The big NFT revolution: From artists, musicians, fashion designers, to filmmakers - creative heads are minting tokens
We speak to the people who are driving this revolution to find out more about the technology, and how it is giving power back to the creators
In the past year, a new buzzword emerged that took the online circuit by storm — NFT or non-fungible tokens. NFT made headlines earlier this year when Elon Musk’s girlfriend Grimes sold a series of 10 pieces of her digital artwork for $6 million on Nifty Gateway, an online digital art platform. This was followed by a Christie’s auction in March when American digital artist Beeple’s work Everydays: The First 5000 Days, was sold for more than $69 million.
Even as the planet was coping with most things going virtual, the art world was shaken by the evolving dynamics of non-fungible tokens. Like Beeple and Grimes, many other artists have made a fortune by selling their work through this new technology that uses cryptocurrency and blockchain to create unique digital assets. A lot is already being discussed about NFTs and art, but at the same time something else is also brewing – everything from cocktails and films, to even Looney Tunes collectibles are getting dropped on the blockchain as NFTs.
It may all seem very new-fangled and confusing, but this phenomenon has opened up the virtual world to creators like never before making it a democratic space where anyone who has a unique sense of creativity can mint and sell NFTs. We explore the origin, emergence and way forward for NFTs in the virtual and real world.
So, what exactly are NFTs? Brijeshwari Gohil, the curator at Prinseps, an art gallery and auction house in Mumbai, says, “NFTs stands for non-fungible tokens. These are digital assets representing creative objects ranging from art to music. When we say ‘non fungible’ we refer to something that is unique and cannot be replaced. For example, any digital art can be downloaded and circulated and copied with high fidelity. This was the shortcoming of digital art, but NFT identifies the owner of the digital art and facilitates easy transfer. And this is the game changer. A copy of some digital art sitting in your hard drive does not make you the owner; ownership is clearly defined by means of an NFT.” Prinseps recently hosted an auction of Oscar-winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya’s fashion sketches, reimagined as NFTs.
While today every industry is minting NFTs, it’s taken time for the tech to earn its credit. In 2014, an animation by New York-based artist Kevin McCoy and entrepreneur Anil Dash, called Quantum, was the first-ever work to be associated with an NFT-type certificate of ownership, although this was still three years before the term was even coined.
Artist Raghava KK, a Bengalurean, now based in NYC, who has been making waves in the international market with his digital art since the early 2000s explains that there has been a quiet movement in the making of NFTs for several years. It was around 2017, when the initial conversations about a new valuation were picking up in the crypto world, that Raghava was roped in for something interesting. He reveals, “The billionaire Mike Novogratz, who is called the Warren Buffet of the crypto world, and who is also my biggest collector in New York City, was dreaming of a new asset class, and I was part of the project at creating this new class of digital art.” Although Raghava had to quit the project due to personal reasons, he says what he was working on was similar to the kind of tech we see today. “In the last two years, the crypto art world is exploding. Although I have some deep concerns with what’s going on because the plan has not been thought through fully, it’s an opportunity to create a new class of assets,” he adds.
Mint condition: From GIFs and memes, to viral videos and iconic tweets, here are some of the world’s most famous NFTs sold...
Mike Winkelmann aka Beeple was one of the first artists to sell NFTs. He created hundred editions of his digital art work Politics Is Bullsh*t. In December, his second drop was a selection of his Everyday series. In March, a mosaic of his pieces, Everydays: The First 5000 Days was auctioned at Christie’s and the piece sold for more than $69 million.
Canadian artist Grimes, who is also the girlfriend of tech mogul Elon Musk, sold a series of 10 paintings as NFTs for $6 million earlier this year. The art is in signature style of high fantasy meets sci-fi and includes pieces titled Earth, Mars and Death of The Old.
This famous GIF was popular in the early 2010s. In honour of its 10th anniversary, the GIF by artist Chris Torres
was sold through the crypto art platform Foundation. Selling for 300 ETH (about $5,90,000) it was the first meme to be monetised.
