What is CryptoArt?
In my first post on the blockchain and art I declared that "The Blockchain Art Market is Here." In this new article, I make the argument that art native to the blockchain has its own aesthetic and represents a new and important movement within art. I call this movement/aesthetic CryptoArt.
CryptoArt are rare digital artworks, sometimes described as digital trading cards or "rares", associated with unique and provably rare tokens that exist on the blockchain. The concept is based on the idea of digital scarcity, which allows you to buy, sell, and trade digital goods as if they were physical goods. This system works due to the fact that, like Bitcoins and other cryptocurrency, CryptoArt exist in limited quantity. Popular early examples include CryptoKitties, CryptoPunks, Rare Pepe, CurioCards, and Dada.nyc.
While no single CryptoArtist or CryptoArtwork adheres to a single definition, I believe it is helpful to look at a series of common factors that have shaped the aesthetic and community thus far.
- Digitally Native: For the first time, artwork can be created, editioned, bought, and sold digitally.
- Geographically Agnostic: Empowered by the internet, artists participate from all over the world. CryptoArt is the first truly global art movement.
- Democratic/Permissionless: Everyone is encouraged to participate regardless of skills, training, class, gender, race, age, creed, etc.
- Decentralized: Tools and guidelines are designed to reduce the power of gatekeepers and middlemen and increase the autonomy of artists.
- Anonymous: Use of pseudonyms allows artists to create and sell art while staying anonymous (if preferred), freeing them from social judgment.
- Memetic: CryptoArt are often literally memes valued for their ability to spread quickly. The difference? The "Meme Economy" is now a reality.
- Self-Referential: CryptoArtists often play with references to key events and personalities within cryptocurrency and blockchain culture.
- CryptoPatrons: CryptoArt is collected by the CryptoRich: a group of savvy technologists and investors who got into cryptocurrency early.
- Pro-Artist: Blockchain platforms often take little to no commission from artists. Artists are often remunerated for every future sale of a single work.
- Dankness: Because CryptoArt is open to everyone, judging it by traditional artistic standards kills what is great about it. Instead, it is best to judge CryptoArt by "dankness" or potency of expression and creativity.
Who Are The CryptoArtists?
I categorize CryptoArtists into two main categories: tech-savvy artists and self-trained artists.
Tech-savvy: These are the artists who were tech-savvy enough on their own (or worked with tech-savvy partners) to launch their own controlled, limited, rare digital art. These include artists like Guile Gaspar from CryptoKitties and John Watkinson, the artist behind CryptoPunks.
Self-trained: These are artists who are typically untrained, or more appropriately, self-trained. On a personal level, I am most bullish on the long-term potential and impact of the second category of CryptoArtists. These artists have been empowered through democratic platforms designed to empower anyone to function as an artist. The platforms typically provide the CrytpoArtists with the tools needed for creating, buying, and selling their work on the blockchain in a real marketplace with little to no commission taken out by a third party. Key to this new breed of CryptoArtists is a group of creative technologists building the platforms for them to use. Let's take a look a few of the most important CryptoArt platforms and the artwork and artists associated with them.
What is Dada.nyc
Beatriz Helena Ramos or "Bea" is a professionally trained artist and the founder of Dada.nyc. Bea is literally overflowing with positive creative energy. It's easy to root for her and her team at Dada.nyc because there is no question that they are in it for the art and the artists. Bea believes that everyone is an artist, so when I say she is in it for the artists, she is quite literally in it for everyone.
Dada.nyc got its start as a collaborative drawing application. The drawing tools are built into the application, and anyone can create and share artwork on the platform. They have created a large and vibrant community of self-taught artists and recently added the ability to purchase artwork by this community via the blockchain.
Bea explained to me that:
We are building a self-sustaining community. Therefore, we'll use our 30% share of the profits to keep funding development of the platform, as well as funding art projects for our community. I think is important for people to know that is not a cut for profits, rather is a 30% that goes back into the community.
There are many talented realist artists in the community, but when measuring art in a new democratic and decentralized platform, I don't think realism is the best criteria to judge the work. I favor raw expression and truth to materials - in this case, pixels.
I thought about writing a few paragraphs trying to place this art in the context of graffiti art or artists like Kenny Scharf, Jean Michel Basquiat, Kieth Haring, etc., but the work does not need me to speak for it - it speaks loudly for itself.
Norma Xelda Jara
You can see from the three artists above that there is quite a range of work but what I like about these three is that they have a distinct style that works within the restrictions of the tool. Each of these artists and many more at Dada.nyc deserve more space than I can give them in a single post. I strongly encourage to check out the site and to support the artists - they will personally thank you.
