In this candid conversation with renowned digital artist Jeff Levine, known by his pseudonym Fake-Up, we delve into his creative journey and the inspirations behind his work.
From his early days in advertising to his unique Gernady character and his experiments with artificial intelligence, Levine shares his thoughts on the evolution of digital art, the future of augmented reality, and the importance of personal work.
With an eye toward the future of technology and its role in the creative process, this interview offers a glimpse into the mind of an artist navigating the rapidly changing digital landscape.
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Brady Walker: So Jeff Levine, I’m curious about the origins of your name, Fake Up. Initially, it was for your creative agency, but now it’s your crypto name. Where did the name come from?
Jeff Levine: In the late 90s and early 2000s, everyone in the interactive space was coming up with unique names for their portfolios or companies to represent themselves. Growing up, I had a friend who always called makeup “fake up,” and it just stuck with me. As I got older, I reminisced about it, and it became my portfolio name. I opened a small production company for a few years, and when I went back to working for others, it reverted to my portfolio name. It’s stuck with me for the last 23-24 years.
BW: You briefly mentioned your pre-NFT life. Can you give our listeners and readers more detail about what you were doing before crypto and what you’ve been doing outside of crypto since entering the space?
JL: I got into the interactive advertising industry around 2000-2001. At that time, Flash was coming out, and everyone was creating interactive websites. I started as a designer, then moved up to art director, bouncing between different studios and agencies in New York. I eventually branched out, freelancing and creating interactive sites, games, and experiences. This led to running a small production company in New York for four or five years before closing it and moving to LA.
In LA, I continued working with agencies and production companies on larger interactive experiences, such as sites, games, AR, and VR. Over the last seven or eight years, my commercial career has focused more on experiential work, playing with installations and bridging the gap between digital screens, physical space, and sensor-based technology. I develop concepts and creative work for experiential projects like auto shows, tech conferences, and large music festivals. I’ve been doing this for the last 21-22 years and continue to do so as my commercial work.
About three or four years ago, I was introduced to the early stages of the NFT space. Like most creatives, I had my day job but always tinkered with different things, such as AR, VR, 3D, or my own designs, sharing them on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Dribbble. I never saw it as an avenue to become an artist until the NFT space opened up. I realized this technology allowed me to take my side projects and creative experiments, which didn’t fit into a large brand or commercial work, and present them to people, potentially even selling my work as an independent digital creator.
This has snowballed over the last three or four years, leading to opportunities like this interview. I still focus on my commercial work, as it pays the bills, but I’m progressing, creating more work, learning new things, and continuing the journey of creation and exploration.
BW: Very cool. I definitely want to ask some questions about experiential, but first, I want to talk more directly about the art you’ve been minting. Your dot pieces really stood out to me. They remind me of a pop art sculptor using Dippin’ Dots ice cream. How did you arrive at this style? What was the tinkering like?
JL: It’s interesting you say that because my style is more pop art and sculpture-based, as seen with my dot and Grenadie pieces. The dot pieces came from experimentation and my desire to create my own characters and scenarios while leaning into the pop culture side of things. I wanted to create works that resonated with people in terms of pop culture but with my own spin.
The key to my dot pieces is using characters with a strong silhouette and color palette. This is important to nail because it helps people resonate with the art. For instance, when creating something like Mickey Mouse, maintaining the iconic silhouette and color palette is crucial. If you only look at a bunch of dots in sculpture form, it can be hard to see what you’re trying to convey. However, adding a strong silhouette and color palette helps make the connection with people. My work incorporates elements of abstractism as well.
I’ve developed a workflow to create these pieces, starting with a 3D model of the character or subject matter. Then, I break it into its parts and pieces and run a simulation where dots build the different components. Once I have a sculpture made of millions of dots, I go in by hand and manipulate, move, and add elements to build out the silhouettes and lines. Finally, I add coloring, shading, and texturing to adhere to the pop culture icon I’m working with, solidifying the connection.
BW: Are there any pop culture icons that you’ve wanted to do a dot sculpture of, but they don’t have the color palette or silhouette that would be conducive to it?
JL: I have a notebook full of ideas for potential sculptures, but the right character or object must be very popular in culture. People need to recognize the shape or color and instantly know what it is. For example, I tried doing my Grenadie character as a dot sculpture, but since it isn’t as ingrained in pop culture as Mickey Mouse or Homer Simpson, the result isn’t as effective. There are many things that work, but also many that don’t. It’s about finding balance and figuring out what I want to do creatively and which different things I want to explore. Not everything works.
BW: Where did Gernady come from?
JL: Gernady has been in the back of my mind for quite a while. I’ve always wanted to create my own character. Growing up in the 80s and 90s and starting my career in the early 2000s, vinyl toys and designer toys were a big thing, and they still are. I appreciated the character designs and sometimes the simplicity of those vinyl toys from a design standpoint. A couple of years ago, I started tinkering with different body shapes and landed on a pineapple grenade because of its iconic shape. I added traditional cartoon arms, legs, feet, and hands to it.
What I like about Gernady is that it’s a very open palette for me to play with. The character’s shape and silhouette remain the same, but I can do pieces or a collection that is more pop driven, politically driven, or anything else. It’s an open canvas that allows me to explore a lot of different things within one character that connects all of the Gernady pieces together.
Gernady is a character with a very open canvas where I can explore different things creatively, conceptually, and visually. The one thing that connects all of the pieces is Gernady himself, which serves as the through thread throughout the entire body of work.
BW: Do you have any lore or background information on Gernady? Or is he just that blank canvas?
JL: Gernady is definitely a blank canvas without a backstory. I think I did that subconsciously to keep the canvas wide open for exploration. I like the idea that it’s more ominous and open-ended.
BW: What are your wildest ambitions with Gernady?