Jack Dorsey’s first Tweet
The founder of Twitter Jack Dorsey auctioned his first ever tweet as an NFT. The tweet, which said ‘just setting up my twttr,’ (sic) went for $29,15,835. Dorsey donated the amount to charity.
Charlie Bit my Finger YouTube video
In 2007, a video of two cute British babies went viral. Titled Charlie Bit My Finger, the video made Internet history as it has now been sold as an NFT. Making a sale of $7,61,000, it will now pay for the kids’ education.
The first non-art NFT to make headlines was in March, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, sold his first tweet as an NFT for over $2.9 million. The bidding ended on Valuables, a blockchain-powered social media network by Cent (an online platform for creative income). Dorsey’s tweet read, “just setting up my twttr,” and was first posted on March 21, 2006.
In April, New York-based steakhouse Quality Eats sold a cocktail called ‘Into the Ether’ for 0.75 ETH, which is a type of cryptocurrency (about $1,400). It was a drink made entirely of pixels. So how does one define these intangible things as being valuable? “Whatever the mechanism of the value, it’s an experience we store. Take gold for example. You cannot eat gold, but we can store, and wear it as an expression. What if the expression itself is the commodity? This is our creative value that’s being stored through NFTs. And this currency is inexhaustible, and sustainable. With an NFT, you can trace everything, it’s a transparent market, it’s not an elite market where you cannot trace it. This democratic technology will do away with centralised power – the middlemen. It’s a very libertarian agenda. The value that is being created here is not just the commodity value but is also the creative, nostalgic, historic, archival, relationship and human sentiment value,” explains Raghava.
Levelling the playing field
While newer things are being minted as NFTs, it needs to be acknowledged that artists from across the world took the lead in giving the crypto art world the much-needed push.
Visual artist Santanu Hazarika was in the headlines for selling a one-of-a-kind artwork in collaboration with musician Ritviz. The NFT was released on WazirX (the first NFT marketplace for Indian artists) for 300 WazirX Tokens which was approximately $388, and it sold out in 37 seconds. What Santanu likes about the space is the transparency it offers, and the lack of middlemen – similar to what Raghava explains. “No matter where you are, you can upload your work. You don’t have to go through gatekeepers. You can mint whatever you create and start earning from that. Anyone in the world can see your work, buy it and the money is just transferred to your digital wallet,” he says.
This gives freedom to many artists. They can directly interact with the collectors, which is not the case with traditional marketplaces, where galleries and agents are part of the system. All the artist needs to pay for is a “gas fee” which is used to upload the work. This fee varies by the market value of digital currencies and can fluctuate from anywhere between Rs 800 to 1,200. “This levels the playing field. I think this is a revolution in the art world. And us Indian artists should capitalise on this opportunity to be part of this revolution,” he adds.
UAE-based British crypto artist, Gigi Gorlova, who became the first artist from West Asia to sell an NFT has a similar experience to share, “I discovered the NFT community last year and started exploring the space. At the beginning it is confusing, especially dealing with crypto wallets and depositing cash and turning it into crypto currency. But if you are somebody who is familiar with the Internet you should be able to easily learn how to navigate through this crypto space.” Gigi’s work called Saturn is My Home Planet is a piece based on something real – a tattoo of Saturn that she has on her arm. “I got the tattoo on a really special trip with my best friend,” she enthuses. The work was sold for 0.1ETH (at the time equal to around $202). Though it’s a small amount, it’s not always about the big numbers. For independent, up-and-coming artists like Gigi, it’s about creative autonomy and ownership.
“Previously digital artists would have had to work for other companies to sell their artwork as merchandise or prints. NFTs have given us the ability to sell our work in the original digital format. With the blockchain technology we can now provide certificates of authentication to prove that we are the ones who made the artwork. Now digital masterpieces can be sold like a traditional painting but of course in its original digital form,” she explains.
