I can think of a lot of reasons to hate on NFTs—the digital art and collectibles that use the blockchain to prove ownership like a big, crowd-distributed receipt.
They have an atrocious environmental footprint. Most of the works look like they were scraped out of the gutters of DeviantArt circa 2010 (that’s not just a burn, people were actually stealing DeviantArt work to NFT it). The artwork can just disappear from the web after you buy it. And I can’t say with a straight face that NFTs are particularly meaningful to own. Sure, some people are reselling NFTs for profit, but if anyone can right-click to save that JPEG, you’re at least a bit of a sucker for spending millions of dollars on it, right? (Unless you really need a way to launder some money!)
But after hearing the experience that Lucas Zanotto has had with NFTs, I’ll admit to coming around on their merits. Zanotto is an Italian-born, multifaceted creative best known for cofounding the children’s app brand Yatatoy. In the last year, he’s earned six figures selling NFT loops of his impossibly charming, geometric characters. NFTs have let him crack the code on making a living as an artist doing what he loves.
“I’m kind of at the middle ground level of the whole NFT world,” says Zanotto with a laugh. In a way, he’s right. He appears to be one of many NFT upper middle-classers, who is successful but not nearly as successful as his friends who have made millions of dollars selling NFTs. But given that only 1% of NFTs sell for more than $1,500, he’s undoubtedly part of a relatively small pool of artists making a good living selling NFTs.
Zanotto has built a career directing commercials, creating animations, and running the aforementioned children’s app company Yatatoy. (Its apps Miximal, Drawnimal, and Bandimal have earned Yatatoy our own Most Innovative Company award and an Apple Design Award for the playful aesthetics and experience.) But like many artists, he’s always battled with consistently monetizing his own art as opposed to commercial projects.
About four years ago, Zanotto began posting his animations to Twitter and other social media platforms—short animated loops that he loved making, but didn’t otherwise have a home for.
“I got a nice following, and that’s rewarding, and I got a lot of jobs through that stuff,” says Zanotto. “But I was always struggling with the question of, ‘Can I monetize this somehow.’ At the end of the day, I’m putting lots of work into [those loops], and I’d love to just live on that.”
Like many creatives, Zanotto was sharing his art pro bono, a move that he hoped would get enough attention to land him more paid work down the line. All the while, he was also contributing to the gold mine of content that drives engagement (and profits) for social media companies, without reaping direct rewards for his efforts. (Twitter has actually since launched Tip Jar as a way to give back to these creators as it wrestles with a more equitable arrangement in the longer term.)
“I tried to open a poster shop and stuff like that, but to be honest, it’s just too much hassle to sell a couple of posters,” says Zanotto. “You pay to print them, and end up with a couple of bucks. It’s not a thing that works out long term for income.”
Then, around September of 2020, one of Zanotto’s friends mentioned NFTs. Zanotto had never really grasped what the whole blockchain thing was. But then he learned about its most promising quality for artists: If he sold a piece of art as an NFT, he could ostensibly sign his name to it with an option called a “creator share,” making revenue off not just the first sale, but a portion of all subsequent sales of the work as it gained value. That revelation convinced him it was time to pursue the medium.
On the cusp of the NFT boom, Zanotto was able to set up video calls with NFT markets including SuperRare and Nifty Gateway, because they were still looking for artists. (The timing was key. A year later, and these markets have been flooded with requests.)
When Zanotto put his first collection of loops up on Nifty Gateway, they sold for about $10,000 in 10 minutes.
“Nowadays, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but I was over the moon!” says Zanotto. “Finally, I found a way to sell a loop and get some money just from this loop, directly. It was mind-blowing for me. Just imagine how many bloody posters I’d have to sell to get $10,000.”
The sale was cause for celebration, but it was also a heat check for Zanotto. He wondered if the association with NFTs might hurt his reputation as an artist, and whether the financial success of such specific digital art would mean people wouldn’t take him seriously when working in other mediums. After a month of thinking on it, he picked NFTs back up. And he’s been releasing them at a steady pace since.
While he’s certainly been successful, Zanotto is also a realist, who doesn’t claim to have made it on merit alone. He’s strategic in his releases, and has studied how the NFT market works on auction sites.
“It is a game, to be honest. The art in itself does not play that big of a role. It’s networking and name-dropping,” says Zanotto. “You find a collector who feels inspired, they buy a first work for cheap, and they buy the second for [a lot more]. With that big purchase, suddenly other collectors get interested and buy the next.”
His quick analysis may be enough to sour you on NFTs all over again, and that’s perfectly fair. However, this is “the exact same game” of the traditional art world, Zanotto points out. Much like in crypto art, it’s the millionaires and billionaires that drive up the prices on traditional art, not the rest of us. Damien Hirst—one of the wealthiest artists in the world—had his break when the British businessman Charles Saatchi took interest and actually bankrolled the production of his first formaldehyde statue. In the last year, COVID restrictions across the affluent China market have hurt the bottom line of the entire art world. The wealthy have always driven the market value of art.
While you or I might find a lot of early NFTs to be aesthetically questionable, Zanotto notes they were catering to market demand. Crypto’s first wave of wealth was full of technology evangelists. This is a cohort that appreciates internet aesthetics, and the meme art it grew up seeing on message boards, as much as high art.
However, these days he’s seeing the bar being raised with a greater variety of aesthetics and sharper execution, due to countless new artists minting NFTs every day who are adding variety and nuance to the medium.
Zanotto can recognize all of these constructs of the NFT market, but as an artist, he still finds himself unable to resist being sucked deeper into his craft, working harder on increasingly complicated work. When I mention that, if he were selling $10,000 oil paintings, he’d probably pay a lot more for his materials and make less of a profit per piece, Zanotto isn’t so sure.
“My render has been running for four days, and will need three more,” he says of the NFT he’s working on now, meaning that it takes his computer up to a week of continuous calculations to produce his newest pieces. Not all of his work takes this long to produce. Even still, however much Zanotto invests in new processors and graphics cards, he inevitably just craves more power to keep up with his creative appetites. “You [always] try to go to the limit, I think.”
As for where Zanotto plans to go next, he’s opted not to invest his time solely into NFTs, as kind as they’ve been to him financially. This December, Zanotto will host a solo art show in a cathedral in Shanghai. He’ll have screens filled with his digital loops throughout the chapel, but he’ll also have large, physical sculptures of his characters, and an augmented reality experience, adding another digital layer to the exhibition.
“It’s all the mediums together, and that represents what I’m working toward,” says Zanotto. “I don’t want digital and physical art divided. Together it’s a medium. I find it weird that it’s so distinct between digital art and traditional art.”