JL: A lot of my work, whether it’s the dot pieces or Gernady, comes across as sculptures in a digital form. For a smaller goal, I’d love to create Gernady as an actual vinyl toy. I have done Gernady as a resin 3D printed toy, but they’re fragile and brittle. In the next year or so, I’d like to release Gernady as a legitimate vinyl toy.
As for a larger goal, I’d love to create some very large sculptures of Gernady in the three, four, five-foot scale. I imagine walking into a beautiful space and seeing a massive Gernady would be very interesting from a visual standpoint.
BW: Can you tell me a little bit about the upcoming drop?
JL: The upcoming drop is Gernady-based and focused around skate decks. Growing up in New York, I skated as a kid and was immersed in the skateboarding and music culture. Skate graphics have always been a big part of my background. For this release, I wanted to put Gernady on a skate deck, not for actual use, but as a piece of art for people to hang on their walls. Moving forward, I want all my digital work to have a physical component, whether it’s a skate deck, print, canvas, or clothing. This drop is the first to have a large physical component. Each digital piece will have a print, and there are also four one-of-one physical decks in the collection. The back side of the deck features a printed graphic of Gernady in a sculptured version, while the reverse side is engraved with the Gernady logo, drop information, and other details. It’s a really cool piece to showcase on your wall.
BW: I’m excited about this drop and hope to get one. Let’s go back to your non-crypto career. You’ve worked in VR, AR, experiential, and interactive fields. Can you tell me about your recent experiences in these mediums? As a digital art appreciator, I’m interested in these, and many other digital artists are exploring these mediums.
JL: In the last seven or eight years, my commercial work has primarily been experiential, a broad term that covers everything from touch screens in physical spaces to AR and VR experiences and using sensors in physical spaces. One of the cooler projects I’ve done recently was in 2019 at the LA Auto Show with Nissan. They were releasing a new car with various sensor technologies. We placed one of these cars in the middle of the event and surrounded it with a circular track that held a large 60 or 70-inch screen. Users could move the screen 360 degrees around the car, and as they did, we would augment different features onto the screen. This allowed users to see the physical car and augmented animations and graphics simultaneously.
It was an interesting way to highlight the unseen, like the invisible sensors in the car. Although it was a marketing ploy to sell cars, it was creatively and technically fascinating, blending the physical vehicle, screen, animation, and user interaction to tell different stories in a unique medium.
BW: One of my points of frustration, or not frustration but where I think the crypto art world is lacking, as opposed to the traditional art world, is the lack of options for more ambitious work, like installations. It’s not even intuitive how to purchase something like diptychs or triptychs. Maybe that will change when AR glasses and VR goggles become more prevalent. My next question is about the future of AR and its potential impact on NFTs. Since you have worked in AR, what do you see coming in the next one or two years?
JL: AR and VR are interesting and have come a long way. The biggest hurdles are processing power and user adoption. Many devices can’t process high polygon counts and textures, resulting in lackluster visual fidelity. However, streaming content and experiences from powerful computers elsewhere can help improve that. Another issue is people’s reluctance to wear bulky headsets in physical spaces, especially during COVID. Once we develop lightweight, simplified headsets and find ways to render high-quality content in real-time on devices, more opportunities will arise.
Before our conversation, I watched a video discussing possible leaks for the next Apple Developer Conference. If Apple releases a headset at the right price point, mass adoption could greatly help push AR and VR forward.
BW: Have you experimented with AI?
JL: Yes, I use it quite often. For instance, I’m working on a smaller collection with my dot art in architectural settings, like modern museum-type environments. I used Mid Journey to generate background concepts, which I then developed further in Cinema 4D. Using AI for concept work helps me refine the idea and adapt it to a 3D space, making adjustments as needed. It’s important to use AI as a tool in the creative process rather than just relying on it for the final output.
BW: Which artists have had the biggest impact on your work?
JL: G-Monk has been a significant influence because of our similar backgrounds and experiences in the advertising and digital production space. Other influential artists and studios include Rokin, ID Society, Matt Gondek, Ron English, and Pac. Gondek’s work, in particular, resonates with me due to its pop culture influence, which you can see in my dot art.
BW: Did you see Matt Gondek’s Fight Club bat drop that he did with us?
JL: Yeah, it was very cool. I follow him on Instagram and saw his creation process for that piece. The final result was impressive.
BW: If you could collaborate with one artist, who would it be?
JL: I think I would have to say Matt Gondek. I think that could be really interesting.
BW: Your Gernady project reminds me of another MakersPlace artist, OriginalPlan, who uses his BearBrick as a blank canvas for his own iterations and collaborations with different artists.
JL: I know who you’re talking about. This approach is reminiscent of the early days with vinyl toys, like Kid Robot and others, where they produced their staple characters and also created DIY versions for other creatives to riff on. I’m exploring this idea with Gernady, having a DIY canvas alongside more concept-based pieces. I appreciate being able to customize things without much red tape around legality and IP.
BW: If you could give your 20-year-old self any advice on creativity, what would you say?
JL: I would say don’t be afraid to share your personal work and put more emphasis on it. While it’s essential to pay the bills with commercial work, continue to push your own creations for both personal growth and sanity. Don’t be afraid to put your work out there, even if it doesn’t resonate with everyone. Focus on producing more personal work and sharing it with the world.
BW: That’s good advice. Speaking of personal work, can you let our readers know where they can learn more about you and your work?
JL: My Instagram is probably the most active, where I post works in progress or finished pieces. That’s @fakeup. I’m also active on Twitter. For my commercial work or released collections, you can visit fakeup.net. All my work is available there. And gernady.net. Gernady is spelled phonetically, which I think is more interesting, but that’s probably another conversation for how bad of a speller I am. In the end, it worked out okay.