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Chronicles

For the Culture

Reflecting on my time at NFT NYC, some thoughts on NFTs, culture, and NFT culture.

There are so many NFT summits now that I joked, “All of this work is getting in the way of my NFT conferences.” NFT NYC, Art Basel, NFT LA, VeeCon, Consensus, Metaverse Miami, not to mention the regional conferences, developer conferences, crypto-specific conferences, and gaming conferences. We don’t need this many conventions, but they do serve a purpose for an industry that is assembling so rapidly, online discourse isn’t efficient enough. When thousands of crypto thought leaders gather in a city’s arenas, Michelin-star restaurants and bars to build the future together, witness the frenetic energy of a delirious Discord but spun with loose alcohol, antsy ETH, and COVID anxiety.

NFT NYC is held twice a year by an organization nobody can quite tell me anything about. They've never reached out to us (even though Adam Bomb Squad randomly won an award this year), so the past couple conferences, we’ve organized our own activations. Last Fall, we hosted a live Bomb Talk (my Twitter Spaces talk show) and threw a party with Steve Aoki. This year, we opened a The Hundreds pop-up shop with NFT-related apparel in SoHo. We staged a fake NFT protest with paid actors that went viral. I conducted another live Bomb Talk, this time with Spike Lee. And we threw one of the best shows of the week with Pusha T in Times Square.

Going into it, most of us were nervous that the sentiment would be low considering the crypto bear market. Perhaps because we were anticipating the worst, it kinda sorta turned out to be the best? Especially from the standpoint of community-building, networking, and solidifying relationships. Friendships flourished and bolstered my confidence in the work. It comforted me to know how many smart, capable, and powerful figures are backing the tech.

However, I wouldn’t say there was much noise in the sense of innovation or technical development. Doodles announcing Pharrell as their Chief Brand Officer was splashy. Blue-chip projects like Cool Cats and Azuki hosted incredibly fun activations. The Bored Apes held their music festival throughout the week with performances by LCD Soundsystem, HAIM, and Eminem. It was mainly vibes.

Speaking of BAYC, there was an incident leading up to NFT NYC that stayed in the back of my mind as the days unfolded. To generate hype for their Ape Fest, the Bored Ape Yacht Club stenciled their logo around the city in the spirit of guerrilla marketing. Most of the campaign was harmless, sprayed on the pavement with temporary paint. The marketing company that was hired got carried away with one specific placement, however. This employee must’ve assumed the NEKST bomb on the former Germania Bank was neutral grounds. What’s wrong with tossing in an ape skull for good measure? After all, the surrounding environment is layered with decades of tags and throw-ups.

Well, for one, they clearly weren’t aware of the street politics of going over another tag (which, is something you probably should be aware of if you get paid to stage street art stunts). Second, of all the walls, it wasn’t wise to deface one by NEKST, a luminary in the graffiti world whose name has been protected on Bowery and Spring since his passing a decade ago. In fact, when the current owners bought the building for $55 Million, they enshrined NEKST’s name out of respect not only to the artist, but New York’s underground graff community.

It didn’t take long for the Internet to flame BAYC. First, graffiti Instagram took turns scolding the Apes for their overstep. Within 24 hours, the social commentary ran the gamut from trolling dunks to vicious threats. This was unsurprising since BAYC is no stranger to controversy. They are, after all, the biggest target. As the marquis brand in a space that is subject to scorn and public challenge, every wrinkle is examined and exploited, from Discord scams to the gas fees around their land sale.

I can think of a few instances where NFTs have rubbed up awkwardly against deep culture. I remember when the designer Virgil Abloh passed in the Fall, a popular NFT voice making the effort to tweet that, “I have NO idea who Virgil is” amidst people mourning. Short-lived projects break into the space proclaiming their position as the “Supreme of NFTs.” Some brands see themselves as high fashion yet refer to their clothing as “merch.” As NFT projects and artists race to justify their value, they’re hastily slapping on any badges of cultural validity, but the experience is thin and clearly fabricated.

