“I was able to buy a house” has become the maxim that captures how NFTs have changed the lives of crypto artists. It is indisputable that artists who embraced the technology and have been able to sell NFTs, particularly early on, have benefited economically. Artists tweet about purchasing houses, cars, paying off mortgages, or finally not worrying about making the rent. Everybody loves to hear these stories of success, but they are not the only narrative. Artists currently entering the crypto art space have no guarantee that they will be able to sell an NFT, nor that they will find collectors nor an audience. The NFT ecosystem is a highly competitive arena that rewards longevity in the community, strong social media, and an existing fan base. The majority of artists go unseen, forced to compete for attention in a space teeming with collectibles that dominate the conversation. Media coverage of the crypto art space focuses exclusively on million-dollar sales or the latest celebrities looking to join the bandwagon.
But there are other meaningful ways in which NFTs affect the lives of artists. Certain aspects of the decentralized, digital, peer-to-peer character of crypto art are as influential as its financial windfall and have deeper and longer-lasting implications for artists’ lives and careers. The NFT bounty lies in more than just money.
DADA was founded in 2014 as a digital platform for artists from all over the world to engage in visual conversation in a space devoted to artistic expression. It gave people a place to draw freely and safely; to express themselves creatively; and to connect with others through drawing; all of which have enormous intrinsic value beyond the purely monetary. It wasn’t until we discovered blockchain that we found a way to effectively capture the value of this art for the community. When we released our seminal “Creeps & Weirdos” (2017) collection three years later, we had already built a strong community defined by priceless social, emotional, and creative value.
Other than Beatriz Ramos, the creator of DADA, none of the 30 artists whose work was minted for Creeps & Weirdos had ever heard of blockchain. Ranging from fine artists and art teachers to commercial illustrators and gifted enthusiasts, many struggled to live off their art. Onboarding them to the world of rare art, as NFTs were called at the time, also proved challenging. The basic concepts of cryptocurrency and decentralized wallets, and the idea that digital art might hold value like physical art were hard to grasp. Now that NFTs are becoming more mainstream (and “you too could make $69 million selling one”), perhaps these core concepts are more comprehensible. Back then, the new socioeconomic paradigm of NFTs, which was unlike anything that existed in the traditional art world whether fine or commercial, had yet to be proven. It required a radical change of mindset.
The Creeps & Weirdos smart contract was the first to include artists’ royalties on-chain. Back in 2017, the collection’s artists made modest amounts from sales. During last year’s NFT boom, some Creeps & Weirdos artists received a substantial windfall. I asked several DADA artists, some of them Creeps & Weirdos veterans, and other more recent entrants to the DADA community, how their lives had been impacted by NFTs. Did they feel this impact in monetary, social, political, ideological, emotional, or creative ways? Although they have all experienced some form of monetary benefit, not one viewed the influence of NFTs as solely financial. In fact, their economic impact was only the second most important influence. The artists felt that the biggest influence of NFTs on their lives was creative.
María García is the most prolific artist on DADA, where she has been drawing since long before the Creeps & Weirdos. She is a hairstylist from Cumaná, Venezuela. María understood the lifeline that crypto art could provide: She was living with her mother at the car wash where María washed cars by hand, in a country with a broken economy. She started by making art and selling it on Rarible. The combination of rampant Venezuelan inflation and gains in Ethereum allowed her to save substantially. One day, to her horror, her phone’s digital wallet was hacked. Yet she soldiered on, recouped the losses, and ultimately bought a house to live in with her mother.
Such heartwarming stories of success are inspiring but they are as reductive as the $69 million dollar narrative. What is important about María’s story is not that she bought a house, but that she exemplifies how this technology can level the playing field under the right conditions. María didn’t speak English, which is essential to setting up a marketplace or applying to a curated one. However, she had one advantage: Community. She could turn to her DADA family for help in navigating the process. She could have asked for donations. But instead, she asked for practical advice. Some of her DADA colleagues helped her set up accounts on different marketplaces; others collaborated with her by tokenizing skateboard designs. Today she says that NFTs helped her improve her quality of life in a country where the economy is in tatters.
The crypto art community includes people from all walks of life, like María. It includes women, who tend to be overlooked and undervalued, and people from all over the world who lack the privilege often afforded by urban life. Yet it is also dominated by best-selling artists who are mostly male and mostly from the developed world. They are not necessarily more talented, original, or hardworking, but they have many more advantages, and they attract more attention. Efforts to diversify the crypto art community are essential not only to ensure greater fairness and inclusiveness but because cultural diversity enriches the ecosystem with an art of greater depth and dimensionality, which in turn produces a more culturally relevant, and a more vibrant global art movement.
