, street hoardings and subway stations, spreading anti-establishment ideologies, often in political or social protest. Most of them incorporated elements of graffiti into their work, through stylised lettering, often bearing their name or moniker, and were influenced by the emergence of hip-hop, rap and street fashion. Then there are those who pioneered a totally different style—Futura is one of them.
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FROM STREET TO STUDIO
“Futura’s abstract approach to graffiti broke all grounds. It might have taken time to infiltrate the broader public imagination, but ultimately it became what is referred to as ‘abstract graffiti’. His Break Train creation reorientated the perspective of graffiti on trains, and opened the door to a new form of creativity. He’s one of those artists who had the original style to evolve beyond graffiti,” enthuses Chong.
Ahead of his time on numerous fronts, Futura later started working on canvas, breaking down the walls between street, commercial and fine art. Perhaps this points to why he is known as the godfather of street art, with longevity in the scene till today. He makes his Southeast Asian debut in Singapore this month with Constellation, an exhibition of 30 specially commissioned artworks created during his two-week residency at The Culture Story last October.
“The show will catalyse a new wave of interest in street art, not only in Singapore but also in Asia, where interest is already strong in Japan and, more recently, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. We believe when the history of street art in Asia is written, this Futura show will be recorded for its contribution to making it more mainstream to art lovers and collectors,” Chong explains.
Curated by leading Singapore pop artist Jahan Loh, the show is a nod to Futura’s first encounter with Singapore in 1974, as a young US Navy petty officer aboard the Kitty Hawk-class supercarrier USS Constellation, passing through its harbours. It is also an opportunity for the American graffiti master to showcase his deftness with the aerosol spray, with which he executes his most iconic signature move, the inverted spray, on canvas.
Due to its public nature, street art is said to be the first truly global art movement, and its reach further perpetuated through social media. And today, artists such as Kaws, Shepard Fairey (aka Obey) and Takashi Murakami are extending their studio practice to create toys, figurines, and even products with luxury fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton.
Chong puts it in perspective: “If we trace the origins of street art—which is about self‑expression, establishing a voice and identity, making it known to your community who you are (by tagging)—whatever you spray on the walls says a lot about you. So as artists gained recognition and success, it is little wonder that they would look to extend their brand and identity.”
Futura was also one of the first who commercialised his art. He toured with the UK punk rock band The Clash in the 1990s and showcased his live graffiti at its concerts. He even created his own clothing label, Futura Laboratories, which he is relaunching this year, through a collaboration with Dover Street Market Singapore to debut an exclusive series of merchandise during the exhibition.
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So what is the best way to start collecting? Chong offers these tips: “Follow top artists and designers, as well as organisations such as Hypebeast, Streething and StraatOsphere—which report on the latest happenings in the scene—on Instagram. Visit as many shows, art fairs or auctions where street artists are featured. Start by buying limited-edition merchandise such as toys, posters or lithographs, before finally buying the original pieces.”
THE WRITING ON THE WALL
Five street art terms to know, according to The Culture Story’s Ning Chong
- TAG A stylised name or signature of the artist, done in marker or aerosol paint.
- CHARACTER Another form of signature or visual shorthand of the artist. Some are original such as Futura’s “5”, while others take inspiration from pop culture such as Kaws’ X-ed out eyes.
- LEGAL WALLS Artwork done legally where artists are invited by property owners to paint on their walls.
- MURAL A huge work, often done on a legal wall, by an individual artist or crew.
- CREW A group of artists who regularly work together, either producing unified pieces or series of individual tags done in a concentrated area.
Constellation runs from May 30 to June 9, at 02-21 Gillman Barracks, Blk 9 Lock Road.
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