Non-fungible tokens are continuing to ignite debate over digital value, with many questioning whether they represent a legitimate new art form and a business opportunity, or whether they’re just the latest grift in the crypto asset sector.
After the world’s most expensive NFT was sold by Christie’s auction house in March — digital artist Beeple’s “EVERYDAYS: the First 5000 Days” collage — interest in NFTs surged, and some expected a bubble was set to burst. However, looking at data from OpenSea — a peer-to-peer marketplace for crypto collectibles and non-fungible tokens — new records in transaction volumes are still being set monthly.
OpenSea’s NFT data shows that more than 1.04 million transactions have been executed over the past 30 days, reaching a volume of US$905 million (290,100 ETH). That’s an increase of 152% in transactions and more than 319% in volume above the previous 30-day period, suggesting that the market is not about to dry up anytime soon.
NFTs are digital assets that exist on blockchains, which act as a decentralized ledger that publicly details every time an NFT has been bought or sold, keeping track of the piece’s provenance for its entire life. Blockchain technology also supports cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. Those tokens are replicable, or fungible, but NFTs are unique and create a new form of scarcity.
There is no doubt that the US$69 million sale of Beeple’s NFT was an historic moment for the art world, the third-highest price ever paid for a piece of art by a living artist, which has spawned a growing number of NFT creators and traders.
In Hong Kong, we met with two artists — former street artist Szabotage and photographer Valentina Loffredo — who are leveraging NFTs to reach a new audience, push the boundaries of their own artistic vision, and expand their reach through blockchain technology.
Gustav Szabo has dabbled with art as far back as he can remember. It was 15 years ago that he decided to dedicate his life to being an artist, and with the support of his wife, Hanna Szabo — who is also his manager — Szabotage found his own creative language and his pieces found demand.
“I use the language of stencils and layering of stencils,” he told Forkast.News. “I see it as my own language … I think it still has a sort of street edge to it as well, because stencils are very much related to artwork on the streets. I call it an orgasm of stencils.”
Gustav and Hanna had had little experience with blockchain and crypto prior to diving into NFTs. Gustav joked that although he was totally aware of Bitcoin and crypto, that being an artist, he never “had the kind of money to invest.”
It was only when the couple visited a long-time collector of Szabotage’s work in October 2020 and suggested they look into NFTs did they get involved.
“He basically just explained it all to us and how it was taking off. And I mean, this was even before Beeple had done what he’d done,” said Hanna “We got our first one with a bit of guidance from him. And we just kind of thought, wow, this sounds interesting.”
“I think it’s just the nature of Hong Kong. We’ve always been accepting everything, every opportunity, with open arms and, you know, maybe do our research as we go along. And NFTs is definitely one that we’ve sort of been learning as we go.” Gus added
According to Gus and Hanna, the NFT genie is out of the bottle and has already irrevocably changed the art market, despite the technology being relatively new.
“It’s moving in leaps and bounds. And it’s a journey that we’ve always wanted to be part of since we’ve been introduced to it. Will it take over art itself? I don’t know. We have to watch this space and see what happens. But I think it’s fully loaded with opportunities. And speaking as an artist, I see the potential of rewriting history.” Gus said.
Hanna said she saw NFTs as a new world that could be added to their normal practice, and said the technology had expanded the reach of Szabotage’s art.
“You can reach the whole world, you could collaborate with people globally, the technology that you can use, just like a new creative environment,” she said. “I guess it’s kind of seeing where creatively you can take that journey and working with people in technology and understanding — the possibilities are endless.”
Valentina Loffredo is a visual artist originally from Italy who has been based in Hong Kong for 15 years. Her work consists mostly of photography, but she has been experimenting with other media as well. Loffredo describes her art as minimalistic, conceptual and playful.
“There is a specific aesthetic in my work which is quite essential and graphic, as I like to play with shapes, colors, geometry in a way that is quite clean and minimal. I leave space to the imagination, to keep the conversation open and I use humor in work as a starting point for a deeper conversation.” Loffredo said in an interview with Forkast.News.
“It’s called ‘Nosy’ because nosy means not respecting other people’s privacy. I use the nose as a symbol for surveillance tools, smart objects and communication of the Internet of Things. This project is all about creating this very playful space, a colorful space that when you see it is very attractive,” Loffredo said. “But then if you look at the whole project together, you start to realize that those noses are not just like funny elements, but they’re also symbols of surveillance tools and actually quite dark.”
Loffredo first learned about NFT’s from social media app Clubhouse. At the time, she knew very little about blockchain and cryptocurrency, and felt that the concept of such technologies was far too difficult to grasp, but after finding several chat rooms in which the subjects were discussed, her interest grew.
“The part about the blockchain was very fascinating, and really exciting to kind of experience this moment where there was this disruptive technology that could change the world. There were also these art rooms, where once in a while you would hear about these NFT questions. And at the beginning, I was almost annoyed by it because it was always about, ‘What are NFTs?’ — ‘How do people make money with it?,’ and how bad the art was in the space. So it was really quite negative at the beginning.”
But as Loffredo’s knowledge grew through listening to other people’s experiences with NFTs and the features of the technology, she soon began to appreciate their positive side and realized a whole new market was being created for digital artists.
Loffredo said: “For me, it’s not something that will change my artistic voice or will change the way I do art, but it’s a technology that can help me develop another side of art to think about the digital creation of art.”
NFTs’ value and artistic integrity
Even in the traditional art world, the question of what constitutes art is hugely subjective. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted a piece entitled “Fountain,” which consisted of a porcelain urinal signed simply “R.Mutt” — for exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists. New York artist Andy Warhol is considered one of the most important artists of the last century, and his most famous work consisted of a display of 32 Campbell’s soup cans.
Gus said he had spent much of his life answering the question: “What is art?” And so it comes as no surprise to him people are now asking: “What is NFT art?” But as with traditional art, Gus believes value is derived from what the collector feels and believes a piece is worth.
“If you can get some sort of emotion from a physical piece of artwork or piece of artwork, digital artwork, then that’s worth its weight. It’s how much value you see in that, you know. And like I said, it’s about the story behind that.”
When one buys an NFT, in most cases content isn’t changing hands, but a token that connects your name with the creator’s art on a blockchain. That narrative often fuels debates on value, particularly in the world of digital art: If the collector owns the piece only on the blockchain, but has no control over rights to its distribution, why is it worth anything at all?
“I think also people get too bogged down with, ‘Oh well, how is that worth that?’ It just is. Like why is a Chanel bag really worth more than a bag? Like it’s an asset. You’re getting a digital asset that is worth what someone will pay for it. And if someone will pay that, it’s worth that,” Hanna said. “It becomes a tradable asset, like any form of art is a tradable asset.”
“It’s not so much the actual physical art itself … the provenance is the story behind that.” Gus said.
Loffredo shared the view that the value of NFTs comes from their ability to provide a history of an art piece’s life — a particular concern among digital artists.
“For me it’s a technology that gives authenticity, it gives provenance, gives transparency to digital art, which changed the game completely for digital art because all these things are super-important even in the physical art world,” she said. “But in the digital world, this also creates a market for it.”
Loffredo also said that simply because others could experience digital art online at no cost did not mean that NFTs lose their value. In fact, she argues the opposite.
“That many people can experience it makes the value rise because when it’s more shared, more people know about it and the value of the original piece goes up,” Loffredo said. “If you make so many prints of the “Mona Lisa,” the “Mona Lisa” will be known everywhere and the original piece will go up in price.”