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Regional Interests

Here’s How Bay Area Artists Are Using NFTs—Beyond Memes and Million-Dollar Sales

Oakland photographer Brianna Mills didn’t know a ton about the worlds of blockchain and cryptocurrency when she minted her first non-fungible token, or NFT. But thanks to the support of an online community called Black Women Photographers and other artists on Twitter and Clubhouse, in May she sold her photograph Stormy Palm as an NFT for 0.25 Ethereum, equal to about $683 at the time of writing.

Like most NFT collectors, the new owner of Stormy Palm doesn’t receive a physical print. Nor do they get to claim the image’s copyright. Instead, a record of ownership is inscribed into a permanent log of data called the blockchain. The collector can keep the NFT or eventually resell it for a profit, at which point Mills could also earn a royalty—something artists in the United States don’t typically receive in the secondary art market when physical photographs, paintings or sculptures change hands.

“I wanna take off in this space because I’ve been interested in doing full-time photography,” Mills said. “If this is that stream of income that can get me there then I’m on board. I know people have been paying rent, they’ve been paying off loans—I’m interested in paying off my mortgage with this. There’s lots of opportunity for artists to set their price, talk that talk and find collectors in [another] audience.”

Some onlookers have regarded the NFT market as a bubble, with high-profile sales of digital files fetching head-scratching sums that defy the norms of the IRL art world. Seemingly out of nowhere, an artist named Beeple sold an NFT of a digital collage for a record-shattering $69 million, propelling him from Instagram phenom to one of the top-three biggest-selling living artists. Others have sold tweets and memes, like that GIF of a rainbow cat or the “Charlie Bit Me” video, for six-and seven-figure sums.

Beneath these upper-echelon auction prices, however, most NFT sales are much more modest. For Mills and an increasing number of up-and-coming artists, this new marketplace offers hope of meeting collectors and making sales using a peer-to-peer network, without as much reliance on the exclusionary gatekeeping of the traditional art world. And artists who have embraced this new format say it’s not just a fad—NFTs are already changing the way art is created and consumed.

Community is Essential to NFT Success

As with all things related to art, success at selling NFTs does depend on who you know. In most cases, it requires breaking into tight-knit online communities of blockchain and crypto investors and enthusiasts on Twitter and Clubhouse, and getting them to care about your work. In Mills’ case, in the Black Woman Photographers Slack channel, she met a well-connected New Jersey artist named Diana Sinclair.

Sinclair, who just wrapped up her junior year of high school, has become an advocate for Black women in the NFT space. Collectors and artists alike consider her a trusted voice. She invited Mills and other members of Black Women Photographers to Foundation, an NFT marketplace, and shouted out their work on Twitter. An hour after Sinclair tweeted a thread of NFTs by Black women artists, a generous collector purchased all the pieces she posted, including Mills’ Stormy Palm.

‘Stormy Palm’ by Brianna Mills sold as an NFT on the platform Foundation. (Courtesy of the artist)

“Through that people began trusting me as curator, as voice in the space and an advocate—I’ve been called fairy godmother,” says Sinclair, who’s had several successful Foundation sales of her own.

Sinclair’s burgeoning success in the NFT space is also a product of finding a supportive online community. She was introduced to NFTs by another artist named Itzel Yard; the two bonded over their shared Caribbean heritage, and Yard showed her how to use Foundation. (Since then, Yard created a digital piece that sold as an NFT for nearly 500 Ethereum, or almost $1.4 million at the time of writing, at a fundraiser). Inspired by Yard’s generosity with her time and knowledge, Sinclair decided to pay it forward to other Black women artists. Now the people she’s supported, including Mills, are doing the same.

“I sold my piece because of community,” says Mills, adding that she found additional support in a Clubhouse room called Black NFT Artists. “It wasn’t sold because I was shilling my piece in all the Twitter threads—that wasn’t really getting me anywhere. It was after talking to people.”

