Crypto Art: A Brief History
An overview of key moments within the last decade.
Crypto art has been around since 2011. Mike Caldwell’s Casascius Coins was the first example of crypto-infused art. Each coin “contain[s] an embedded piece of paper with digital Bitcoin value, covered by a tamper-resistant hologram.”¹
The Rare Pepe Wallet enabled the trade of Rare Pepe’s in 2016. This is claimed to be the “first blockchain community where anyone can submit artwork to be bought, sold, traded, or destroyed on the blockchain.”²
The above projects created art with elements stored on the blockchain, but none of these projects utilized a non-fungible token (NFT) model. It wasn’t until later that NFTs emerged on the Ethereum network.
The project that was truly first has been under debate as of late as more collectors unearth older NFT projects, such as Etheria³ and MoonCatRescue.⁴ I’ll start the history of NFTs with the foundational projects that standardized token models, generative art, on-chain data storage, as well as projects that had a substantial impact on the Ethereum network.
While other projects may have preceded CryptoPunks, none had the impact of this Larva Labs project. On June 22, 2017, the 10,000 CryptoPunk NFTs were issued for free by Matt Hall and John Watkinson’s Larva Labs. Users were able to claim CryptoPunks for free, and the only cost was the gas for the transaction. Each CryptoPunk is a uniquely generated character, and no two are the same.
Record sales are being made on a regular basis. CryptoPunk #7804, an alien punk, was sold for 4200 ETH (~$7,570,000) on March 11, 2021, at 12:48 AM UTC.⁵ This record was broken a day later by CryptoPunk #3100, another alien punk, for a sale of 4200 ETH (~$7,580,000).
Other crypto art projects came along that would astound the traditional art world. On February 14, 2018, crypto artist Kevin Abosch used a ballot system to sell his Forever Rose, an ERC20 token that was purchased by a group of 10 investors for $1,000,000. At the time, this was the largest digital crypto art sale.
On July 17, 2018, the famous auction house Christie’s held their first Art+Tech Summit, which was held to “explore the potential applications of blockchain within the art market while giving an overarching view of its successes (and failures) in wider industries.”⁶ The conversation centered on whether or not the art world was ready for blockchain applications.
The blockchain art marketplace Maecenas “successfully tokenised a multi-million dollar artwork, a painting by Andy Warhol named ’14 Small Electric Chairs (1980)’” on September 6, 2018. The auction brought in $1,700,000 for 31.5% of the Warhol work, and there were 100 participants in the auction. This marked the first time a piece of fine art from the traditional market was tokenized and sold on the blockchain.⁷
Earlier in 2018, artist Pascal Boyart created a mural in response to the Yellow Vests protests in France, which was titled Fresque Liberté guidant le peuple 2019. Boyart hid $1,000 worth of Bitcoin in the puzzle mural; just one month later, the authorities had covered the mural with gray paint.
Pascal Boyart’s mural wasn’t lost, though, thanks to the blockchain advocate BnoiitC (@BnoiitC), who recreated the mural in Cryptovoxels to preserve the controversial artwork. BnoiitC created the Museum of Crypto Art in the Cryptovoxels world to preserve and display artworks on the Ethereum blockchain.
With the rise in popularity of the metaverse in Cryptovoxels and Decentraland, more crypto art galleries begin to appear. Now, the metaverse is the premier place to display an art collection, whether it’s a personal collection or a collection being sold on an NFT marketplace.
Larva Labs brought about another successful project on the Ethereum blockchain and launched the on-chain generative NFT movement:
Autoglyphs are the first “on-chain” generative art on the Ethereum blockchain. They are a completely self-contained mechanism for the creation and ownership of an artwork.⁸
An Autoglyph cost 0.2 ETH ($360 at the time) to mint the ERC721 NFT, and the release of 215 glyphs sold out within a few hours. This is the first NFT to have metadata stored on-chain, and Autoglyphs set the standard for generative art projects on Ethereum.
Art Blocks, another influential platform for generative art, launched on November 27, 2020. Since its launch, it has been one of the most celebrated platforms for innovative generative art projects.
Another innovative movement started after artists began to face backlash for artwork that utilized existing technology and required minimal effort. This movement was defined by the dadaist tradition of the twentieth century, but artists like Max Osiris and Robness were accused of stealing from other artists and selling pieces that devalued the NFT art market.
One early critic, j1mmy.eth, referred to this kind of art as “trash art,” and the movement coalesced around this term. The trash art movement is defined by remixes, collage, found media, and the attempt to stretch the definition of art as a response to censorship.
And while many artists emerged on Ethereum, none have been as successful as Mike Winkelmann, a groundbreaking artist out of South Carolina who goes by Beeple. His first drop on Nifty Gateway sold out in record time. On October 30, 2020, Beeple released Politics is Bullshit, Crypto is Bullshit, and Crossroad.
Beeple’s influence would grow from that release to his auction of Everdays — The First 5000 Days (2011), which sold on March 11, 2021, for a record $69,346,250: the highest amount for any NFT to date.
Sample of NFT Marketplace Launches
- OpenSea: December 2017
- Blockchain Art Exchange: April 2018
- SuperRare: April 2018
- KnownOrigin: April 2018
- MakersPlace: April 2019
- Rarible: November 2019
- Nifty Gateway: March 2020
- Foundation: May 2020