By Oliver Scialdone
When crypto artist and NFT collector Coldie first saw the works of Upheaver, the handle of artist Paulius Uza, he knew he had to own them. The year was 2018, far before NFTs rocketed into mainstream consciousness, yet Coldie bought three pieces, priced individually at about $25: “New York Marine Park,” “Dreams of Titan,” and “Ships.” Each painting feels both futuristic and ancient, utilizing broad brushstrokes and bold colors. There is a loneliness to them. Something desolate, yet not without optimism. Today Coldie’s reselling them for around half a million each.
Such high price points are fair in part, of course, due to the quality of the work, but also because “New York Marine Park,” “Dreams of Titan,” and “Ships” are among the first 100 NFTs ever minted on SuperRare during the small window of time when SuperRare offered multiple editions. While SuperRare is now recognized as a platform for single edition NFTs, or “one of ones,” when these first hundred were minted, it supported NFTs with multiple editions. Though some tokens out of the hundred are still editions one of one, some are out of three editions, five, or even seven. Interest in these early tokens has spread recently among collectors, including those who are newer to NFTs. Part of this renewed fascination comes from the desire to own a piece of early crypto art history.
It is somewhat ironic that the existence of editions, more copies of a token instead of fewer, can make an NFT rarer.
Crypto art communities were small in 2018; “There were only about twenty or thirty people even using [SuperRare],” Paulius said regarding when he first began minting NFTs on the platform. The first 100 tokens were minted by a group of thirteen artists, many of whom like Robbie Barrat, XCOPY, Hackatao, and of course Coldie and Paulius, have become some of the crypto art world’s most well-known figures. At the time, Paulius wasn’t a professional artist, but someone who was passionate about a hobby and, already working in the fintech world, had a familiarity with blockchain. NFTs solved a problem for digital artists, as he saw it. The question of how to make buyers aware of your work and how to sell it had existed in digital art spaces for years. But, in 2018, NFTs were no more than an experimental solution.
Hackatao, the crypto art duo comprised of Nadia Squarci and Sergio Scarlet, known for their distinctive style and references to art history, society, and the metaverse, was one of the most prolific artists minting on SuperRare in 2018. Of the first 100 tokens, twenty-two of them are by Hackatao. While some pieces like “You win or you die” and “Emoji Waahp” are editions of seven, others like “Vitalik Buterin says no,” a tribute to the founder of Ethereum, the blockchain network upon which SuperRare operates, and “American Child,” a powerful and jarring critique featuring a grinning boy holding a gun to his head, are editions one of one. “Girl Next Door,” another Hackatao NFT among the first 100, holds specific significance to them, as it was also the first work they minted on SuperRare. A GIF of a girl with sunglasses that flash “fuck you” across them, Hackatao said that “it was a little bit of a symbol for saying, let’s say, waving goodbye to the old world.” For them, it was the perfect piece to mint first because of the “significance in it and the directness of it.”
Feeling let down by art shows in Milan and by the traditional art space as a whole, they first encountered blockchain through an article in a science magazine and became interested in the applications the technology had for artists. While researching they came across another article about crypto art by Jason Bailey—it was “an illumination” for them, and they contacted the author, who connected them with Jonathan Perkins, SuperRare co-founder and Chief Product Officer.
“Ships,” “Dreams of Titan,” and another piece by Paulius, “Scavengers of Cairo,” are all editions of three. It is somewhat ironic that the existence of editions, more copies of a token instead of fewer, or that a single contract, can make an NFT rarer. But what that really does is speak to the incredible historical value of these tokens. 2018 was only four years ago, but in that time NFTs have exploded. Coldie first bought his Paulius pieces for very little, but now he has priced them respectively at 125, 125, and 150 Ether, or around half a million dollars each. He set those amounts because he genuinely believes in the value of the work. For Coldie, these are not only assets to hide away and flip for profit, but rather to revere as art.
“It’s true that the spirit moving everyone in the beginning was that of experimenting, of trying to understand how this technology functions, and…to learn the dynamics of everything,” Hackatao told SuperRare. Like Coldie and Paulius, as early adopters, they’ve watched crypto art communities evolve and change, though Hackatao has observed that at the beginning, there were more artists than collectors, and that this also still seems to be the case. They’ve also noted that the technology has “made contact with the financial aspect more evident…the traditional [art] market of course had the same element, but it is usually more obscure.” Because of the decentralized nature of crypto art, because the space found its footing away from the traditional art market, many artists and collectors had to self-teach the technological, operational, financial aspects of blockchain: “there are collectors that arrive, maybe some following certain hikes, maybe others are getting into knowing the work of specific artists, maybe others are discovering what the community is and how they can be a part of it.”
