Beeple, the artist who goes by the name of Mike Winkelmann in the real world, is now the third most-expensive living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney.
On March 11, Christie’s auction company sold a piece of art titled, “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” for US$69.3 million. The sale made Beeple, the artist of the piece who goes by the name of Mike Winkelmann in the real world, the third most-expensive living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney. More historic than the price tag, though, was the fact that this piece of art was entirely digital – and paid for entirely in cryptocurrency.
This piece of art is known as a non-fungible token (NFT) and its massive sale proved the potency of a previously untouched industry of digital media sales. The first part of 2020 saw the industry blow up, with the total value of crypto art worth less than US$12 million in January, only to reach US$390 million by March 22.
That the sale of Beeple’s art was Christie’s first sale to accept Ethereum as payment only lent the industry more credibility in a space where classical art mediums were previously dominant, making Beeple one of the new pioneers of NFT art.
Mike Winkelmann was born in 1981 and raised in North Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where his father worked as an electrical engineer and his mother worked at a local senior center. He graduated in 2003 with a degree in Computer Science from Purdue University and no formal training in art.
Early in his career as a designer working on corporate websites, Winkelmann began his “Everydays” project. The project, which began on May 1, 2007, saw him using graphic design software to create a new piece of digital art every single day, something he’s now kept up with for nearly 14 years.
As his graphic design skills improved, Winkelmann moved to working as a freelancer for companies, specializing in professional graphics and animation for live events. He’s helped design animations for performances by artists like Imagine Dragons, Justin Beiber, Nicki Minaj and Marshmello.
He’s also done work for Apple which he described as “lame” and work for Elon Musk’s SpaceX that he described as “friggin’ sweet.”
In 2018, Winkelmann collaborated with Louis Vuitton in a collection for the company’s Spring 2019 Ready-To-Wear collection.
Selected pieces from Beeple’s “Everydays” collection were digitally printed onto a clothing line that premiered in a runway show at the Louvre in Paris, where he sat alongside Cate Blanchett and Alicia Vikander.
Beeple soon gained traction outside of the art and fashion communities too. Just a few months after the Louis Vuitton premiere that featured his work, other work he’d done was reposted by comedian Joe Rogan who urged his followers to follow Beeple, calling his work “amazing shit.”
But even after running his own art on a fashion line with Louis Vuitton, Winkelmann faced the same problem many graphic artists face. Monetization isn’t simple or easy with digital art which is easily replicable and, when printed, doesn’t have much real-world value.
As NFT marketplace SuperRare co-founder John Crain explained to Esquire, “A lot of super talented digital artists don’t fit the model for the contemporary art world. They don’t go to Art Basel. They’re active on GIF communities. They weren’t monetizing the work as fine art. They might have sold T-shirts on a Linktree.”
Rise of NFTs
Toward the end of 2020, Beeple began experimenting with NFT sales of his own. In October, he auctioned three of his pieces, including one titled “Crossroad” that would change depending on who ultimately won the 2020 presidential election in the United States.
“Crossroad” sold for US$66,666.66 in October and was resold in February for US$6.6 million.
In December, Beeple released another series of NFT works for auction. One of them, the finale of the auction, sold for US$777,777, which made it the most expensive NFT sold at that point.
The buyer, a blockchain enthusiast named Tim Kang, told Esquire that his bid, “was to show the world that this is the paradigm, this is the future.”
In February, Christie’s auction house announced they would be selling a work by Beeple. Christie’s had sold its first NFT work in October, but previous NFT sales included a physical canvas as well. The Beeple piece was the first sold by the auction house to not include any physical element.
The work is a digital collage of the first 5,000 pieces from Beeple’s “Everydays” collection, one piece for each day from May 1, 2007 to January 7, 2021. The piece, “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” sold for US$69.3 million after two weeks at auction.
Winkelmann now sees himself as a political cartoonist, “Except,” he told Christie’s, “instead of doing sketches, I’m using the most advanced 3D tools to make comments on current events, almost in real time.”
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