Bigger Than Beeple: NFTs, Digital Art and the Future of the Metaverse
A young artist documents his transition into the digital space and how crypto-art is changing the game for him and countless others.
Before COVID-19 hit, I had just finished displaying paintings at Art Basel, an art bonanza that sweeps Miami Beach by storm every December. The trip was my first big venture into the high-level art scene, and having my artwork on display across Wynwood and South Beach gave me an incredible sense of accomplishment.
As an emerging artist in New York, I felt this could be my moment.
Seeking out galleries, in-person showings and tangible artwork was the reality at the end of 2019. Then the coronavirus hit a few months later. All my shows for the year were canceled; galleries closed. I was left wondering where my career as an artist would go.
That’s when I started experimenting with digital art and the world of virtual reality.
The Art World Is Quickly Turning Into a Digital Space
The beauty of digital art is the affordability and the convenience. It's a more streamlined approach to expression—there are no costly supplies and no messy cleanup—and the images come out incredibly vibrant and clean. But the drawback has always been a complex question: “What do you do with the file when it’s done?” Sure, you could print it out, display and sell it, which is what most artists, including myself, do. But what is stopping someone from just downloading your art and printing it themselves?
Enter the world of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. I had heard about these way back in 2017 with the explosion of crypto kitties—cute little digital cats you could buy on the Ethereum network. Back then, I really didn’t see it as anything special. It was one of the earliest attempts at using blockchain technology for fun and leisure, but during the 2017 Bitcoin boom, these cuddly little drawings were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. I tossed it up to mania and never really looked into it. Until now.
Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple, has crushed sales in NFT art, surpassing over $100 million in sales. He sold his latest for a record $69 million. Other artists have followed suit, with pieces (often with cryptocurrency as their inspiration) selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Similar “meme” pieces, like the crypto kitties, have emerged, too.
The art project HashMasks has set the standard for some of the unique ways art can take form on the blockchain. Each portrait, inspired heavily by Jean-Michel Basquiat, has six different features—a character, a mask, an eye color, a skin tone and an item in the back. Each has a certain degree of rarity and comes with the ability to change the name of the piece within certain limits. Many HashMasks have paid homage to “meme” figures involved, like Elon Musk, Vitalik Buterin (the co-founder of Ethereum) or slogans around the crypto space.
More often than not, life-changing technology starts out very rudimentary. What begins as a meme or a joke or even something serious can blossom into a real solution for a sector. What makes NFTs special is they provide a solution to what gives assets value. Digital files, whether they be art or digital trading cards, can be easily reproduced and duplicated. NFT artwork can be “tokenized,” meaning the piece of digital art is put onto the blockchain, where it is verified, sourced and authenticated. The history of the owners is recorded, and you can ensure that the lineage of your artwork begins with the artist. What’s the difference between the Mona Lisa and a printout or a forgery? It all boils down to what gives something value—its originality.
For some, this all still sounds like science fiction. (Here’s another explainer if you’re still puzzled.) At a recent art show, the first time I’d had my work displayed since the pandemic began, I was chatting with other artists about NFTs. It’s still quite complicated to understand, and even more taxing to set up. It reminds me of the early interviews about the internet, where newscasters would joke about “electronic mail” and the novelty of buying something online. When a new technology first hits, it’s rarely user-friendly—it’s clunky, and most people dismiss it. With time comes refinements, and that’s what I see in store for NFT technology. Sure, the average user will have to look up tutorials on how to download a crypto wallet, how to exchange tokens, how to do any of these things. But the process is already being streamlined. Only a few years ago, it was incredibly complicated to even buy crypto. Now you can buy it on your cash app. These things take time.
Interactive Art Exhibitions Are the Next Emerging Experience
As an artist, what excites me the most is the “metaverse” around artwork of the future. I’m still interested in tangible art and displaying my canvases in real galleries. It would be hard to imagine a world without physical paintings, but I think there can, and will, be a growing shared space with digital art displays.
We’re already starting to see it now. Artechouse NYC is an interactive art exhibition, billed as an immersive audio and visual journey through fractals. It’s one of the first of its kind, a fusing of art and technology that allows users to explore many sensory experiences.
As enjoyable as a traditional gallery or museum can be, digitally-minded exhibitions provide a different experience altogether. My first time visiting one was at a Meow Wolf in New Mexico. It’s an immersive walkthrough art exhibit that guides you through different installations. Ever want to open your fridge in a mock apartment setup and enter into another realm? Or how about sliding down your washing machine into another world? Meow Wolf brings them to life. They’ve done an incredible job at combining the tangible world—crafting different places you can walk through and climb on—with technology and visual displays of art.
Another possibility I see emerging—and it already has to some extent—is virtual reality artwork. I recently purchased an Oculus during quarantine and noticed it had a drawing app that allows you to draw three-dimensional models inside a virtual world. The technology is still developing, but how incredible would it be to take a tour through worlds other artists create through a VR headset?
Through technology, the possibilities are endless for the artistic mind—as long as the artist and the consumer are both interested in sharing a different, complementary journey. The evolution of a metaverse, I think, is inevitable, both for the art world and our entire society. A shared space, a convergence of the physical world and the virtual world, will keep developing, especially as augmented reality and virtual reality constantly improve and trickle into every sector of our lives. Art will be its first frontier—and as an artist, I’m excited to start exploring these opportunities.
NFTs Might Bust, but They Have Long-Term Capabilities
Of course, art has always best been displayed on walls, which is why NFT technology will allow you to house your one-of-a-kind digital piece—complete with its certificate of authenticity—on a digital display on your wall. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently announced that he’s starting an online NFT art gallery, where collectors and artists can converge to display their pieces. Motivational speaker Gary Vaynerchuk has also been quite outspoken about NFTs and believes they’ll be here to stay, especially for the art and collectibles game.
It’s hard to imagine how many avenues there are for creativity. It’s like trying to predict where the internet would be back in 1999. Will this just boom and bust? It’s hard to say. I would think not. In the short term, most projects will fail, but the ones that succeed will have a lasting impact. NFT solves a true problem in society. We are increasingly dependent on tech, and with that comes the need for verified authentic content. It gives the power back to the artist, at least for now.
My one fear is the space will become too saturated too quickly, and will be seen as a get-rich-quick scheme. People are already making millions on NFT artwork, and everyone wants in, from Logan Paul to Lindsay Lohan. I see its potential being huge long-term for the art scene, but it will have to get past a lot of the current noise in the space.
So for now, I’m digging into this as much as I can. It's refreshing to have a secondary space to explore, aside from trying to get my work into shows and in-person galleries, which often come with red tape and exclusivity. It’s going to be up to the many emerging websites, like OpenSea or Nifty Gateway to ensure artists are able to have their work speak for itself, rather than the traditional art scene—which relies so heavily on networking and the right connections.
I tried for a month on OpenSea to get verified to sell my own NFTs, but they were swamped with requests. Eventually, they changed their policy so any artist's work would be instantly available without stringent verification processes. The space is still developing, and I’m here for the long haul.
I’ve still yet to sell my first NFT, but I’m optimistic about what the future holds. It might come here quicker than we think.