When he first began minting NFTs, Coldie said he made a point of investing in other artists, taking money from each sale and putting it towards the purchase of crypto art. While there are many collectors in the NFT space who are mostly interested in how they can profit, he says that as the years have passed, he’s noticed more artists becoming collectors, which is important. Existing artists can themselves identify high quality art and can platform artists who mint incredible but lesser-known work. He also hopes that traditional art collectors will embrace NFTs because “that will kind of break up the good old boys club where there are [a few people who are] basically the ones controlling the markets. Like, it’s great if you’re the one who’s getting the sales, but there are a bunch of people who are not. I think it’s creating a siphoning where it hurts a lot of really good artists’ mojo, where it’s like, oh, I’m not Hackatao. I’m not gonna make it, and I think it’s just sad because there are so many artists right now.”
Looking back at the first 100 tokens, Hackatao is interested that collectors and artists want to reevaluate early works, though they also think it could be “strange when someone sees it as not the completely developed work of an artist or different initial phase of the work.” They differentiate between the artistic value of a piece and the historical value: “How will we be able to tell which period was important for which artists in a space that is moving so fast? And which one would be considered, let’s say, the more powerful or beautiful or significant body of work that they’ve created? And, let’s see, it’d be nice…if it wasn’t simply based on the date of the work, but it’s also something to observe in this fast, new world.”
But Coldie, Paulius, and Hackatao do share the same excitement with many in the crypto art space: the anticipation of what is to come.
Paulius said he looks forward to the expansion of mediums in the crypto art space, specifically the inclusion of musicians. He is also interested in exploring blockchain and pushing the technology further and further, discovering what it can continue to do for the crypto art space. One of his recent projects, “Foreverlands,” utilizes blockchain to facilitate a strategic art collecting game in which the cryptocurrency players use to buy into gameplay is then utilized to purchase one-of-one NFTs and place them in a prize vault. Eventually, these NFTs will be transferred to players, and the rewards players reap will depend on choices they make in-game. Partnering with SuperRare, Rarible, Flare Finance, and other platforms to curate work tokens, players will have access to some of the most notable works of crypto art, which is remarkable in itself, but truly the most innovative aspect is the method of art delivery and purchase—crypto art spaces are not mere spaces, but strong communities, and Paulius has taken the concept of community building to a new height with “Foreverlands.”
Similarly, Hackatao’s recent project, “Queens + Kings,” incorporates blockchain technology as part of the medium, utilizing smart contracts not simply as a means of validating artwork, but as a creative tool. An avatar project in collaboration with NFT Studios and Sotheby’s, and stylistically inspired by their earlier work and the culture of the metaverse, it is intended to give collectors an artistic and interactive experience, “to subvert the…traditional dynamics of ‘an artist creates and a collector collects.’” In more conventional avatar projects, character traits are assigned to each token by an algorithm and are then unalterable. While this is the initial case for “Queens + Kings,” after the first mint, collectors will be able to hack their avatars, so to speak, to take them apart, customize them, and put them back together. Traits are interchangeable, meaning that collectors can buy and sell them; the result is that tokens, which are already rendered unique because of their smart contracts, are even more singular and specifically personal. The project is designed so that Hackatao can continue to release new traits as it progresses, meaning that the possibilities are truly endless.
The crypto art space has remained largely underground until recently; now everyone from Paris Hilton to Snoop Dogg, it seems, has minted a token, and major news outlets like CNN are publishing articles with titles like “What is an NFT? Non-fungible tokens explained” (they’re also minting NFTs, by the way). So are NFTs a trend, as some commentators think? Of course not. If anything, the contrast between recent interest in the medium and community from newcomers and recent interest in the first 100 SuperRare tokens from those already within the space highlights what inspired crypto artists to begin with: desire for exploration, curiosity for the future, and the practical intersection of technology and art. Throughout everything that has happened, everything that is new, everything that has grown and changed and evolved, the thirst for innovation has remained the same. While difficult to conceptualize, considering the speed with which it has risen, crypto art is still at its genesis. There is so much more on the horizon.