Image: Bianca Cross
Image: Bianca Cross

IRLMay 5, 2022

Why do NFTs look like… that?

Image: Bianca Cross
Image: Bianca Cross

They’re pitched as digital art, but they usually look like ugly gamer avatars. How come? For IRL, Josie Adams finds out.

If you know anything about NFTs, you know most of them look like shit. They were sold to us as digital art, and while a few hotshots out there – Beeple, the estate of Rita Angus – are making big money living this dream, most NFTs don’t look very arty. They look like ugly gamer avatars.

NFT representation on social media is steadfastly in the profile picture genre: head and shoulders, facing left to right, plain background. They’re usually either highly-pixellated, or extremely smooth and round-headed. There will probably be 7,776 very similar versions of whichever NFT you buy, each with a tiny tweak to make it “unique”. But why do so many NFTs look like this? Is it actually bad art, or are we being a bit harsh?

The NFT look.

One design team was willing to sit down and explain themselves. London artist Ruben Varela and New Zealand-born, Australia-based NFT entrepreneur Adam Burns are preparing to release a new project together: WINS, a 555-NFT project intended for holding long-term, not flipping. When I ask if they know what I mean by the “NFT look”, they both sighed. “Yeah, yeah, yeah”, said Varela. “There definitely is a look, but that’s only because of the designing process.”

“If you do a forward or side profile, you can create so many variations,” he said. Many NFT projects release thousands of variations, all with unique combinations of features. “It’s just because of how time-consuming it would be to do different poses.”

NFT artist Ruben Varela says the design process helps explain the uniform look. (Photo: Supplied)

“That side profile,” Burns stopped and thought for a beat. “I guess if you look at social media and how it’s used in real life with a real photo, I think people are trying to capture that in a digital form.”

Burns said some features of the NFT look, like the 3D avatar style and the different background colours, are often the result of trends. “People coming into the industry and identifying the projects that are successful are trying to emulate them, maybe,” he said. He compares NFT artists to fashion designers, mostly just tweaking trends but sometimes resetting them entirely. “That’s the evolution of pixelated [NFTs] to 2D to 3D, and then what’s next after that?”

The Trillionaire Thugs NFTs, to pick one example among many, employ the classic side profile.

The WINS NFTs aren’t starting a trend, but they are earlyish adopters of one: anime NFTs. Burns and Varela have been kind enough to give Spinoff readers a sneak peek at what they’re working on. “I’m a weeb myself, so anime was the art I wanted to work with,” said Burns. “But also it was a part of the vision to capitalise on the market trend, which is currently anime. It was ahead of the curve when we were developing this, but it’s all kind of just dropping now as the trend.

Recently, the WINS community voted on a design feature for its upcoming NFTs. “We asked whether we wanted to have something specifically one colour, or if we wanted multiple colours.” Multiple colours won the vote. Burns doesn’t see putting design to a vote as diminishing the artistic value of his NFTs. “As an investor you would obviously want to have inclusion in the choices the company’s taking,” he said. It makes sense, he feels, to have the buyers weigh in on what they’re buying.

An exclusive sneak peak at the WINS NFT collection. (Image: supplied)

It’s also important, Varela points out, that artists on a project like this are team players. “Even if I think that a certain thing might be a little better, if they vote and say that they want [something else], then it’s best to give the people what they want. They feel involved in the project as well. It’s not just me.”

But at the end of the day, it is just Varela sitting at his computer turning every one of these design features into layers of Photoshop and Illustrator. He makes each eye colour, mouth expression, and hairstyle a different layer, until he has a stack of layers monstrous enough to feed into a coding program that spits out 5,000 or so unique arrangements.

The Spinoff’s creative director Toby Morris has explained NFTs as “bike locks as poems” for this reason.

Associate professor Susan Ballard, art historian at Te Herenga Waka, is struck by this push for uniqueness in NFTs; by the demand for each one in a collection of 555 to be different, and to have each one logged on the blockchain as an original. There are still fungible copies of NFT art – I sent her screengrabs of Cryptopunks and Metavogue. But these copies don’t have the utility or value of the original. “Is it about persuading us that there is something magical within the image? Or is it formed in the relationship between the owner and the image?” she wondered. “Rarity adds value, and this has been true of the art market for a very long time.”

However, she feels a work needs more than rarity to be considered art. “Even within the broader ecology of net art, these NFTs don’t yet seem to be engaging with the visuality or networked possibilities of the medium.” She pointed out projects like Trillionaire Thugs are engaging with the medium – the internet and blockchain technology – by operating as collectable cards; the art is an access point into a community.

Associate professor Susan Ballard thinks a work needs more than rarity to be considered art. (Photo: Supplied)

Ultimately, she said, NFTs aren’t yet at a point where art critics have much to work with. “I think it is an impossible task to apply the question of aesthetics to these works, if indeed that is what they are,” she said. “The NFT at this point in time is a sales mechanism and not a medium, and thus impossible to assess as ‘art’,” she said.” 

But she acknowledges this could change in the future. “Perhaps it is because we don’t yet have the parameters to evaluate them.”

Artists like Varela consider NFTs an art form in its infancy, too. He finds painting more enjoyable than layering up digital eyeballs, but sees creating these NFTs as a proving ground for the future. “Now is the time for digital artists and 3D artists to come into the spotlight and get the recognition they deserve,” he said. “And get the payment they deserve, because they’re getting royalties forever, and that’s priceless.”

He said rich buyers may not be famous art critics, but they’re also not just looking for cute profile pictures; some are looking for up-and-coming artists for the metaverses we might eventually start using. “Let’s say Picasso is alive and you’ve now got a Picasso piece before Picasso was Picasso,” said Varela. “That’s an NFT.”

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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