Hero image: “Style” by Erni Vales
Street art and crypto art have more in common than might first meet the eye.
Both cultures are inherently DIY and rebellious in nature.
They’ve both adopted a deep roster of in-group lingo and shibboleths that have gradually come to be adopted by the mainstream.
And they both question the boundaries of what is considered art — whether that’s Basquiat painting on found doors, Banksy throwing up elaborate stencil work in anonymity, Lushsux bringing meme culture to his murals, Beeple turning his dogged and thankless years of daily creation into a much-ballyhooed record-breaking sale, or the creators of the earliest incarnations of NFT technology acting with the conviction that digital scarcity is possible.
Now, street artists and muralists are finding new ways of bridging the gap between their practice and the current capabilities of NFT technology. In this article, we’ll explore the opportunities, risks, and contraindications of street art qua NFT before moving on to a survey of prominent street artists and muralists who have successfully made the leap — and continue to find new jumping-off points.
The inherent contradictions of street art NFTs
There are a few inherent contradictions to contend with when considering the crossover between street art and crypto art.
The first is that street art is (at least theoretically) public art, meaning it exists in physical space-time, and the majority of street art is intended to be freely accessible to passersby.
This seems to contraindicate NFTs as a legitimate outlet for the philosophically inclined street artists and muralists among us. After all, NFTs, in effect, enable privatizing art.
A possible rebuttal to that, however, might be that digital art has always been public art, freely accessible to clickersby in most cases. Case in point, Instagram, Behance, and similar sites still largely remain the de facto outlets for many digital artists to get their work seen by the world. Many artists on MakersPlace post images of their minted works on these sites despite selling them on the blockchain.
Second, street art is inherently physical, i.e., IRL.
Street art and murals live on walls, on bridges, on publicly viewable (if perhaps privately owned) surfaces. It requires physical facility with traditional and non-traditional art supplies, not to mention the demands of getting to one’s wall of choice and going undetected whilst throwing up a piece.
But the line between physical art and digital art is blurring a little bit more every day. As a digital primitive, NFTs are not limited to any single thing, no matter what public perception might say. There was a time when the humble website (the OG digital primitive) was little more than either a public forum or a digital brochure — in other words, we have a long way to go before we know the full range of what’s possible with NFT tech.
The advantages of NFT tech for street artists
For every millionaire street artist, there are hundreds more who create stunning work only to have it become an Instagram influencer’s destination background. Meanwhile, the artwork fades under the elements, and the artist behind the artwork slogs through another day of freelancing.
But, as Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith (aka Wolfe Pack) told Freethink, “By scanning a mural and turning it into an NFT, we forever immortalize the art.”
Wolfe here was referencing a project she did with Jet Martinez, Vogue, Joshua Mays, Bud Snow, and Ruff Draft called Murals in the Metaverse, which saw the artists create a massive mural that was scanned, enhanced with AR animations, destroyed a few months later, and resurrected as a metaverse mural sold as an NFT, just one of many examples of innovative street artists creating the medium as they work within it.
Not only does this give new (everlasting) life to street art, but it also gives street artists the kind of control they don’t get in the real world. As Wolfe Pack told Wired, “Buildings can crumble, weather can cause damage, and developments can impede views.” (She forgot to mention that influencers can also impede views.) With NFTs and metaverse placement, artists can control the context in which their art is viewed and potentially gain greater exposure with the audiences that most resonate with their style.
Unlike freelance work, commissions, or other design gigs, NFTs for street artists and muralists can actually help preserve artistic vision and intent, if only by offering a new source of income from original pieces rather than draining time in exchange for resources.
Street artists who are getting into NFTs
Melbourne-based street artist and founder of the meme art movement, lushsux’s witty and thought-provoking murals are viral moments in the making. Creating art that lives in the real world but breathes online, lushsux had an easy time jumping over to NFTs by selling images of his real-life work.
Going one step further, Latvian street artist Kiwie announced last year that he would be releasing 1,001 NFTs featuring geotagged images of real-world graffiti painted by Kiwie.
Bridging the physical and digital, whenever the graffiti related to a specific image is destroyed or painted over, the NFT’s associated image will transform into a ghost — a translucent, halo’d version of the same piece.
Though not an NFT, the 15,000-square-foot Tulsa, Oklahoma mural The Majestic is the perfect example to discuss the creative possibilities of augmented reality. This collaborative mural from Ryan “Yanoe” Sarfati and Eric “Zoueh” Skotnes celebrates local history, landscapes, and traditions — including Tulsa’s rich Art Deco-infused past — while leaning into the future with a QR inviting viewers to experience the mural animated with augmented reality.
Though scanning a QR code and experiencing a taste of AR through one’s phone may sound like a gimmick, those developing the tools and expertise will be rewarded as AR becomes increasingly commonplace and eventually, even quotidian. As Apple CEO Tim Cook told CNBC recently, “I think AR is a profound technology that will affect everything…we are really going to look back and think about how we once lived without AR.”
For a recent MakersPlace group show curated by Originalplan, he brought on several street art legends, who each brought a different flavor of their work into the digital art translation.
Legendary French street art bandits 123Klan created 2D images in their classic style, simulating the real world with high-definition scans of creased and slightly damaged prints.
And muralist Teddy Kelly recreated his soft palette and geometrical patterns, which can be seen all over Los Angeles.
On the other hand, die-hard vandal Jsie captured her art a moment in time, a photo that feels almost paradoxical as an owned piece: a graffiti tag (inherently impermanent) inside of a train car (always moving) and the masked artist (anonymous and unknowable).
Ben Johnston, master of bizarre typefaces, went to the opposite extreme by creating a piece that can only be experienced digitally: an animated chain of twisted type that passes us by in an infinite loop.
For another MakersPlace drop, Dutch footballer-turned-street artist DOES went well beyond the obvious to translate his work into a digital experience. Instead of selling merely the NFT and a print, DOES released cinematic behind-the-scenes videos demonstrating every step of a piece’s creation. Buyers of these audiovisual art films received a print of the finished piece.
And then there are great artists like Diego Bergia, who may not be throwing up tags anymore but who are still entrenched in street art culture. Bergia, for instance, creates pixelated animations in an early video–game style of street artists tagging buildings and freeway signs.
NFTs that are getting into street art
With the explosion of interest in visual arts and culture that followed the NFT boom, it’s no surprise that the high-priced ever-present pfps of 2021 would begin popping up as graffiti.
Street artist Masnah started taking commissions to reproduce pfps as murals in Brooklyn, and as the earliest ones went viral on Twitter and Instagram, more commissions flooded in until an entire Williamsburg building found itself covered in wrap-around pfps — including, of course, Bored Apes, Cryptopunks, Pudgy Penguins, and more.
Though this might seem like an isolated phenomenon, we’re really only beginning to see the influence that digital-native artists will have on the world’s visual culture at large. I think it’s safe to say that Masnah’s commissions are only the beginning of seeing NFTs on the street.
The metaverse will never be the sole domain of murals and street art — unless something very near apocalyptic happens. The deep emotional response that one feels in the presence of a large-scale mural can be attributed, in large part, to its size and physical presence.
Blockchain technology will become a logical extension of how artists create their digital and physical work, and the patronage of online collectors will be the gas fueling the next generation of innovative artists.
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