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Artists Who Now Make a Living Because of NFTs

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·12 min read
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Squirterer, a 24-year-old Filipina fine artist based in Davao, Mindanao, the Philippines’ southernmost group of islands, has earned 100% of her income in crypto since 2018. 

Between making, minting and selling her creations via non-fungible token (NFT) marketplaces, and writing blogs about her art to earn rewards on Hive (formerly known as Steem), she has stayed financially buoyant despite the coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout.

In September 2020, she took a portion of her savings in hive and ETH and bought a brand new iPad Pro – a coveted tool of the digital art trade that she’d yearned for since 2018, and a massive upgrade from the $50 tablet that she’d previously been using to make her art. 

Related: Learn About BTC Privacy at Consensus Day 3

Leah Callon-Butler is a CoinDesk columnist. In “Play-to-Earn: NFT Gaming in the Philippines,” a new documentary, she travels to Nueva Ecija to see how an Axie Infinity player community generated life-changing income from the game. At Consensus 2021, CoinDesk’s virtual event, she will talk with key figures from the film. Register here.

She also replaced her old run-of-the-mill laptop with a much faster, more powerful Asus device built especially for running complex graphics and capable of powering her frequent trips into the virtual world Decentraland, an increasingly popular hub for creatives and collectors.

Recently, some opponents have criticized the NFT crowd’s exuberant rhetoric of artist empowerment. But for creators like squirterer the financial impact is real, and her ability to invest in the equipment that she needs to do her job well indicates the crypto bull run and NFT boom have done more than just make the rich richer. 

That’s especially true in the Philippines, where unemployment hit 10.3% in 2020, the highest it has been in 15 years. As a result, consumer spending all but diminished and GDP contracted almost 10%, with women and young workers among the hardest hit. In March, the economy had cautiously begun to reopen, but then a spike in new cases of COVID-19 sent much of the nation back into strict lockdowns, wiping out millions of recently reinstated jobs

Related: GameStop Is Hiring for New NFT Platform on Ethereum

Due to its struggles to provide enough stable jobs and to get people spending again, the Philippines has been called “the clear laggard in Asia” and the International Monetary Fund predicted it will be one of the slowest countries in the region to recover from the crisis.

What the Philippines desperately needs is more squirterers. 

First mint

As a sufferer of PTSD, squirterer’s art reveals her personal turmoil: a lightweight wheelchair, a fluid bag and intravenous drip, a faceless nurse towering over a small child on a hospital gurney. 

Upon being told she was “too emotional” to pursue her dream of an academic career in fine arts, she became determined to turn her painful experience into a competitive advantage by using it throughout her work – and making money out of it. 

Her intro to crypto came through Hive, where she blogged about her art and learned from the community how to swap hive tokens for ETH on BlockTrades, before converting ETH to pesos (PHP) on Coins.ph – a popular choice for Filipino crypto newbies. As she became more savvy, she switched to other platforms, such as Bittrex and Binance, that charged lower trading fees.

Squirterer learned about NFTs in 2019 from her crypto friends in the Hive community, but didn’t sell her first until March 16, 2020. Titled “Push Button,” the artwork features a moon-bound bitcoin rocket emblazoned on the button of a pedestrian crossing. An artist and collector by the name of ruth allen picked up the first edition (of a total 10 tokens minted) for $22.30 at the time. 

Today, amid bull market prices, many of squirterer’s NFTs are fetching well above the average price for NFT art, which peaked at $1,400 in February, according to Nonfungible.com. Her buyers are from all around the world, including the Museum of Crypto Art, Gabby Dizon of Decentraland’s Philippine-focused art gallery, Narra Gallery, and me. 

Truth in transparency

When I asked for her two gwei on Jimmy Song’s accusation that NFTs are just bribes by the Ethereum network to spruik its own blockchain and exploit vulnerable artists, squirterer said: “If you think artists are being exploited in a decentralized space, you don’t know a thing about the traditional art market.”

