Let us spray: king of graffiti holds court

"OH YEAH, he's cool," said the fan as she watched her hero, street artist Futura 2000, stroll across one of London's busiest roads undamaged to add a hint of mid-grey to the fuzz of blue he had sprayed on to the billboard a few minutes earlier. Pretty cool by any standards, but in the shake, squirt and scram world of aerosol artists, New York-born Futura is deep in the permafrost. He's King Nozzle.

This time there is no need to run from the law. Foster's, the Australian lager company, has rented 10 billboards in Camden Town, north London, so Futura and nine other street artists can exhibit large-scale works that take their theme from the company's new brand name, Ice. Big business seems a strange bedfellow for an art-form that prides itself on anarchic roots, but then Futura insists that he is no longer a graffiti artist.

"Graffiti died in the late Seventies. What we have now is better known as street art. It's more thought-out," he says. Married, thirtysomething, and dressed in neat trainers and baseball cap, Futura hasn't "done illegal" since the American art establishment began to take notice of the elaborate motifs and Dayglo signatures that had graced walls and subway trains for years.

"I started in the early Seventies by spraying the subway system and places like the entrance to the Statue of Liberty. I enjoyed the freedom, the maximum visibility," he explains. "Graffiti was a good, non-violent way to express myself."

With the rise of design culture in the early Eighties, artists such as Keith Haring, who had made their name on the street, found they could make good money during daylight hours by turning their hands to commercially oriented graphic art. Leading American galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art, bought work by street artists, and Futura found his work sought after by collectors, record companies and bands such as The Clash, for whom he created a set of stage backdrops.

But Nineties Britain is a long way from Seventies Bronx. The simple act of "tagging" - spelling out a name, spraying a signature, in letters so large they can't be ignored - has evolved into an elaborate art-form. It's a change that some see as tantamount to sacrificing the personal in favour of the product.

"True graffiti is letter-based, but a lot of the work called graffiti isn't really true graffiti," says Guy Bird, editor of Graphotism magazine. "A lot of it is now done by people who come from graphic design backgrounds. They're not true street artists."

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