For musician and visual artist Kamal Singh, this whole new world is unbelievable. “It’s new for everyone and we are all still figuring it out. But for me, so far, this space has been very positive and encouraging. I like the decentralised nature of it, and the fact that anyone can put up their work,” he says, adding, “I’ve always created art, but I had become very jaded and disappointed with the commercial aspect of things. With NFTs, I have found a new zeal for my work.” Kamal, under the moniker Kulfipuke, puts up his work on the platform Opensea. He has priced his work at about 0.03 ETH, which is about Rs 4,000.
When it comes to the music world, veterans from the industry have been quick to adopt the trend. The Weeknd, Kings of Leon, A Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z, The White Stripes and many more such iconic names have sold their work as NFTs. Of course, India’s indie music circuit too is in on it.
Tamil musician Kaber Vasuki sold a demo version of his popular song Vasanam as an NFT for 50 ETH, valued at a record-breaking Rs1.5 crore at the time of sale. “I started the year not knowing anything about crypto or blockchains and happened to learn about them just in time for the buzz. The buyer of my NFT, Metakovan, had been a patron of my music for a long time and this is just another example of his support for independent Tamil artistes,” Kaber tells us. Pop musician Ritviz, who sold NFTs with Santanu adds, “I don’t know yet what the possibilities are, but I know it’s going to be a huge part of the future. I do feel like the world is going digital, so it’s here to stay.”
Coding and couture
The world of fashion too was quick to adapt to this evolution. In 2019, Dutch company The Fabricant sold the first ever NFT dress. Christened Iridescent, the silver-grey piece with swirling marble patterns was bought by the highest bidder for $9,500.
Since then, there have been a number of other players joining in, including luxury brands like Gucci and Burberry.
In the fashion sphere, digital buys are not necessarily NFTs and have their origins in gaming platforms. For instance, the digital Gucci Dionysus bag that made news earlier this year for selling for over $4,000, a price that is higher than that of the physical bag, is not an NFT. The bag, which was purchased on the gaming platform, Roblox, has no value as it cannot be used outside of Roblox. Gucci also launched a collection of 25 augmented reality sneakers for $9 a piece, with the virtual sneaker app Wanna, which is again not an NFT.
However, the Italian fashion label, in May this year, roped in auction house Christie’s to sell a three-window video playing on loop as an NFT. Not strictly fashion, the video, titled Aria, is an extension of the film created to accompany the showcase of its Fall / Winter ’21 collection by creative director Alessandro Michele and Italian-Canadian direct or Floria Sigismondi. It sold for $25,000. On the other hand, Burberry has tied up with Mythical Games, an NFTbased video game start-up. The company announced the launch of Blankos Blockchain Party, which is its first earn-to-play game. Burberry’s NFTs will be featured in the game. While gamers spend a large chunk of money on in-game purchases, what Mythical Games is doing is essentially offering them the chance to buy NFTs, which have value even outside the game.
As traditional fashion houses rethink their strategies going forward, it’s no surprise that the streetwear and sneakerhead subcultures have taken to fashion NFTs ahead of the pack. Rtfkt is a sneaker store that has become the most popular seller of NFT shoes. A few months ago, they dropped a collection of digital footwear (priced at $3,000, $ 5,000 and $10,000) in collaboration with Fewocious, a Seattle-based artist. In just seven minutes, they managed to sell about $3 million worth of pairs. Their tieup with streetwear and sneaker designer Jeff Staple also includes a pair of physical shoes to go with your NFT. While the Staple shoes can also be worn in the real world, not all of these digital creations come with the same option.
So what does one do with fashion NFTs? As the lines between the physical and the virtual continue to blur, consumers are ‘wearing’ these NFTs in the digital world, from social media to gaming platforms. In March, at the world’s first Crypto Fashion Week, artists, designers and buyers came together to share their latest work in the realm of the ‘metaverse.’