To explain the importance of transparency in her industry, squirterer recalls a situation where an art gallery took one of her physical paintings on consignment and resold it without notifying her. 

But what irked her the most was that the buyer had tried to reach out to her via Facebook during the purchasing process, wanting to establish a direct connection with the artist. But the gallery explicitly said it was not allowed and forbade squirterer from engaging with buyers. 

If you think artists are being exploited in a decentralized space, you don’t know a thing about the traditional art market.

Personal experiences like that helped squirterer recognize the blockchain’s usefulness in making all transactions public, immutable and verifiable. Since joining Hive back in 2018, she’s also appreciated the importance of decentralization and anti-censorship, as she’s seen other photographers and artists banned from mainstream platforms for posting their nude art.

Now, whenever she mints an NFT, she says she feels empowered because her buyers are transparent, she knows how much her pieces sell for on the secondary market, no one can remove or revoke her work, and she enjoys royalties on resales, too. Plus, with everything automated by smart contracts, there’s no chasing, debating, waiting or wondering. 

She also values the chance to make a direct, deep and authentic connection with her buyers, free of interference by gatekeepers and middlemen.

Sandbagging for success

In 2019, when Bon Jerald T. Paguntalan graduated from the Far Eastern University Institute of Technology in Manila, it took him more than half a year to land a job as a junior 3D artist.

“It’s very hard to get into a good company here in the Philippines,” he said. “All I got were rejections. No one saw my potential. I began to doubt myself. I began to think that the world doesn’t need my talent,” he told me, unable to hold back tears.

Finally, in August the same year, he landed a role with a startup gaming company called Kongan Games. Everything was going well until the pandemic hit and the company had to close temporarily. Although it had 10 mobile games under development at the time, the pre-revenue startup couldn’t keep its doors open for long (to this day, it has not reopened).

After being laid off, Bon decided to hone his craft through freelancing and found a niche creating 3D printable models. Acquiring his customers via a Facebook group for 3D artists, Bon charged his Filipino customers around $20 per model. Then, when he attracted his first international clients, he found they were willing to pay up to $600 for a full body figurine of their favourite Marvel characters, the likes of Black Panther, Silver Surfer and Deadpool. After he sent them the artwork file, they’d pay via PayPal, and some even tipped extra if Bon did a good job. 

It wasn’t a steady income but it covered his monthly expenses, which was his main concern at the time. After a few months of revenue, he even saved enough to buy his own 3D printer. 

One day, his brother, a crypto trader, was shilling him a token called $SAND. Intrigued, Bon looked up the website for the token’s issuer, The Sandbox, and saw it was looking for 3D artists to help create and share NFT voxels via its video game platform. Bon decided to apply for the company’s $2 million Creator Fund and was accepted into the program in August 2020.

“What’s great about Sandbox is that we own the assets that we create,” says Bon, pointing out the difference between the way he used to do it, which was to transfer ownership of his design files via email, versus the way he does it now, by minting NFTs. Because “we still own the NFT, we always get a percentage of the product whenever it is sold on the marketplace,” he explains.

To date, KradSuperSoldier – as Bon is now known on The Sandbox – has designed more than 80 in-game assets to be put up for sale at The Sandbox marketplace. The main target is developers who purchase the NFTs, to be used in their own games and virtual worlds

KradSuperSoldier gets paid in $SAND, which he converts on Binance to “something more interchangeable like XRP.” From there he can easily send the funds to his Coins.ph wallet, and from there withdraw pesos to GCash, the latter being a popular mobile wallet in the Philippines.

“It’s very hard to do at first because I’m not really familiar with how it works,” he says. “But once I learned on YouTube how to convert [$SAND] to another currency, it became really easy.”

By December 2020, KradSuperSoldier had earned enough to replace his old, broken mobile phone with a brand-new one. He also bought a Lenovo IdeaPad Gaming Laptop for a fellow artist who sorely needed a new workstation for her graphic design and videography projects. 