Although going over a NEKST piece warrants outrage, the anger wasn’t just about that. It wasn’t even really about BAYC. The tension between the graffiti world and the Apes was undergirded by a deeper frustration simmering around NFTs and crypto. Regardless of which side of the line you stand on, I think we can all agree that there is a complacent – and almost impudent - ignorance within segments of the NFT community when it comes to regarding outside culture. In fact, part of this nose-thumbing is what makes NFTs remarkable to begin with. The technology allows neophytes to circumvent the gatekeepers and the tastemakers. Historically “cool” cultures like music, graffiti, streetwear, tattoos and skateboarding are bound with tradition, hierarchies, and earning respect. One must pay dues, signed off by an order of predecessors. NFTs brush that process aside, granting everyone access and letting the marketplace determine who floats.

This is the reason why NFTs’ loudest influencers were relative unknowns 12 months ago. It’s why emerging artists and brands perform better than established gallery artists and companies. Of course, there are social puppeteers who affect trajectories but for the most part, an NFT’s growth is determined by the people, not the media, tastemakers or other systems. This frustrates those who believe in pecking orders and protecting power, but I absolutely love this about NFTs. It foils all the b.s. around family trees, industry politics, and blocking.

The canyon between crypto and culture must be traversed, however, if we want NFTs to have credibility and acceptance in the broader marketplace. Cultural awareness will make NFTs more familiar to an outsider and more friendly to a non-believer. It’s the same reasoning behind celebrity endorsements, a Jimmy Fallon wink, and tokengated concerts headlined by popular musicians. As much as our waking moments are consumed by the digital universe, most of our reality is still tethered to cultures in the physical world. And the more correspondence between the two sides of the looking glass, the faster the boundary dissipates. Cultural sensitivity also lends to the holistic betterment of NFTs. Being attuned to other cultures opens NFTs up to alternative insight, collaborative opportunities and surprising innovation. As someone who has led hundreds of collabs over the years, I can attest to the population growth that comes with cross-cultural exposure as well.

Although it is important for the NFT community to be mindful of outside culture, it might be even more critical to develop culture of its own. Think of culture as the rich soil base for the ecosystem. NFTs have made significant progress in reaching across to the mainstream and onboarding millions of newcomers to the wonders of blockchain ownership. Yet for them to plant deep roots, there must be a hospitable alternative to other cultures and an incentive to chill. For one, we need social rewards like community with shared values and goals.

The anthropologist E.B. Tylor defines “culture” as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society… A social domain that emphasizes the practices, discourses and material expressions, which, over time, express the continuities and discontinuities of social meaning of a life held in common.

I trace it all the way back to how brands and communities are codified in the first place. In almost every culture and subculture, the origins story begins with a group of people who are drawn to an art, who dedicate themselves to the craft and creation of this interest without any forethought of profitability or scaling. In fact, the most authentic cultures rally in rejection of money. As the phenomenon grows and attracts more devotees, outside corporate hawks take interest, seeing an opportunity to build infrastructure and capitalize off the zealous few. Some cultures – like hardcore, for example – resist this type of growth. Others - like streetwear, perhaps - eventually adopt (or succumb to) the commercial expansion.

NFT brands, on the other hand, do this backwards. Largely because of the mechanics of the marketplace and the basic technology in valuing a project’s worth (conflating secondary floor price with consumer conviction), the focus from the very start is not on art appreciation, but on how much money can be made by selling the product. You can immediately see how antithetical and counterproductive this mentality can be in forging brand loyalty. It also establishes the community on a very feeble foundation. All money is green. In metaverse speak, cash is interoperable. If your primary objective is to get richer, there will always be other avenues to explore: the next crypto, the new NFTs. If you haven’t cultivated a connection with the art, the practice, and rituals, you won’t stick around when the profits narrow (we’re seeing this firsthand with the bear market). You’ll migrate to pastures where the money is greener.

So, the big question is how do we create an authentic, meaningful culture around NFTs? Is the collective interest of investing and flipping enough to bind a community together? Or do we need to drill deeper than that? And why would a collector want to associate with – or even identify as – a specific NFT brand?

