Art collectors’ guide to NFTs

From Beeple’s $69 million collage to a former MLB player’s Black astronaut series, some of the most interesting and pioneering artists in the space

Published on November 17, 2021

A year ago, almost nobody had ever heard of NFTs — the non-fungible tokens that can represent ownership in almost anything, from digital art to virtual real estate to actual real estate. Then, this March, a collage of 5,000 images by an artist named Beeple sold for $69 million at an auction at Christie’s, and the economics of the art world were suddenly flipped upside down. 

In 2020, the entire NFT market was worth a little more than $200 million. This year? More than $12 billion in digital assets traded hands by the end of August, and industries from Hollywood and the music biz to fashion and big-league sports are investing in NFT projects. NBA Top Shot, for instance — which packages basketball highlights into digital trading cards — has redefined the idea of what a collectible is in the digital age. “Blue-chip” generative NFT collections like CryptoPunks (Jay-Z owns one, as does Visa) and Bored Ape Yacht Club (Steph Curry is a collector), have evolved from art projects into signifiers of membership in rarified clubs — complete with access to exclusive spaces and events. 

But artists, in many ways, remain at the center of the NFT universe — because NFTs have transformed the basic economics of art markets by allowing creators to capture a percentage every time their work is resold. Imagine taking a photo, and getting a 10% cut every time it’s resold for the rest of your life. In the traditional art world, that’s impossible. With NFTs, it is quickly becoming the norm, because the smart contracts that power NFTs allow artists to set rules about how they’ll be compensated for their work — rules that remain in place long after the art leaves their hands. 

If you want to get into collecting NFT art, most experts recommend buying pieces that you love as opposed to chasing the kind of eye-popping returns you may have read about — because digital art markets are still new and can be highly volatile. Doing your research is also key — a big part of the appeal of many NFT projects is the community that forms around them, so don’t be afraid to dive into the fan communities on Discord, Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere.

(Looking for a quick guide to buying an NFT? We have you covered. You can also sign up for the Coinbase NFT waitlist.) 

To get you started in exploring the NFT-art landscape, we wanted to introduce you to some of the key players in the space  — from some of the best known to some of the pioneers. They’re an interesting bunch: a wide range of ages, working all over the world, some of whom barely knew what crypto was 18 months ago. This year, they’ve reinvented what it means to make a living as an artist and become the pioneers in a new model of digital ownership that has created connections, wealth, and opportunities beyond what many of them imagined. 

Pplpleasr (Emily Yang), 29 

Estimated total sales volume: 2,000 ETH

First mint date: September, 2020

Where her fans hang: PleasrDAO

Above: 'Apes Together Strong,' by PplPleasr. Proceeds from the sale were donated to autism-advocacy orgs.

In 2020, PplPleasr — who has contributed visual-effects work to feature films (Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and top-tier game studios (Blizzard) — was set to start a gig doing digital art for Apple. But when the offer was rescinded for COVID-related reasons, she discovered the worlds of NFTs and DeFi — and has become one of the most popular and outspoken players in the space. Her images have helped define the brand aesthetic for the DeFi industry and an eponymous DAO pools its money to collect her work and other high-value digital art. When her first NFT sold for 310 ETH ($525,000 at the time), she donated the proceeds to Stand With Asians, a movement with the goal of stopping hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. And a recent NFT series released in collaboration with Fortune magazine has raised more than $1 million to support independent journalism. As the artist says, “My goal of selling NFTs for a living has shifted to seeing how I can use NFTs to innovate and pave new paths.”

FEWOCiOUS (Victor Langloi), 18

Estimated total sales volume: 601 ETH

First mint date: November, 2020

Where his fans hang: @Fewocious on Discord

Above: "how to forget a sweetheart" by FEWOCiOUS. Image courtesy the artist.

At age 18, Victor Langloi — a.k.a. FEWOCiOUS — is already a trailblazing NFT artist. Traffic to his online collection “Hello, i'm Victor (FEWOCiOUS) and This Is My Life” crashed the website of auction giant Christie’s. In the last year, he’s earned tens of millions of dollars with his art, which often references his difficult childhood and gender transition. His vibrant, psychedelic hues and the diaryesque lines of text he folds in have drawn comparisons to Basquiat. Victor began drawing as a kid, as a means of escape from an abusive household in Las Vegas and as a way to express the questions he had about his gender identity. In addition to art project, he’s also working on a metaverse-native fashion line and a generative character collection.

Tyler Hobbs, 34 

Estimated total Sales Volume: 28,000 ETH 

First mint date: June, 2021

Where his fans hang: @ArtBlocks on Discord

Above: Tyler Hobbs' "Fidenza #488". Image courtesy the artist.

