Since it’s conception, the internet has been a resource for artists looking to escape the bounds of the traditional art market, a system dominated by wealthy collectors, galleries, and auction houses that only deal with physical work and often retain the majority of profits.
Using platforms like Instagram and Twitter, many young artists have pursued their careers independently, exploring digital mediums, posting their work, selling prints, and hoping to score big. The only issue, as 18 year old digital artist Fewocious puts it, is “selling things like prints online is really hard, and you don’t make any money.”
When crypto art began to appear on timelines as the solution to the internet artist’s dilemma, there was one universal reaction: this is too good to be true.
Fewocious and Art Twitter
Just one year ago, Fewocious was a part of a community known as “Art Twitter,” an arbitrary crowd of artists whose careers largely depend on their ability to go viral, sell prints, and earn commissions. Fewocious, who was determined to find a way out of his abusive household at the time, devised a “grand plan” to make enough money selling art to move out by his 18th birthday. The plan materialized when his first painting sold for $90, not enough for a new house, but a sale that would later become key for his future success.
“I packed up the painting, shipped it out and weeks passed. I never got a picture or a tweet from the person who got it. Nothing,” Fewocious recalls, “then one day I got an email with the picture of the receipt and a message along the lines of, ‘Hi, I’m the guy who got your painting. I love it. I noticed you attached a certificate of authenticity, so you must care about authenticity. As a collector I surely care about it. Let me tell you something that’s pretty much all about authenticity: NFTs.’
An Introduction to Non-Fungible Tokens, SuperRare, and NiftyGateway
NFTs (or non-fungible tokens), are tokenized digital goods that exist on a blockchain, allowing their rights to be bought and sold as if they’re singular, tangible objects. Over the past three years, several platforms such as SuperRare and NiftyGateway have emerged as marketplaces for artists to tokenize their digital artwork and sell it for a crypto currency called Etherium.
Meanwhile, investors in crypto have joined the platforms as NFT collectors. Not only does this technology provide digital artwork with the scarcity—and therefore the value—once exclusively found in physical art, it also keeps track of the value of artwork overtime and eliminates the complexities stemming from geography and other issues.
After some thorough investigation to ensure it wasn’t all a scam, Fewocious got involved. “In my first month of crypto I had enough money to move out,” he exclaimed, “I realized this isn’t a little fad, this is Art History.”
It wasn’t long before other artists in Fewocious’ community began to take notice. “Fewocious was posting these crazy things like ‘I just sold an image online’ and everyone was like ‘what?’” recalls painter and digital artist Jonathan Wolfe. “I started talking to them after that, that’s how I got started with SuperRare and became really good friends with Fewocious.”
However, not everyone was immediately sold on the concept, as painter and illustrator Ladon Alex explains, “My initial response to most things is skepticism…I was close to Fewocious and I really wanted to trust the whole business, but something seemed off to me.”
Thus a divide in online art communities began to form, where interested artists like Wolfe migrated into crypto while more skeptical artists like Alex took a step back to watch it all play out. It’s a divide that has since only grown.
The Rise of Crypto Art
Now, websites like SuperRare and NiftyGateway boast a roster of 400+ artists, (50% of which joined in the last six months).These websites combine the roles of gallery, auction house, museum as well as editorial, and social network services. The art ranges from digital illustrations and paintings to moving 3D animations and video art, that cover the websites’ homepages in a mosaic of contemporary media.
Unlike the traditional art market where artists often receive about half the profit from primary sales and nothing on secondary, artists on SuperRare receive 85% of their primary profits and 10% of secondary sales.
Their work is highlighted in the SuperRare editorial, and displayed in digital metaverses like Decentreland and Cryptovoxels. For the artists involved, this technology has been an opportunity to explore new mediums, new parts of the web, and new possibilities for their careers.
“My trajectory since I was a kid was, you want to be an artist so you want to be in galleries,” says Jonathan Wolfe, “but then crypto appeared and I’m not sure I want that anymore… I’ve been collabing with people, I’ve been making these little clay figures, I’ve been photographing them, and drawing on top of them, and animating them.