What are Rare Pepes
You can't talk about CryptoArt without talking about Rare Pepes. The Rare Pepe meme is the real origin of much of CryptoArt's culture, aesthetic, and technology. But until recently, I only knew of Pepe the Frog as a meme co-opted by the alt-right as a hate symbol. Before I could feel comfortable writing about Rare Pepe, I needed to understand what role he played in this diverse, accepting, community of Rare Pepe enthusiasts. Jason Rosenstein of Archetype.mx ran the first live Rare Pepe Auction which was held at the inaugaral Rare Digital Art Festival. He described it to me this way:
"...the community that's formed in Telegram with over 1,500 members... in that chat we never speak about there being the alt-right association because we have always associated it with creativity. Before it was used for negativity in media, it was just a method to express anything. It started with Happy Pepe, and from there it took leaps in derivations from Happy Pepe to Sad Pepe to Smug Pepe to Angry Pepe. I think it is at that point where the alt-right started using him to express their hatred towards certain things. In our community, we don't tolerate that at all. It has happened that someone has jumped into the chat room and said something, but it's immediately deleted and that user is banned from ever being able to use the chat again.
Convinced the Rare Pepe communities goals were far from hate-based and rooted in creativity, I felt comfortable digging in further.
I reached out to Joe Looney, innovative technologist and creator of the Rare Pepe Wallet to help me better understand Rare Pepe. As the developer behind the Rare Pepe Wallet, there is a strong argument to be made for Joe as the father of the CryptoArt movement.
Joe explained to me that Rare Pepes are the perfect meme for the rare digital art application because the whole inside joke behind Rare Pepe is that "there where these rare digital Pepes, and in some cases, you couldn't show them because they were too rare." But with blockchain, digital scarcity, and Joe's invention of the Rare Pepe Wallet, Pepes really are provably rare, sellable artworks.
According to Joe the community started when a guy who goes only by the name "Mike" (@nola1978) created the first Rare Pepe by pairing a Rare Pepe image with a counterparty asset. A Telegram chat group was soon created as a result of others wanting to pair their Rare Pepes with counterparty assets. The breakthrough came when Joe used a technology called CounterParty to make it possible to buy and sell Rare Pepes on the Decentralized Exchange (or the DEX) to make it possible to buy, sell, and trade them.
Joe explained that the easiest way to think of Rare Pepes is like Garbage Pail Kids trading cards from the '80s, but instead of having a handful of artists, everyone is welcome to submit Rare Pepe artwork to be bought and sold. Once submitted, the artwork is reviewed by the Rare Pepe Foundation, frequently referred to as the "Scientists," to make sure it meets their set of nine rules:
1) Pepes must be 400 x 560 pixels. They can look like trading cards, but it is not required.
2) Cards can be animated GIFs, but keep them to 1. 5 MB or less in size. Use compression.
2) Issuance must be LOCKED so your Pepe cannot be inflated.
3) Your Pepe must not be divisible. <— make sure!!
4) Make sure your artwork at least has something to do with Pepe.
5) No NSFW content please. Trying to be keep it light for now. (Pepe has a lot of bad press). If in doubt, message @nola1978 on Telegram before creating your asset.
6) When making your token it must have at least 100 shares and max 100k shares.
7) No websites or QR codes.
8) Only one submission per day per artist. We want to have variety.
9) Please allow 24 to 48 hours before bothering our experts about your submission.
They think of these rules as a spam filter. They are not trying to tell people what is good art and bad art.
The really groundbreaking and important thing to understand here is that Joe does not take a commission from the artist. Anyone can create a Rare Pepe, submit it for inclusion, and offer as many copies as they want for sale and at any price they want to sell it. And they are now selling for tens of thousands of dollars. At the Rare Digital Art festival in NYC last weekend, Homer Pepe, a one-of-one Rare Pepe CryptoArtwork broke a record in a live auction selling for $39k USD (350k in Pepe Cash). In less than an hour the auction cleared ~$100k in CryptoArt.
Joe continues to innovate in the CryptoArt space and push the envelope. By pairing the concept of an access token (an application from counterparty) to Rare Pepe and CryptoArt in general, Joe has made it possible to tie a song or a video game back to a Rare Pepe. Joe thinks of this as bonus content, or a VIP pass tied to a particular Rare Pepe card. It's a non-sharable link, masked and tied to a particular computer, that makes this extra content exclusively available to the owner of that specific piece of CryptoArt. This expands the art from being image-based to being multimedia-based. As Joe put it, you can't really do much with traditional art - but with CryptoArt, the sky is the limit. It can include music, video games, and goods that are useable in other games. By comparison, traditional art materials start to look limited in nature.