“I was able provide a [Foundation] invite to two other women after I minted,” she adds. “I think the funding piece is the last bit that will help us all uplift one another and feel like we have an equitable piece of this NFT space.”

‘I am the Black God of the Sun’ by Diana Sinclair sold as an NFT on Foundation. (Courtesy of the artist)

“There’s just something about selling NFTs—someone is buying stock in you as a person or as a creator, and it’s pretty magical to just have someone who believes in you that much,” says Castro Valley painter Gabe Weis, who has sold over 100 digitized versions of his paintings on the platform OpenSea for the average price of 0.6 Ethereum, or about $1,600 at the time of publication. He says his collectors include people he’s gotten to know at in-person galleries and on Clubhouse, investors who plan to flip his work for profit and even an art collector traveling the country in a van, who doesn’t have space for physical paintings.

“People see that I’m really in tune with the [NFT] community, trying to build the community at every opportunity—and I’ve been painting for 20 years, so it’s not [like] I’m going to be here today and gone tomorrow,” he says, adding that he believes that the vast majority of artists will be selling NFTs in the next 10 years. “I think it’s inevitable that every artist will eventually get into it because they’re gonna see other people getting royalties, they’re gonna see them getting to sell work all around the world without shipping all around the world.”

Weis thinks NFTs might be to visual art what Soundcloud was to music almost 10 years ago: a way to bypass traditional gatekeepers and create alternate pathways to success. Weis is connecting and sharing knowledge with other artists on Clubhouse rooms such as Bay Area NFT, where he has connected with other idealists who believe in blockchain’s potential to create a more equitable society by diminishing the power of large banks and other corporations. NFTs and cryptocurrencies exist on networks that allow peer-to-peer transactions without third-party apps and companies; the ledger of transactions is public and permanent, which advocates argue make commerce more efficient and transparent.

“We can interact without third parties, without a conglomerate like a bank basically storing and owning our money and then spending our money on things we don’t agree with necessarily—like running oil pipelines through Native land, for instance,” says Oakland muralist Bud Snow, who has been investing in cryptocurrency for years. (Playboy recently shouted her out on Twitter in a list of a women NFT artists to watch.)

“A lot of big banks are in support of the military and wars in other countries over oil,” she adds. “There are all these vested interests that these third parties have … that the blockchain is completely disrupting. That is the part that gets my blood rushing—more than the money, more than the volatility of these coins, I’m interested in what the blockchain is going to do for people when they embrace it.”

“I think it has one of the best opportunities to really lift up communities that have traditionally not benefitted from the art world,” says Weis. “I think the second that people like me have resources—who come from community organizing, who come from wanting to help people from traditionally under-resourced parts of the Bay—that’s when real change can happen.”

Some Traditional Art-World Rules Still Apply

Although the NFT marketplace has opened up new lanes, of course, traditional art world connections also come in handy. (The 255-year-old auction house Christie’s was responsible for that $69 million Beeple sale, after all.) Oakland freelance illustrator Tony Foti, whose clients include Disney, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and Star Wars, recently created a piece for Eminem’s NFT auction, ShadyCon.

Foti got the gig after Eminem’s team approached his agent at IllustrationX in search of an artist who draws in a fantasy/comic book style. Foti’s illustrated Eminem trading cards became part of a bundle of art work by several artists that Eminem sold on the platform Nifty Gateway for nearly $1.8 million. Although Foti couldn’t say how much he was paid, he says it was a flat rate larger than even his other high-profile commissions.

“Eminem’s name is really the drawing factor—it’s him that is why everyone is over there going nuts over that stuff,” he says.

Eminem commissioned Oakland illustrator Tony Foti to draw trading cards for Eminem, which the rapper sold as part of a bundle of artwork in an NFT auction for $1.8 million. (ShadyCon)

Foti says that he believes NFTs have the potential to stick around in the art world long-term, but he thinks hype may die down, and prices along with it. “Right now while it’s all in the news, I think the numbers are going to be higher,” he says.