In June, Hobbs’ Fidenza 313 — an abstract geometric work reminiscent of modern-art masters like Mondrian or Sol LeWitt — was minted for .17 ETH. A few months later, it sold for 1000 ETH, which was worth $3.3 million at the time. Hobbs, who used to work as a software engineer, created the 999 images of the Fidenza series as his first NFT project, and released it as part of the Art Blocks collection — a specialized marketplace for computer-generated artworks. Named after a town in Italy that Hobbs found on Google Maps, the Fidenza series are generated by an algorithm that Hobbs said he’d been working on since 2016. It spits out unpredictable, often organic-seeming patterns that often feature vibrant color schemes. As a coder, he says he wants his art to inspire viewers to wonder, “What separates man from machine?”

Pak, age unknown

Highest sale: $70 million

First mint date: August, 2020

Where his fans hang: @Archillect on Twitter

Above: Pak's collection "The Title" is meant to question whether or not art is a "visible thing." Image courtesy Pak.

The anonymous Pak, whose mysterious AI project Archillect scrapes the internet for “stimulating visual content,” has worked with hundreds of major brands and studios over the last two decades as a designer. In September, Pak’s “Lost Poets” — a collection of more than 65,000 “poets,” each of which doubles as a digital collectible that can be used in a forthcoming strategy game — sold out within two hours, earning around $70 million. Whoever Pak is, the image-maker has a button-pushing sensibility. At Sotheby’s first-ever NFT auction in April, Pak sold a piece called  “The Pixel” — literally a single grey pixel — for $1.36 million. For a collection called “The Title,” Pak sold many versions of an identical digital cube with different titles and prices ranging from $1 to $1 million. (The mystery surrounding Pak is a big part of the appeal to fans, many of whom scour the work for hidden messages.)

Monica Rizzolli, 39

Estimated total sales volume: 12,000 ETH

First mint date: January, 2021

Where her fans hang: @ArtBlocks on Discord

Above: Fragments of an Infinite Field #918. (Image courtesy the artist.)

Brazilian generative artist Rizzolli rose to prominence in September with “Fragments of an Infinite Field,” a series of 1024 pieces released through the generative-art platform Art Blocks. The series, which is inspired by nature and which features playful patterns of flowers and vibrant colors, earned 1623 ETH ($5.3 million at the time) in less than an hour. Like many NFT artists who’ve earned fortunes this year, Rizzolli said her success was a big surprise. Her goals now include promoting art education in her home country. As she told Time, “I also want to develop something in the educational field here in Brazil—to return some of this to the community.”

Beeple (Mike Winkelmann), 40

Highest sale: $69 million 

First mint date: October, 2020

Where his fans hang: @Beeple Collectors on Discord

Above: Beeple's "Everydays: the First 5000 Days" NFT. Image courtesy the artist.

Before turning to NFTs, Beeple was already a pretty successful artist who had done commercial work for major brands and musicians including Justin Beiber and Wiz Khalifa. He’d also gathered an obsessed fanbase on Instagram with his “Everydays” project, in which he posted a (typically bizarre, satirical, and highly detailed) image every day since 2007. But in the pre-NFT-era, the most money he’d ever made selling prints of his work the traditional way was around $100. Just weeks after he discovered NFTs, he released his first drop, which included the tongue-in-cheek piece “Crypto Is Bull****” — an animation featuring a man in a Guy Fawkes riding a “bitcoin bull” in what appears to be the depths of hell. It sold for $66,666.66. Soon after, a collage of the first 5,000 drawings from his Everydays project was auctioned for $69 million at Christie’s, which remains the record for the most expensive NFT of all-time.

Itzel Yard, 31 

Estimated sales volume: 745 ETH 

First mint date: February, 2021

Where her fans hang: twitter.com/ix_shells

Above: "Casco Viejo," one of Itzel Yard's first generative artworks. Image courtesy the artist.

Before her glitchy low-fi generative images made her one of the most successful female NFT creators ever, the Panamanian artist was an architectural technology student in Canada. After she was forced to leave school in 2019 because she couldn’t afford to continue, the self-taught coder created the algorithm that powers her work. But even then, she couldn’t afford the gas fees to mint her first NFT (she got some help from a friend). In May, her piece “Dreaming at Dusk” (which was commissioned by the online privacy group the Tor Project) sold for 500 ETH ($2 million at the time) to PleasrDAO, solidifying her position among the leaders of the burgeoning generative art space. Her most recent piece, Casco Viejo, which represents the town where she grew up in Panama, sold for 120 ETH. Yard is also the co-founder of Creative Code Art, an online community that facilitates networking among emerging generative artists.