I would never do that if I hadn’t gotten into digital art through crypto. My work was even displayed at the IOSG Old Friends Reunion in Shanghai, and the guy that invented Etherium may have seen it. That’s incredible to me, and that was all through SuperRare.”
Crypto Art’s Curated Community
However it’s not the new opportunities, money, or futuristic technology that crypto artists and collectors are most excited to talk about, it’s the community.
As TheDruid, one of the top collectors on SuperRare puts it, “Crypto art is like a family. We all seem to know each other.”
This family, which is curated through an application process on each site, has led both collectors and artists alike to a series of collaborations, friendships, and life changing connections. Fewocious, who has plenty of stories to tell about the relationships he’s formed through crypto—from sharing movie recommendations with collectors, to the crypto artists that helped him move into his new house—is still shocked by how personal the community is.
“Like damn I’m 18 years old talking to the CEO of some big company and it’s a heartfelt conversation,” he explains, “they’ll say something like ‘when you put this color here or wrote this passage it really meant a lot to me…or this reminds me of when I was your age…’ it’s not just throwing money around, these people have real connections.”
Concerns Surrounding the Crypto Art Community
It’s this same community that has become a point of concern for artists like Alex on the outside. “It’s just a bunch of yes’ing around them,” Alex explains, “It doesn’t seem to matter what the art looks like or what it’s saying, the mentality is ‘I’m in crypto and this person is in crypto so I’m going to blindly support them.’”
It’s a phenomenon Alex believes has stagnated the growth of many artists in crypto, as he expressed “a lot of these younger artists are in situations where they don’t have any support aside from these grown ass crypto investors telling them their work is good. When you have young artists getting into this, making so much money, and no one is saying anything besides ‘great job, keep making money,’ psychologically you get attached to that, and the art will suffer.”
Even more concerning are the extents of this support, which Alex notes do not appear to be reaching Black artists in the same proportion. “There is no hard evidence, but there are hints of discrimination with the artists they choose to really promote on the sites,” Alex points out, “it’s unsurprising, if you’re a Black artist making art primarily about the Black experience these rich white dudes aren’t gonna be as interested.”
These issues of discrimination and art quality suffering at the hands of the market have run rampant within the the traditional art market for centuries, and though Alex was hopeful they wouldn’t be incorporated into the crypto scene, he’s not surprised to find them translating seamlessly.
The Ecological Cost of Crypto Art
The ecological cost of NFTs and by extension, crypto art, is an important factor to consider. Memo Atkens, in his article “The Unreasonable Ecological Cost of #CryptoArt” compiled a series of never-before-seen statistics on the ecological footprints of NFTs.
According to Atken, after being posted, bid on, and sold, the average SuperRare NFT has a footprint of 340 kWg and 211kg CO2 in energy usage: equivalent to the average EU resident’s energy consumption in a month. So far, SuperRare is responsible for about 3,818,089 kg CO2 emissions, which adds up to the average EU resident’s energy consumption for 2 thousand years.
Atken was clear that we should not shift blame towards artists who most likely aren’t aware of these numbers, but instead towards the platforms themselves, saying “these artists and works absolutely need a home. And online platforms such as these are perfect, except they should not need to waste such vast amounts of energy on a PoW blockchain, just to keep track of who has expressed interest in the work.”
The Future of Crypto Art: Setting a Standard
Despite its issues, the crypto scene only seems to be growing. Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland recently made his NiftyGateway debut with a digital doodle of his show’s two main characters, DJ 3Lau just released the first-ever tokenized music track, and comedians are looking for ways to sell jokes as NFTs.
As more industries filter into the crypto scene, the more likely it appears the world is on the brink of developing a second, decentralized marketplace, capable of keeping up with the ever-evolving technological landscape.
“I see this becoming a standard,” Fewocious predicts, “maybe not next year and maybe not next, next year, but I think it will be, and art is the birth of it, the playground.”
Still in its early stages, the crypto scene is a playground with potential, but not without problems. Ultimately, it’s up to platform creators to decide what foundations they will continue to build upon.