The Non-Fungible Token: Empowering Artists Who Embrace It
NFTs are tokens that we can use to represent ownership of unique items. They let us tokenise things like art, collectibles, even real estate. They can only have one official owner at a time and they’re secured by the Ethereum blockchain – no one can modify the record of ownership or copy/paste a new NFT into existence.
—Ethereum.org, accessed April 4, 2022.
While we have confidence in our online bank statement or a $5 bill, the concept of cryptocurrency leaves many of us anxiously chewing our fingernails with knitted brow—for good reason. It takes time to trust new monetary systems. And while this article does not intend to unlock the myriad complexities of the fast-moving world of digital currency, it will take a closer look at how the unregulated wild west of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) is giving artists new opportunities to showcase and support their work.
An NFT is essentially provenance for a piece of artwork: a digital certificate of authentication that is purchased with cryptocurrency and stored in that currency’s blockchain ledger, wherein all transactions surrounding it are tracked. Just like there’s only one real Mona Lisa, there’s only one NFT associated with that Space Doodle, Gh0stly Gh0st or Tubby Cat, and no matter how many times people right-click and download one of those images, they don’t own the NFT. That forlorn little JPEG is an orphan of sorts.
“You can’t cash it in,” says multi-disciplinary visual artist mr.soul216 of a stand-alone JPEG. “You can’t borrow against it.” Unlike a JPEG image or file, he points out, an NFT is a digital asset. “Assets have value,” and an NFT’s value is as volatile as its associated cryptocurrency; it will go up or down much like gold, silver, and stocks do in their respective markets.
“As the model behind web3.0, NFTs, and blockchain technology become more and more acceptable, the volatility will decrease,” he adds, “and as these technologies grow, so shall the value.” As of April 7, mr.soul216 has sold three NFTs and his current offerings can be found on marketing platforms such as KnownOrigin and Foundation.
The volatility of an NFT’s cryptocurrency may be outside of the artist’s control, but they do have complete power over other aspects of the market. Most notably, NFTs are free from the gallery space and its accompanying commissions.
“Artists have always had to utilize middle men and brokers to realize the full potential value of their work,” says mr.soul216. He should know. His decades-long career in branding, illustration and work with celebrities has included clients such as Interscope Records, Ludacris, and Serena Williams, among many others.
“Let’s take a gallery scenario,” he says. “I spend a year preparing a body of work and then the gallery is going to take 30 to 50 percent of my money.” mr.soul216 acknowledges those funds support marketing, the physical space, and other overhead costs. But now, he adds, “I can curate a body of work in the NFT marketplace/gallery and realize all the rewards without the need of a middleman. “That has definitely changed the game.”
mr.soul216 continues: “Galleries are going to have to reposition their model because the paradigm is shifting,” he says, conceding that, “I am not a gallery owner. My gauge is going to always lean toward creators.”
While free from the constraints of a gallery, NFT transactions are not free. They’re accompanied by “gas” fees, which cover costs for the energy required for computers to validate them within the blockchain. They’re also volatile, but just how volatile? It’s complicated, so DYOR* (do your own research—a ubiquitous directive in the crypto world), but be warned: It’s complicated.
Fees notwithstanding, opportunities for revenue within the NFT world don’t stop with eliminating commissions. Enter the smart contract, which, frankly, might have you wondering why such a phenomenon wasn’t common long before the mysterious world of NFTs and cryptocurrency floated down upon us.
When an NFT is minted for sale (essentially uploaded to a marketplace), the artist can attach a smart contract to it, the terms of which maintain the artist’s monetary relationship with the work in perpetuity by specifying a royalty for every subsequent sale.
Collage artist Perris Mackey got into the NFT realm after watching his friend, photographer Karen Jerzyk make inroads into the space. “What I thought was so cool about it is that she was making secondary sales after the initial sale,” says Mackey, whose NFT offerings on Foundation include high-resolution JPEGs of his evocative collages. He has sold two NFTs to date.
“Through the smart contract, you can set a percentage of royalties if your NFT is sold again after that first transaction,” he says, adding that as a traditional artist, he was not getting those same opportunities: Once a work was sold, that was the end of it. Not so with a smart contract NFT. “That’s kind of the whole reason why I started to find out what NFTs were about.”
For visual artist Arabella Proffer, the dive into NFT’s had another unique appeal. “I’m out of inventory and it’s really hard for me to paint right now,” says the award-winning gallery artist who is battling terminal cancer. “This is a great way to keep selling art even if there is no physical art.” Many of her NFT offerings are JPEGs of works in her portfolio and include unlockable content. “It’s a way for me to make a living.”
She continues: “This is like another opportunity for my art to live on. It’s definitely a way to preserve my legacy digitally.” The associated smart contracts ensure all subsequent royalties from the sales are routed per her wishes forever. At the time of this writing, Proffer’s available NFT collections include Brite Beauties, The Ornate Acids, and FuzzCats. She’s sold eight NFTs as of April 7.
In addition to straightforward sales, both Proffer and Mackey intend to explore charitable contributions through NFTs. Proffer aims to partner with The NFTits Club, which bills itself as supporting “socially impactful, female-led projects of 2022 in support of women’s health and empowerment.” Mackey hopes to back R.A.K.E. (Random Acts of Kindness Everywhere), whose mission is “to support the community in a positive way. We want to enrich lives, encourage kindness, and promote the act of ‘paying it forward.'” Hurdles remain, however. Some associated organizations have yet to establish crypto wallets.
There are not-so-delectable components of the NFT world. On April 6, less than two weeks after the infamous Oscars Will Smith “slap,” NFT marketplace OpenSea had more than 4000 listings (auctions and buy-it-now items) depicting the event. The ongoing debate over the environmental impact of NFTs is entirely too complex to summarize here, but suffice it to say that the computations that ensconce cryptocurrency data into their respective blockchains take up considerable energy, with some estimates indicating a single NFT transaction “requires as much energy as a typical household uses in a day and half.”
Ironically, the three artists interviewed for this article constantly touted a component of the realm I did not expect: community, specifically social media where they go to brainstorm, network, and converse with others navigating the territory. But this the new frontier lives in the audio space, with the most popular platforms being Discord, Clubhouse, and Twitter Spaces, wherein live audio conversations happen across networks. And while all three artists have established careers, they realize that their previous clientele may or may not transition into the NFT space.
“I’m building community amongst the ranks of people who know what this is, know how to play, and are willing to teach and learn,” says mr.soul216.
All three also advise newbies to DYOR* and to be very, very careful. Both Proffer and Mackey admit to falling prey to scams. mr.soul216 and his podcast partner Donald Black have an entire show on security. And instead of chasing get-rich-quick schemes, all three recommend that first-time purchasers purchase NFTs for art they like, or back projects they want to support.
“You’ve got to buy what you like,” says Proffer. “You can’t buy with intent of flipping it because it could bite you in the ass later. Maybe you’ll do well, but I think that’s the wrong kind of attitude. Support a project or mission you like.”
And when you do, you’ll be directly empowering that artist or the group championing the cause.
“The whole primary notion is to decentralize power,” says mr.soul216, adding that holding your own digital assets is akin to being your own bank, and thereby puts power in the hands of creators, “where the power should be.
“Creators have more power now than ever had,” adds Mackey.
*Readers are encouraged to “do your own research” (DYOR). Good places to start include the NFTs and Crypto Shxt podcast, which is hosted by mr.soul216 and photographer Donald Black. It covers imperative topics such as experiencing Web 3.0 and “What is an NFT?” And for the affordable price of $1, Arabella Proffer’s My Tiny Guide to Getting into NFTs, includes a host of links and advice for newbies.