Simon Wairiuko has been drawing on DADA since 2017. He lives on a farm in Nyandarua, Kenya. His focus and experience are different from the preoccupations voiced by most crypto artists. “With NFTs, I get to gift people a piece of me, and through the few people that either commission work or buy some of my creations, I use the income to purchase land and develop it to have a positive impact on the whole world. Being a crypto artist helped me establish a small start-up which helps to pay my college loan. Perhaps the greatest change is enabling me the freedom to give back to the community by making efforts in carbon sequestration through reforestation and permaculture, things I couldn’t have done if I were struggling to make ends meet. This year I am planning to plant 2000 trees, with the contributions of artists MLIBTY, Mar Espi, and DADA to my little website.” Alongside Serena Stelitano, a Creeps & Weirdos artist from Italy, also a farmer, Simon is implementing regrò, a program of regenerative farming that calculates the carbon impact of DADA’s energy consumption and converts it into reforestation and other actions to mitigate climate change — NFTs with a conscience.
For Italian artist Isa Kost, the social aspect of NFTs is the most valuable. “NFTs have allowed me to meet people who are now important in my life, with whom I have relationships of respect, trust, and friendship. They have also allowed me to live a little more financially free in the sense that I have been able to cut back on my work as a commissioned graphic designer in order to devote myself to art.”
Mexican artist Mr. Monk shares that view. “NFTs allowed me to survive the pandemic, not only economically, but because of the social interaction. I have made friends and worked on collaborations with people from all over the world. Without this, I could not have endured the isolation.” For him, NFTs also have an ideological potency: He sees crypto art as “a first approach of how blockchain could change the world as we know it. NFTs are the one practical use case that helps attract more eyeballs to crypto, beyond trading coins.”
His countryman Moxarra made his name as one of the very first NFT artists when one of his Creeps was featured in Jason Bailey’s seminal article on blockchain art in late 2017. Despite struggling initially with crypto literacy, today Moxarra is one of the most recognized crypto artists. He has minted art on seven platforms besides DADA and has a global community of fans and collectors. He had a first mover’s advantage but he continues building community by onboarding artists, collaborating, and giving back generously. He feels that while NFTs have allowed him to make a living without having to worry about the price of things, their biggest impact is creative since he is forced to develop fresh ideas for the NFTs — whether private or commissioned — that he mints every week.
For Javier Errecarte, another Creeps & Weirdos artist, the combination of financial freedom and a strong drive to create have produced a state of artistic freedom. He is a graphic designer, writer, actor, and director. Though it took time to find his way into NFTs, last year he created “The New Normality” (2021), a series of animated NFTs that allowed him to stop struggling for a living. “I paid my debts, moved to a new apartment, I can now travel, I eat better and I invested a lot in materials to work on illustration, animation, film, and music. I live with a lot less stress. NFTs let me make a living from what I really want to do.”
In countries like Venezuela and Cuba, NFTs can have a profound impact besides the economic benefit. NOVUS SPHYNX is very active in the burgeoning crypto art community in Cuba. One can imagine what the sale of NFTs means to artists living under such difficult economic and political conditions. For SPHYNX, however, their biggest impact is creative: “Freeing me from the burden of political correctness and of social and institutional censorship, my creative work has exploded in every dimension. My conscious life was subordinated to institutional criteria and centralized norms, thinking that being competent meant being enmeshed in eternal competition with my colleagues. Being a crypto artist made me believe again in disinterested cooperation and dedication to the common good. I am at peace enjoying my work and creative process, and it made me break with having to charge for my work through antiquated, dysfunctional institutions.”
With the royalties he made from the sales of his Creeps & Weirdos last summer, Cromomaníaco, a Venezuelan artist living in Chile, was able to help his parents emigrate and join him after a seven-year absence. But he also speaks of the empowerment that NFTs afford him. “Now I am my own gallerist, and I decide what to show without other people’s filters. My economic independence allows me to set the price I think my work is worth. I used to charge what “clients could afford to pay.” Besides giving me great satisfaction, this takes me out of the vicious circle of having to charge low prices even though the art is worth it.”
Vanesa Stati is a Creeps & Weirdos veteran who lives in Patagonia. For her, NFTs have opened up a world of artistic exposure and collaboration. “I’ve been in DADA since the beginning of crypto time, and I participated in WOCA (Women of Crypto Art) and MOE (Mothers of ETH) so crypto art has allowed me both to be the voice and the engine of sociopolitical change in a completely unforeseen environment, even with my language limitations. I have been able to participate in great collaborations with extremely talented artists and we have shown these works in places that once seemed unreachable to me, like LED screens in Times Square, the Tate Modern in London, and virtual galleries in Cryptovoxels, Async Art, and Superrare. For me, it’s a dream to be a friend and colleague of these artists without ever having gone to art school.”
These artists have mostly good things to say about NFTs. Yet they also acknowledge their pitfalls, admitting a tension between making and selling and the anxiety that comes from the longing for exposure and success. For Simon Wairiuko, “sometimes as crypto artists, we get so carried away with making money that we forget the goal, which is value and community. I balance this by creating if and when I want to and not because of the pressure.”
All are excited to continue exploring new platforms, new media, and new collaborations. Because, for crypto artists, the true bounty of NFTs lies in the opportunity for creation, innovation, and belonging to a supportive community of your peers.
Yehudit Mam is a writer and the co-founder of dada.art. Her first novel Quién te manda is being published as an NFT on The Platform in 2022.