In reflecting on the past year, there were standout wins for Asian culture. Marvel gave the world Shang Chi and the Ten Rings, Netflix gave us Squid Game, and blockchain technology gave Asian creators a bigger platform to make iconic art. And the appetite for Asian digital artworks is there to match NFT adoption — digital consumption is becoming a ubiquitous way of life in Southeast Asia.

In fact, the rapid rise of Asia’s non-fungible tokens (NFT) scene has been nothing short of remarkable. With four out of the five most NFT-curious countries in the world today in Asia, the past year saw Central and Southeast Asia accounting for 35% of the US$22 billion global NFT industry, leaving even the likes of Silicon Valley in the dust. But besides looking good on paper, Southeast Asia’s NFT affair has also meant that for once, artists and creators across the region have the opportunity to reach audiences previously unimaginable, gaining access to something most in the region have not been able to until now — the decentralized digital economy. 

Enabling creators, empowering lives

Despite its massive creative potential, art as a source of income has not always been easy for most in Asia. As seen through its varied forms of art — from the street murals of Yogyakarta and Georgetown to intricate Indonesian batiks and touching Thai commercials — the region has yet to become a global creative powerhouse, which may be due in part to cultural norms. Like many of my peers, I still remember the rhetoric my parents used when I was growing up: there is no future in the arts. Having historically shied away from artistic endeavors, the region’s inhabitants have instead gravitated toward professions such as doctors, engineers, lawyers and professors. Common careers also include those in the travel and tourism industry — today, APAC remains the fastest-growing region for the sector. Within the past decade, APAC was the second-largest destination for international visitors and is the biggest source of global outbound tourist spending.

In many ways, the network effects of Southeast Asia’s digital revolution had emerged from the economic hit of the Covid-19 pandemic that left a battered tourism sector. Having contributed over US$390 billion in 2019, the region’s tourism sector halved in 2020, causing over 1.6 million people their jobs. This devastating blow forced the region to adapt, inadvertently giving rise to a fertile ground for crypto culture to flourish. 

With physical passports in disuse, the region’s citizens created digital passports in the form of crypto wallets to access different blockchain ecosystems and collaborate with crypto communities globally on NFT projects. Decentralized NFT marketplaces offered both new and existing creators an alternative source of income to tide them over the pandemic. This was true financial inclusion unfolding in real life.

As such, digital creators were able to affordably mint their NFTs on platforms such as the wildly popular Hic et Nunc (which has since evolved into Teia), reach an audience previously unthinkable, and generate income from their digital works of art. Whereas in the past artists and creators would make money from tiny commissions that promise as little as 10% of the sale price, today they are earning considerably higher incomes from their digital work.

At the same time, the underlying blockchain technology behind NFTs continuously enabled the discovery of talented artists by granting them a platform to showcase their work to a global audience. Art Moments Jakarta, a hybrid art fair in Indonesia featuring major and up-and-coming digital artists, ran educational workshops and panels focused on blockchain in art, while Art Fair Philippines also included a component on educating creators and collectors on how to engage with NFTs. 

Collective efforts such as these, coupled with the inherent advantages of blockchain technology, have made the success of breakaway creators such as Indonesia’s Diela Maharanie and Malaysia’s Mumu the stan possible, invigorating creative economies across the region in the process. 

A different paradigm 

NFT marketplaces solve another major pain point faced by Asian creators: geography. Given the archipelagic configuration of the region, the transportation and preservation of physical artwork is often complex and costly. There is also a scarcity of living space given the high population density in the region’s major cities. Step into a typical apartment in Singapore and you will also find it to be just under 900 square feet. In Hong Kong, many get slightly more than half that space. Faced with high prices and a lack of space, collectors are often discouraged from accumulating more artwork.

The emergence of NFT art and marketplaces has necessitated a paradigm shift in the art world where restrictions on the amount of art one can physically own have become a thing of the past, and where the biggest barrier to entry — the high cost of art — has also been removed, making art accessible to collectors of all means. 

In turn, a few hundred dollars in NFT sales a month can sustain a young emerging artist in places like Indonesia, the Philippines or Malaysia, sometimes even transforming lives. In many instances, earnings from their digital art can exceed typical full-time salaries in Southeast Asia, with good months seeing incomes quadruple that of former salaries made offline. When Typhoon Goni hit her hometown in the Philippines, artist Shelly Soneja turned to NFT platforms to raise disaster relief funds with her digital drawing of a “Tawong Lipod” — a wind spirit from local folklore. Within days, the artwork had earned her US$2,000, funding humanitarian efforts for communities affected by the typhoon and the Covid-19 pandemic as well as helping rebuild her own home.

Malaysian artist Mumu the stan began minting her own NFTs after Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda recognized the value of her artwork on his Twitch channel last year. Shinoda later bought Mumu’s first NFT, turning her into a viral sensation overnight. Since then, Mumu has not only transformed her life with her NFTs but also become a vocal spokesperson for the regional and global NFT movement, even speaking at Art Basel late last year to share her efforts to grow the global movement with other artists.

A movement to watch

NFT artists like Mumu are riding a digital art trend that is only going to get bigger. According to Art Basel, the growing demand for digital artwork has come primarily from millennial collectors, with millennials spending an average of US$20,000 on digital art in the first half of 2021. They also discovered that the younger the collector, the greater their collection of digital art, with Gen Z collectors having the largest share of digital art of all age groups. 

As the NFT movement continues to gain momentum in the region, its ability to bring financial inclusion to an expanding digital creator economy will only become more apparent. Inherently inclusive and democratic, this decentralized ecosystem is showing artists that they can be owners of the digital communities they create around their art while being fairly compensated for it. At the same time, sustainable spaces for representation are created when these same digital creators are empowered to share their personal and collective community identities through their art, without censorship and with true ownership.

Ultimately, the emergence of such spaces where an artist’s self-expression is encouraged and personal growth nurtured seems likely to go hand-in-hand with the promise of financial inclusion in shaping the future of the region’s NFT ecosystem. 

When there is no separation between the community and their art, artists and members alike find themselves in a virtuous, self-sustaining cycle — where shared benefits are aligned with the interests of the community, and where everyone is better off for participating.