This brings me back to NFT NYC. Night after night, I pinballed from one party to the next. There was a clear upgrade from the last NFT NYC, when the standard of a holders’ event hovered somewhere between pizza-box frat party and shoestring Comic-Con activation circa 2009. Most every function this time around featured a notable DJ, band or rapper. The venues were top-shelf thanks to corporate sponsorships. Yet, once again, we were running things in reverse. Parties are spaces to celebrate a culture, not a culture in itself. What exactly were we congregating for?

People want to be a part of something. Remember what Tylor said: “A life held in common.” Yes, they want to join a community, but it must be centered around a joint cause or obsession. If it’s just about ETH, there’s no distinction between the Ether gained by trading one project over another. I’ve seen this play out in our own project, Adam Bomb Squad, with collectors who profess allegiance to the bombs only to adopt a new avatar as they trade up the ladder. Some of those people won't last in the space because their avatar isn’t a bomb or a zombie or a punk. Spiritually, it’s the Ethereum logo. And their tribe is currency, which can always be mined more conveniently elsewhere. Money isn’t a culture. In fact, it’s argued that it’s the opposite force. The surrounding behaviors and rituals to get to the money, however, can very well make up a legitimate culture.

Critics decry NFTs as superficial if they only see currency as the culture. I think that’s fair. On a cursory glance, most Telegram groups are focused on flips and the media loves a big sale (or steal). But, NFTs also espouse agreed-upon principles and worldviews like decentralization and fairness for artists. NFTs follow customary practices like alpha chats, minting drop mechanics, and DAOs. “Culture” has been defined differently throughout history, but in the 20th century, authors like Dick Hebdige emphasized the symbolism around culture as a means to communicate experiences socially. In NFTs, that signaling is performed through social media PFPs and metaverse avatars. Contrary to media coverage, there is also a cultlike appreciation for the art, whether it’s the Tezos community or the work of blue-chip NFT figures like ThankYouX, FVCKRENDER, and Amber Vittoria.

Finally, the true test of a culture is the relational bonds. Cultures are often decided by how they differ from other clubhouses, furnishing a sanctuary for the socially homeless and discontented. I find that many in the NFT community have exhausted inspiration in their native sectors or are desperate to resolve a nagging Web2 problem. NFTs are not only a gold rush of crypto, but fresh ideas and pioneering dreams. As sterile as an NFT conference can be, it can be a birthing grounds for a movement. Much of modern streetwear’s cultural heritage can be attributed to tradeshows like ASR, MAGIC, and Agenda. The culture wasn't conceived on the Paris runways or behind the granite counter of a downtown boutique. It was birthed from hungover conversations in the boring corners of a conference hall. The only obstacle with NFTs is time. While this space is in a hurry to build a culture, there is no expediting an organic forested network of collaborations, conflicts, and milestones. Sometimes you just gotta let it grow.

I had fun in New York making new memories with a burgeoning community. But as I crisscrossed the LES hitting NFT events, I kept stumbling into figures I’ve known for half my life in streetwear. People like Tremaine Emory (Denim Tears), Mike Malbon (Frank’s Chop Shop), the tattoo artist Luke Wessman, and Kevin Bailey (VANS). I even had a chance encounter with James Jebbia, the founder of Supreme, around the corner from our former NY flagship. We didn’t chat about streetwear because we’d said all that needed to be said. Instead, we discussed family, global affairs, and summer travels. For a brief window of time, I felt at home, having spent the week roaming the foreign NFT NYC terrain. I cherish specific memories over the years with each of these individuals and as streetwear history trudges along, their contributions comprise a golden tapestry of inedible culture. It made me sentimental for the past and also curious about the future. I wondered about the conversations I’ll hold with my NFT friends twenty years from now and what we’ll see when we look behind us. There is no telling what NFT culture will be, but I’m excited to get started.

In the end, I knew nothing would come of the BAYC NEKST situation. The NFT space has the memory of a goldfish – not just for market trends, but also scandals and tea. By the time Questlove fired up his turntables at Ape Fest, the NEKST wall was a distant memory to most NFTers, the only faint reminder being BAYC stencils crossed-out by someone's marker across Soho sidewalks. By now, I’m sure most of those ape skulls have washed off the pavement, the ephemeral dye sloughing off into the sewer grates with the rest of the city soot. Those black Xes will remain, however. The permanent paint baked deep into the streets of New York City.