Transforming IRL Art Experiences Into NFTs

NFTs have been praised for creating a new market for digital art, a medium rarely sold in commercial galleries or exhibited in museums. But artists in the Bay Area and beyond are also thinking of ways to create in-person art experiences that can be sold as NFTs. One area of opportunity is murals and street art.

Weis has come on as an informal consultant for an ambitious NFT project headed up by Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith, who recently made headlines with her Women of the Black Panther Party mural. She and a group of artists are working with Assan Jethmal of Endeavors Oakland, an organization that facilitates events, murals and other projects by diverse artists and creative businesses.

With public viewing dates to be announced, their forthcoming installation takes over a concrete-walled, cavernous space on the fifth floor of the historic Tribune Tower with murals by Wolfe-Goldsmith, Bud Snow, Vogue TDK, Jet Martinez and Joshua Mays and a photo installation by Ruff Draft, a.k.a. Brandon Ruffin—all big names in the Bay Area art scene. The fifth floor will be open to the public for viewings and events. And a 3D scan of the entire space will be sold as an NFT, along with behind-the-scenes video content by Yoram Savion and Ben Tarquin.

“I’m deeply invested in creating artwork with amazing people, so that kind of is the story here,” Wolfe-Goldsmith says as she shows me around the space. “We have an amazing multi-cultural spread from many different walks of life, so it’s been so powerful to have these minds in this room together and be thinking about what’s possible.”

“[NFTs] put the artist in full control of their work—who they want to market it to, where they want to put it,” she adds.

Video still of Bud Snow painting a mural based on a design that sold as an NFT on OpenSea. (Courtesy of the artist)

The Tribune Tower project continues the way Snow has been exploring the connection between NFTs and physical space; on the platform OpenSea, she sells mural designs as NFTs that she then paints on physical walls once they’re purchased.

“That collector becomes patron of public art because the purchase of their file goes toward a real, physical piece going up in the public,” adding that she’s painting one that recently sold for the equivalent of $1,000 on a wall on San Pablo Avenue and 46th Street in Emeryville. “I feel like that’s a collaboration in itself.”

Environmental Concerns and Barriers to Entry

Despite the air of excitement, optimism and abundance surrounding NFTs, there are some drawbacks, including concerns about fraud. Some NFT platforms don’t require sellers to prove they own the work, and some artists have found their work up for sale without their permission. Much like independent fashion designers who have little recourse when a fast-fashion company rips off their product, the onus falls on digital artists to file a complaint if they catch someone else selling their work.

Money is another barrier to entry. Artists are required to pay what are called “gas fees” for minting their NFTs, and those can fluctuate throughout the day from tens to hundreds of dollars based on the value of the cryptocurrency the platform uses.

And then there’s the energy cost: it takes an exorbitant amount of power to run the computer network that supports the blockchain. Some artists are boycotting NFTs for environmental reasons, while others are investing in more environmentally friendly platforms. In May, the Ethereum Foundation, a nonprofit that supports blockchain research and development, pledged to change their infrastructure to cut energy consumption by 99.5%.

“I’m still skeptical,” says Oakland rapper Silas Wilson, a.k.a. Ovrkast. “When something that’s not environmentally friendly has money fueling it, it’s not a good combination.”

He minted an NFT on the eco-conscious site Hic Et Nunc, which uses the digital currency Tezos. But both the site and the currency have much less of a draw than the NFT platforms using Ethereum, which is the second-most valuable cryptocurrency after Bitcoin. In Ovrkast’s case, he sold two pieces for about $10 each.

Still, reports on the environmental toll of NFTs hasn’t slowed the market. The majority of users seem to be willing to overlook it in the same way people make peace with driving, buying fast fashion and eating red meat.

To many of the artists I spoke with, NFTs represent a way to get some of their power back in an industry that often undervalues their contributions and labor.

“It fits so perfectly into my ethos and what I believe in, which is artists in control of their own power—having control over their sales, having control over their money,” Snow says. “And having the opportunity to collaborate with artists, new galleries and old galleries, but in a more equitable way.”

Copyright 2021 KQED