There were sculptural sneakers, over-the-top headpieces, colour-changing dresses and other innovative features that pushed the envelope. Chances that these creations will be turned into NFTs are high, and with more such events, the hope is that fashion NFTs move from fashion as art to fashion that is practical.
While theoretically the concept may appear to be quite complicated, it’s only appropriate that GenZ have picked it up quickly. Take the example of 13-year-old Laya Mathikshara from Chennai. The teenager’s animated short film titled Gratitude that is India’s entry at the 16th Busan International Kids and Youth Film Festival, was sold as an NFT on the WazirX marketplace recently for 0.15ETH ($304).
Laya, a high-school student who started painting at the age of nine, soon developed an interest in creating digital art. “I was curious about electronics and programming, and signed up online to learn the basics of programming languages. I started experimenting with art and technology during the lockdown last year, when I wrote a code. I wanted to present a simple animation about how COVID warriors have helped us survive, and that’s how Gratitude was created,” explains Laya.
She came across the term NFT when she was searching for more digital art concepts and that’s when she researched more about crypto currencies. Her sister, a 22-year-old computer science engineer, helped Laya understand it further, and she was introduced to WazirX. “I was really shocked when my artwork was sold. I never thought a collector would be interested in it. My family and teachers were also surprised, but they have been talking a lot more about it. But I still struggle to make my grandparents understand what this is,” says Laya, who is working on creating more digital art.
The NFT Guide:
What is an NFT?
NFT or non-fungible token is the proof of ownership of the digital artwork.
What is the token in NFT?
NF is the non-fungible asset or the part where the artwork is stored. ‘T’ is the token number that comes from the blockchain and makes the digital artwork unique.
What is minting?
It is the process of attaching a digital asset to a blockchain token as an NFT.
Can NFTs be encashed as real money?
Yes, they can be, but the artist will have to pay Capital Gains Tax on the crypto currency, before encashing it.
Where can an artist show his NFT and reach buyers?
Artists can share their work on platforms like OpenSea, Cent, WazirX and Foundation. Foundation is a ‘strictly by invitation’ platform.
What is Metamask?
It’s a software cryptocurrency wallet that helps you set up your wallet to buy currencies.
What is Ether?
Ether or ETH is the most commonly used cryptocurrency offered by Ethereum to buy NFTs. Ethereum is a decentralised, open-source blockchain software platform that was the first standard for representing non-fungible digital assets. It is a cryptocurrency trading platform.
The noise around NFTs in the crypto world is getting louder and louder. But is this phenomenon here to stay? “I believe the technology being used to create an NFT is groundbreaking. It is a brilliant way to buy, secure and invest in art and is also opening the doors for youngsters who may not have invested in traditional art,” offers Brijeshwari.
Gigi says it’s perhaps the only certain way right now for artists to get their due without the dependence on collectors and galleries. “The great thing about the NFT space is the ability to collect royalties from secondary sales of your artwork. In the traditional art field, when a piece of work is sold in the secondary market, the artist doesn’t usually receive royalties, and it was the collectors who got wealthy,” she explains.
It’s a thought that’s echoed by creators who continue to work within the traditional framework of the art world. While they think NFTs are interesting and novel, it still needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Award-winning photo-artist Shibu Arakkal, who has witnessed the highs and lows of the real art market says, “As an artist, I would worry that if your value can skyrocket so soon, can it also plummet as quickly? And how much of all of these sales are based on the critical value of your work as opposed to hype? These are questions, I think we need to wait and learn about,” offers the photo-artist. But Shibu concurs when he says, “I’ve learned in my lifetime never to prematurely denounce any new thing only to embarrassingly embrace it because the whole world has. Personally, I feel that my preoccupation as an artist must be on creation. My sense is that if you can create something unique then everything else will follow.”
Though the creative sphere is notorious for being inaccessible and elitist, this digital revolution with NFTs is disrupting the system. But will it truly democratise art without the perils of capitalism? Or will it also make its way back into the hands of capitalists and the elitists – only time will tell.
With inputs from Rashmi Rajagopal