Why NFT Profile Pics Appeal to Collectors and Artists Alike
Larva Labs, CryptoPunks, n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
On February 23rd, auction house Sotheby’s was due to offer a lot of 104 CryptoPunks, estimated to result in a “landmark” sale of $20 million to $30 million. The sale did not, in the end, fetch that astronomical sum: The lot was withdrawn as it was set to be sold. The owner wrote on Twitter: “nvm, decided to hodl.” Later in the day they posted a well-known Drake meme, suggesting that the withdrawal was a deliberate “rug-pull”—crypto slang for ducking out on a project once investment has been raised. For many, this seemed to confirm the misgivings of crypto skeptics, who have come to regard NFTs as a dubious investment vehicle, a kind of cruel joke about what the world needs now from art, capital, and technology.
Whether this dampens the enthusiasm of auction houses like Sotheby’s or signals a turning point in the frothy NFT market remains to be seen. Earlier in February, CryptoPunk #5822, sporting a royal-blue bandana, reportedly sold for 8,000 ETH, at the time, approximately $23.7 million.
CryptoPunks, the work of a duo of creative technologists who use the moniker Larva Labs, are some of the most prominent and lucrative NFTs being sold today, and they are also prime examples of the wave of popular “profile pic” (or “PFP”) NFTs that are at the forefront of the medium and its market. So, just what is the appeal?
For collector Melanie McClain, it’s all about the community. The Bored Ape that she uses as her avatar (with 3D glasses and a Breton stripe T-shirt) allows her access to the BAYC (Bored Ape Yacht Club) Discord channel and announces her status as an early adopter. And, she is amused to add, it often leads to her being addressed online as “bro.” “The assumption is not that I’m a Black woman,” she laughed. The ambiguous relationship between an avatar and its owner is typical in the NFT community. Twitter recently updated its platform so that NFT holders could post PFPs in a distinctive hexagon, lending legitimacy to the idea that, in the future, these may be one of the ways people express their personality online. Displaying a valuable NFT PFP is a bit like wearing an ostentatious costume at a masked ball—you can enjoy the attention, without revealing your identity.
The real world is a different matter. Many NFT projects also grant their owners the right to produce merchandise, essentially to create a brand from their artwork. Displaying these images grants them admission to a not-so-secret society that is globally distributed through physical space. Wearing a sweatshirt showing one of her pieces at Art Basel, McClain found herself drawn into conversation with other collectors. “It allows me to form bonds with people that I traditionally wouldn’t have known,” she said.
As if to prove the point, my interview with the collector known as Larryp.eth was interrupted by a passerby who wanted to know if he could “consult on an NFT project with my art collective.” “Sorry,” Larry said coming back to the call, “I have my Apes as decals on the windows of my truck.” Such interactions are commonplace for him.
Kaiju Kingz, KaijuKing #635. Courtesy of Larryp.eth.
Kaiju Kingz, KaijuKing #3086. Courtesy of Larryp.eth.
Larry is in the top 1% of collectors on OpenSea, and his wallet holds Apes (Bored and Mutant), as well as many lesser-known projects, with a total value of around $1 million. Larry’s entry to the NFT market in February 2021 was born out of a deliberate rejection of the traditional art world. “For someone with limited social or financial capital, it can be quite difficult to develop a strong art collection,” he said. “It can be snobby, and collectors can feel belittled or made to feel inadequate—I know this from experience.”
NFTs, their evangelists suggest, offer a more open, level playing field. As Larry explained, if you can get in early on a successful project, you stand a chance of purchasing a valuable work at a low price. Trade that work or use it to mint derivative pieces, and you have the beginnings of an enviable collection. There’s no gallerist to vet your credentials—in fact, all the credentials that matter are visible on the blockchain.
Larry is baffled by the backlash against NFTs. “It’s quite comical, actually,” he said. He expresses real love for the works he owns and the people he’s met since acquiring them. For him, it’s a version of the art world anyone can join. It’s international (many releases now occur to accommodate Asian collectors) and inclusive. What’s not to like about that?