KradSuperSoldier said he doesn’t expect his friend to pay him back, but that’s okay. All he wanted was to be able to help the people around him who needed it.

More art, more opportunity

Back in 2007, when Beeple began his Everydays project, its future buyer didn’t own and couldn’t afford a laptop. Eventually, in March 2021, Vignesh “MetaKovan” Sundaresan, would pay $69.3 million for Beeple’s resulting NFT. But when MetaKovan first discovered crypto in 2013 he had to look for ways to earn it because he had no money to buy it. 

“It’s true,” said Anand “Twobadour” Venkateswaran, MetaKovan’s friend and steward of their crypto fund, Metapurse, when I interviewed him at a recent online event. “He used to walk around with a pen drive and plug it into his friends’ laptops to practice coding. More than a few times I think he crashed his friends’ laptops,” laughed Twobadour. 

Today, at 32, MetaKovan is a young crypto billionaire, and together with Twobadour the pair are fervent supporters of the NFT space. 

“We must have spent at least half of the Metapurse valuation of $180 million-plus on art and we must have invested in over 100 artists,” Twobadour told me on Twitter DM. The team has also touted crypto as “an equalizing power between the West and the Rest.”

MetaKovan and Twobadour understand firsthand how crypto is making it possible for people from all backgrounds to participate and earn in global markets, removing barriers to trade and facilitating radical inclusion.

In the world of NFT art, not even a formal education is a prerequisite for success because most buyers are focused only on the output and are unconcerned with creators’ qualifications. This is an important shift, particularly in the Philippines where university tuition fees are a huge expense that is considered a privilege and mostly out of reach for children from poorer families. 

“Although having a formal training in art is an advantage to artists, I don’t see it as a foundation or requirement to success,” says squirterer, adding that she has seen many self-taught artists with greater talent, skill and potential than those who have obtained formal qualifications. 

“With NFTs, there’s an opportunity for the unknown artists, with or without a degree, to be seen and have a stable income with their art,” she adds. 

Another massive hindrance to adoption is gas fees. At an average of $60–$200, the cost to mint an NFT is a lot in a place where the average annual household income sits under $6,500

The First Mint Fund has stepped in to provide opportunity to those who wouldn’t have it otherwise. With around $20,000 currently in the kitty, the fund covers gas fees for artists from, and living in, Southeast Asia who want to mint their first NFT. Filipino music artist and longtime advocate for Pinoy creators, Apl.de.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas, has pledged support for the fund by donating a portion of his sales from an upcoming NFT drop. 

What goes up must come down

Knowing the volatility of crypto markets, the concern is that soon these artists will be the ones left holding the bag once the bottom falls out of the NFT market. 

But squirterer says she isn’t worried, at least not yet. Right now she only sees NFTs getting more and more popular. If and when the bear market does arrive, she plans to trade her crypto into stablecoins and buy back as necessary to survive the low (this isn’t her first crypto rodeo).

Conversely, KradSuperSoldier says he never stops thinking about the impending crash – a hangover from when he bought his first ETH on Coins.ph during late 2017 market highs and was forced to sell when the price was low because he needed the money for personal reasons.

“I should have kept it in ethereum,” he says.

Despite getting rekt early, today KradSuperSoldier takes a MetaKovan-like approach to his investments, putting over 90% of his $SAND earnings back into other cryptos. He believes that portfolio diversification is the best way to protect against significant losses, so he holds a lot of different coins (at the moment he’s loving DeFi tokens such as safemoon and safemars). 

“I’m more into my future than the present,” says KradSuperSoldier. “There’s no one investment that can save you and I have a lifelong goal to take care of my parents,” he explains, demonstrating a quintessential cultural commitment to family that anyone with ties to the Philippines will recognize in a heartbeat. 

Because when you buy from a Filipino creator, you’re not only supporting the livelihood of the individual. You’re supporting the people around them, the communities they participate in and the future of the Philippine economy.

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