How crypto art and NFTs are changing artists' careers
We meet the visual artists making bank from selling NFTs to discover how this all works and what it means for the future of art.
09 March 2021, 8:45am
A year ago, the notion of selling a digital image for thousands of dollars would have seemed outlandish, if not impossible. And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening right now in the world of crypto art, which has seen artists like Grimes and the creator of Nyan Cat auctioning off their work as NFTs (non-fungible tokens, a one-of-a-kind certificate representing an artwork) for hundreds of thousands of dollars. While big name artists may be grabbing the headlines, the phenomenon is a welcome revenue source for a wide range of creatives at various stages of their careers.
kytten is based in Los Angeles and has been building out her public artist profile for six years, with the last five months spent studying the domain of NFTs. "It's changing the way art, especially digital art, is perceived, valued, collected, and owned,” she tells us. “It has massive potential to become a new alternate roadmap for artists to find support for their careers and ideas." Her colourful digital artworks, which explore deep universal feelings about the human condition, are currently being sold in auctions for thousands of dollars worth of cryptocurrency.
Over the last year, she and many others have started selling their work through a new breed of virtual marketplaces like Foundation, SuperRare and Zora. These platforms utilise a technology called non-fungible tokens, NFTs for short. The technology allows artists to create a unique token which represents one of their artworks -- a process called minting. Minting registers the artwork as an NFT to a system of records called a blockchain. That's where the crypto part comes in: these blockchains are also the technology underpinning cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and Ether. While a digital artwork may exist in many places, the NFT can only ever exist in one place and that is with its owner. Whenever an NFT is transferred from one person to another, it's registered in a way that's easily visible to the artist. This means artists can embed terms for automatic resale commissions, which is hard to do or enforce with traditional, physical artwork.
"The great thing about NFTs is that the buyer can resell the NFT at any price and I still get a decent royalty off that sale," says Serwah Attafuah, a 22-year old 3D artist and musician from Western Sydney, whose work features dreamlike cyber wastelands reminiscent of her hometown, and Afro-futuristic reflections of self with strong ancestral themes. The artists we spoke to, including Serwah, relish the newly created freedom to focus on their own art, instead of compromising for clients. "I really love the idea that I can make art solely on my own terms, then mint it,” she says. “As an artist that has mostly relied on client work for income, especially during the pandemic, this gives me great hope that I can finally start doing some art for myself again. Oftentimes client work is very demanding and you don't get a lot of creative control, so being able to make an income off NFTs gives me an incentive to take the foot off the gas in terms of commissioned work."
Athens-based 3D artist Sasha Katz has also long relied on commissions for income, but NFTs are changing that. "I feel safe. And now my bills are not that scary, I can concentrate on my personal series and drop clients' projects that might potentially burn me out," she explains. Through her art, the 32-year old explores female sexuality and the perfection of imperfection of the female body. Sasha makes a habit of reinvesting part of her profits back into the community, which is not an uncommon practice in the crypto art domain. "I want to support artists and make someone happy," she says.
While some of the sales are driven by NFT artists supporting others, traditional art collectors are also taking note. Auction house Christie's, which was founded in 1766 and has sold work by Klimt, Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci -- has recently put an NFT artwork by Beeple on auction, titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days. At the time of writing, the highest bid sits at $3.75 million. The auction ends on March 11.
Since the start of the year, NFT discussions on social network newcomer Clubhouse have literally been taking place 24 hours a day. Like Discord, Clubhouse has become a space where crypto artists help each other out, announce new drops, discuss technical complexities, and ask questions. One common question, or problem, that newcomers bump into is the cost of minting. For many artists, it can be prohibitively expensive to tokenize an artwork. The so-called 'gas cost' associated with minting often lies somewhere between $50 and $150. While this problem is being solved on a technical level, community-driven initiatives such as the Mint Fund have popped up to help cover the gas costs for creators "from Argentina to Indonesia", especially focusing on underrepresented artists.
This community nature is part of what gives the domain its allure. It creates a sense of opportunity and agency, despite difficulties. For contrast, here's how kytten describes the status quo when it comes to selling art on of the mega-platform internet we're all familiar with: "For the last decade, internet-based artists have been expected to create free content and share it regularly on their social media pages in order to attract followers and freelance clients. In that system, we’re basically creating content for these large social media companies for free, and hoping that the algorithm is kind, that it lands in front of the right people and leads to something more -- followers, opportunities and income."
Unfortunately, the high costs of minting are indicative of an even bigger issue. Blockchains are powered by a system of complex cryptography run through networks rather than platforms. When a new token is created, the network has to run a series of computations in order to validate it. This process, currently, is typically energy intensive, which has led to warnings that NFTs have an unreasonable ecological cost. "Hopefully NFT platforms and artists will be more proactive about offsetting the ecological impact that NFTs have on our environment," says Serwah Attafuah, who's far from alone in her call for improvements. Meanwhile, Ethereum, currently the most commonly used blockchain for NFTs, is transitioning to a mechanism which would be significantly more energy efficient.
The communal concern hasn't dampened creators' spirits though, and the sense of excitement and momentum in the crypto art world is palpable. "My hope for a better world is one where ‘digital art’ or ‘crypto art’ is just considered ‘art’ and appreciated in the same way fine art is -- with no need for extra identifiers," says kytten. "I’m hopeful blockchain technology will play a major role in that."