Spanish NFT artist Edgar Plans sees NFTs as a natural part of a cultural continuum for younger buyers. “Traditional collectors have a preference for books and museum openings. These people, who maybe work in design, technology, or finance, are more likely to spend time on Fortnite [or] Call of Duty,” Plans said. “In the future, having a valuable PFP will give them status in those worlds.” As a painter whose real-world artworks command six-figure prices, he sees NFTs as a way to offer his work to a younger, more diverse audience. “I believe this type of art will be more open to the world,” he said.
But while NFT enthusiasts talk up accessibility, exclusivity is also part of the picture. The non-fungible aspect of NFTs means each image is connected to metadata that is encrypted on the blockchain, a kind of publicly held ledger of ownership. Whatever “right-clickers” on Twitter say, for NFT collectors, that means two people cannot own the same piece at the same time. This feature can be used to manufacture scarcity and to create a level of desire around a particular offering—analogous to that which causes people to stand in line outside a Supreme store on the day of a major drop. Inevitably, there has been a crossover with hypebeast culture.
“What happens when 30,000 people want the same thing?” asked Galen McKamy, chief creative officer of Superplastic. Buying into a Superplastic project means accessing further rarified degrees of exclusivity. “There are people that have spent a lot of energy and money with us, and they’re going to have really, really exclusive access to everything that the brand does.”
SUPERGUCCI, SUPERGUCCI NATURE, n.d. Courtesy of Gucci and Superplastic.
SUPERGUCCI, SUPERGUCCI MIMESIS, n.d. Courtesy of Gucci and Superplastic.
For Superplastic, a Vermont-based firm that began in collectible vinyl toys and now specializes in creating content with 3D-rigged “synthetic celebrities,” the move into NFTs was a logical progression. In 2021, the firm partnered with Christie’s to create a series of works based on the conceit of two of these synthetic celebrities (called, ahem, Janky and Guggimon) breaking into the Christie’s warehouse and remixing the artworks therein. The output is somewhat reminiscent of Jeff Koons’s bunnies, or Takashi Murakami’s Superflat work; 3D models of their characters spray-painted or dressed up in streetwear, the kind of virtual tchotchke that one can imagine might one day be displayed in an apartment in the metaverse. The most valuable piece in the collection went for a cool $50,000. More recently, Superplastic teamed up with Gucci to release SUPERGUCCI NFTs, which were billed as the creations of Janky, Guggimon, and Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele.
Elsewhere, the aura of uniqueness created by the blockchain is being deployed as a kind of conceptual framework. Working in Ethiopia, Yatreda, a collective run by Ethiopian artist and model Kiya Tadele, has been traveling the country capturing 360-degree portraits of traditional hairstyles in a 100-piece collection called “Strong Hair,” now featured on Foundation. Although not designed as a PFP, it is a project that uses the blockchain to emphasize the quiddity of its individual subjects, and plays on the Ethiopian tradition of the handmade.
“The idea of one-of-one is already in our minds,” said Tadele, “because not many things are mass-produced here. An artist’s work is not easily valued in Ethiopia. It is unbelievable to most Ethiopians that a photographer could make their living outside of a wedding or portrait studio. But we can fix this if we combine our existing love for handmade things with the idea of authenticity and provenance of the blockchain.”
Yatreda, still from “Strong Hair,” n.d. Courtesy of the artist.
Yatreda, still from “Strong Hair,” n.d. Courtesy of the artist.
The work of Yatreda has connected Tadele with a hidden network of people of the Ethiopian diaspora who were already working in crypto and are often surprised to learn of a collective minting these NFTs in their home country. “We truly do feel like we have the same chance as anyone else in the world. That’s what NFTs did for us,” Tadele added.
Whoever may one day buy $20 million CryptoPunks might be doing so out of a love for pixel art or tiny punk rockers, but there’s a high probability that they’ll be making a bet on the future of the NFT market and the culture that surrounds it.
Certain currents within this market do appear to be aligned with global trends: It’s younger, more online, more international, with a nuanced awareness of the meaning of digital ownership. It looks to a future where people will seek to differentiate themselves, and express their identity, in new environments. If this really is the dawn of a new medium, it’s worth remembering the reactionary tendency that arose at the birth of movements like Surrealism, photography, or conceptual art. They might have seemed outlandish or fanciful propositions at the time, but there aren’t that many people left that would deny them their place in art history. Ultimately, you can feel however you like about the future, but, as the saying goes, it is where we’re going to be spending the rest of our lives.