Another feature Joe pioneered is the Rare Pepe gift card. This allows you to create a Rare Pepe gift card that you use to send a Pepe to someone who currently does not have a account. All the recipient needs to do is go to the site and type in the code on the card, with no need to get Bitcoins.
Joe mentioned that one of his favorite artists is DaVinci. Davinci lives in Japan and owns a drone shop. A few examples of his work below:
Some of the Rare Pepe insiders were nice enough to let me tag along for dinner and drinks after the Rare Digital Art Festival. I asked Rare Pepe artist ICQ, the Jeff Koons of Rare Pepe, if he was concerned about the perception of Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol. He put it to me this way:
“I am a black man from Texas. Do you really think I would be this involved with Rare Pepe if he was alt-right? He is a meme, he was co-opted. The swasticka was an ancient symbol co-opted by Hitler. It’s the same thing. The difference is this time we are taking Pepe back.”
Like Koons, ICQ conceives of ideas for Rare Pepes and pays artists to execute on them. This may be an important spot to point out that for the uninitiated, it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell which artists made which Pepes.
I know that the BLAINPEPE above is was commissioned by ICQ and Executed by Mr. Hansel, as he also has some of his work on Saatchi Art. But part of what is unique about the CryptArt aesthetic is that the work is often bought and sold completely anonymously. Yes, this can lead to offensive submissions, but NSFW Rare Pepes are rejected per rule number 5.
"No NSFW content please. Trying to be keep it light for now. (Pepe has alot of bad press). If in doubt message @nola1978 on telegram before creating your asset."
I believe that anonymity also drives positive creativity within the Rare Pepe community, as well. Most people think of some weird and interesting thoughts that we tend to hold back for fear of judgment - with Rare Pepe, those thoughts find a home.
As with the Dada.nyc artists, my preference when judging the artistic merit of Rare Pepe as CryptoArt is less about technical merit and more about expression and creativity. I do, though, find myself drawn to the animated GIF Rare Pepe. Here are a few of my favorites.
Based on the ~$100k in Rare Pepe sold in the live Rare Digital Art Festival, it looks like the business of creating, buying, and selling Rare Pepes is booming.
A reasonable question to ask is if these artists will find their way into the more traditional art market. I asked Jess Houlgrave, cofounder and COO at Codex Protocol, her thoughts. Jess recently finished a Masters at Sotheby's Institute of Art where she wrote her dissertation "Blockchain: A Critical Assessment Of Use Within The Art Ecosystem." You can and should read excerpts of Jess's research here. Jess is uniquely positioned to weigh in on the intersection of the traditional art world and blockchain. She shared her thoughts as follows:
"It’s really exciting that there is so much value being attributed to blockchain-based art. It shows that blockchain can play a really important role in helping digital art become more prominent. Blockchain provides a way to create digital scarcity, which means artists can, for the first time, create unique digital works and therefore monetize their work more effectively than ever before."
I tend to agree with Jess. I would add that while the traditional art world is dipping its toe into blockchain technology, the real innovation is currently happening in the CryptoCulture. If you want to know where art and the art market is going, keep a close eye on the CryptoArt community.
As I mentioned, I struggled with how to address the alt-right concerns around Rare Pepes and Pepe the Frog. Many of the recent articles in the mainstream media opt to leave out Rare Pepe in the story of CryptoArt - to me, that is like writing about the play Hamlet without mentioning Hamlet. Having spent the day and then partying long into the night with the Pepe-insider crowd, I can say I have never met a more diverse and immediately accepting group. Pepe has been used for some really horrible things, but from what I saw firsthand, that is not what this group, who I would now consider friends, is about.
This post started as a recap of the Rare Digital Art festival, an amazing event that was put on at no cost to attendees. I decided to write it less as a news story about the festival and more as an evergreen piece exploring what CryptoArt actually is. That said, I want to thank the organizers of the festival for an amazing event. I'd encourage you to read the excellent recap of the festival written by Ian Allison in IBT.
Finally, Beatriz Helena Ramos, Joe Looney, Jason Rosenstein, Jess Houlgrave and many others have been incredibly generous to me with their time and friendship, and I would like to thank them warmly for that. While it is impossible to get the entire story of CryptoArt into a single post, I hope that I have done justice to the community. I look forward to writing future posts that dive deeper into the lengthy interviews I have conducted with these and other folks in the community. Thank you for reading, if you have other ideas for stories around the intersection of art and data you can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are interested in learning more about art on the blockchain check out my podcast, "Dank Rares" where I interview the pioneers in the blockchain art world. You can find it here on Soundcloud and you can also subscribe on iTunes here.