Last June at six artists – Jet Martinez, Wolfe Pack, Vogue, Joshua Mays, Bud Snow and Ruff Draft – have launched on the fifth floor of Oakland’s most iconic building: the Tribune Tower. When they entered, they painted and placed murals on 10,000 square feet of empty walls. The pieces ranged in style and theme, from the figurative work of Wolfe Pack celebrating the IceCold3000 dancer to the contemporary work of Jet Martinez in pastel colors inspired by Mexican folk art. Within a few months, these murals were gone — erased by their own hands. The works should never have lived in that building. They were intended for the metaverse.
It is not uncommon for street art to have a short lifespan, but this was different. Destruction has always been part of the Murals to Metaverse plan, a plan that turned the transience of street art into a characteristic, not a bug. In the days between the creation and destruction of their works, the artists did something unusual: each mural was scanned and turned into a 3D model of itself. Each is then enhanced using augmented reality. For almost two weeks, the group led AR tours of the space, allowing about 300 people to enjoy an impressive experience. After being destroyed, the murals were forged on the blockchain as NFT and now live in digital form. “Buildings can collapse, weather can cause damage, and development can interfere with views,” explains artist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith, aka Wolfe Pack, who led the project. “By scanning murals and turning them into NFT, we are perpetuating art forever.”
This is a far cry from the image many people have of street artists – of lonely figures, spray cans in the air, secretly painting in the dead of night so that cleaning teams can whiten their piece the next morning. Far from being vandals, a new generation of street artists often works on city-approved projects, placing murals celebrating community and history on prominent buildings. Unlike graffiti artists who throw marks, they make marks of a different kind and, more and more often, incorporate technology that enhances and expands the experience beyond the wall.
Independent curator Gita Joshi, presenter Curatorial salon podcast, is not surprised by this rapid adoption of technology. “Street artists are often rebellious in nature,” she says, “so it makes sense to be at the forefront of development in the digital space where people outside of street art can see their work.”
Even before technology became an integral part of art itself, it was a tool that artists depended on, from software to visualize and edit their work to projectors used to mount it on walls. Technology has also permeated the aesthetics of street art. “Technology has influenced muralist processes from imagination to implementation,” says Wolfe-Goldsmith. “In today’s art, we see design elements such as breakdowns, pixelation, distortion, chromatic aberration and digital collage. Street art is compelling because it is for everyone, without barriers. It is the voice of the city that expresses political unrest, joy, cultural movements and creative trends. ”
However, generating revenue from this remains a challenge. NFTs could change that. “NFTs allow artists to increase international audiences, get paid, and find advocacy for their work,” says Joshi, in the mood for what the near future might bring. “As people buy real estate in, say, Decentraland, I expect NFT street artists to find new opportunities as commissioned artists.”
Perhaps the best indicator of the potential of this market is the emergence of companies like Street, which is focused exclusively on forging NFT street art. “Street art is perhaps the most underrated and undeserved niche in the art sector,” says co-founder and CEO Marco Calamassi, “but at the same time it is the most creative, the most disruptive, where the artist has the most freedom of speech, the greatest freedom of message.” Streetth is not alone. The NFT Mural Collective was created by street artists to support the genre in the NFT market. “Street art deserves as much place in art history as Cubism, Dadaism or Surrealism,” said artist and founder Stacey Coon, aka StaySea, who founded the group after marking and destroying two of its murals. “NFT contracts and platforms give us a way to be those historians.”
Forging NFT can be a surprisingly simple process. In its most basic form, all it takes is to have a crypto wallet and a digital version of your artwork. Most sites will walk you through the rest of the process, as the NFT Mural Collective does, requiring you to fill out a form with a few details about the work. You have more control and transparency in selling a piece than in many traditional settings, from choosing the starting price for a piece to deciding on the percentage of secondary sale royalties you will receive if the piece is resold, as well as choosing between a range of payment methods. Then the platform picks up and forges a piece for you.
With all the lightness, profitability and durability that a blockchain can offer, the physical presence of a mural is still irreplaceable. As e.g. Majestic, a 15,000-square-foot mural painted in downtown Tulsa by artists Ryan Sarfati and Eric Skotnes, aka Yanoe X Zoueh. Rich in paintings that reflect the art deco heritage of the city and the flora and fauna of Oklahoma, it depicts a central angel and two children in a lush setting resembling Henry Rousseau with woodpeckers, butterflies, swallowtails and catfish. So much power of this mural is its relevance to the place and community in which it is located. But that power doesn’t stop at the ends of the wall, but is also in the QR code on the mural, which unlocks an enlarged version of the work with floating fish, flying butterflies and clouds rushing across the sky. Those who cannot view the work in Tulsa can view the augmented reality version of the mural online.
“Five years ago, thinking about a 15,000-square-foot augmented reality mural was unheard of,” Sarfati says. “I’d love to create more physical art than digital at the moment, but combining the two is great.”
But murals on the scale of Majestic they need big budgets. Sarfati and Scotnes managed to generate additional revenue through NFT from works the duo released in Art Basel Miami in December, but services such as the NFT Mural Collective also allow artists to raise funds based on work proposals that will be forged when finished. To blur the boundaries between the real and digital worlds and encourage online fans to engage in physical murals, each wall will feature the Proof of Attendance Protocol, or POAP, a digital memento that anyone can collect on each unique mural site they visit. “NFTs are expanding the audience of artists because they are not only targeting street art fans, but also NFT fans, digital art fans and crypto fans,” says Calamassi. “It’s a huge audience that is getting bigger and bigger every day.”
The fact that sponsoring online collectors could fund the creation of real-world murals could be the best use of NFT to date. “Nothing can ever change a deep emotional response by looking at a large-scale mural in person,” says Coon. “Immortalizing the mural on the blockchain allows these beautiful and massive works of art to live on after the deadline.”
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