Kid.Eight, age unknown

Estimated total sales volume: 8,800 ETH

First mint date: January, 2021

Where his fans hang: @EVOLGANG on Discord

Above: one of Kid.Eight's GEVOLs. Image courtesy the artist.

U.K.-based designer and motion artist (and entertaining Twitter personality) Kid.Eight used to design mixtape covers for artists including Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane before turning to NFTs full-time. His main project, GEVOLs, features a series of generative digital cherubs decked out in street wear and tattoos. “It’s a new way of thinking about what a generative collection can be,” the artist says. The project’s roadmap includes a line of merchandise under the line “EVOL Couture,” and the creation of a fund to help new artists find their footing in the NFT space. To date, artists that the fund has supported have already earned more than $70,000 in sales.

Diana Sinclair, 17

Estimated total sales volume: 85 ETH

First mint date: March, 2021

Where her fans hang: @DianaSinclair on Twitter

Above: Diana Sinclair's "Generational Healing" was featured in Time magazine's NFT collection TimePieces. Image courtesy the artist.

At just 17, Diana Sinclair has already become a bonafide artist, curator and community builder in the NFT space. As a photographer, her work is focused firmly on social justice, identity and self-exploration. As a curator, Sinclair put together The Digital Diaspora: Liberating Black Creativity, an exhibition featuring Black artists from around the globe that was held in New York last Juneteenth. And as a community builder, she’s been dedicated to onboarding dozens of other Black women into the crypto ecosystem, teaching concepts like staking and yield farming. As Sinclair puts it:  “We’ve got to start looking at how we pre-distribute wealth and resources, rather than redistribute it, and crypto could be a space to do that.” 

Justin Aversano, 29 

Estimated total sales volume: 4,200 ETH

First mint date: February, 2021

Where his fans hang: @Quantum.Art on Discord

Above: Jessica & Joyce Gayo, who were photographed as part of Justin Aversano's "Twin Flames" project. Image courtesy the artist.

Aversano’s best-known project, “Twin Flames,” is made up of 100 portraits of twins across the world — it began in 2017 as an ode to his own unborn twin sibling. When he minted the photos as NFTs for .55 ETH each on Valentine’s Day 2021, they sold out in days. He’s since become perhaps the most recognized photographer in the NFT scene. Aversano’s NFTs have been auctioned at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s — and through his Discord server, he’s been building community by connecting artists and collectors and onboarding newbies into the world of NFTs. He recently launched Quantum Art, a photography-centric NFT platform with the hopes of creating more room for photographers in the space.

Hackatao, age unknown

Estimated total sales volume: 621 ETH

First mint date: April, 2018

Where their fans hang: @$Whale on Discord

Above: Hackatao's "Queeny" sold for 140 ETH ($673,036) in March. Image courtesy the artist.

Hackatao are an anonymous, Milan-based Italian who have been minting NFTs since 2018. “The Girl Next Door,” their first NFT, established their best-known style: gothy, Tim Burton-ish images of women with huge eyes and skin covered in childlike drawings of bats and skulls. They’ve since collaborated with artists across digital mediums, from augmented reality to VR — with much of their work commenting on societal issues via dense references to art history, symbolism, and psychology. The duo has also created a digital currency, $MORK, that gives holders exclusive rights to buy new work, access intimate discussions about art and the NFT market, and even potentially the chance to collaborate on a project with Hackatao. 

Nicole Buffett, 45

Estimated total sales volume: 68 ETH

First mint date: February, 2021

Above: One of Nicole Buffett's Spirit Coins, which she says "represent a hearkening back to ancient tribal ways of trading as currency." Image courtesy artist.

Warren Buffett has never been a fan of crypto. But one of his granddaughters, painter Nicole Buffett, has the opposite perspective. Nicole began minting her work as NFTs during the COVID pandemic seeking a larger audience than could be found via traditional galleries. Her most popular project “Spirit Coins,” references spiritual practices like meditation and concepts like collective healing. She sees NFTs as a driver for social change, and released a piece in collaboration with the Open Earth Foundation to raise money for a dolphin sanctuary off the coast of Costa Rica. Buffett prides herself in making art that's affordable to almost anyone, rather than creating exclusivity with her pricing. “I like to see myself as an everyday artist. I want people to be able to easily buy it and enjoy it,” she said. (Buffett also happens to be Justin Aversano’s partner, and was featured, along with her twin sister, in his Twin Flames project.)

Stefan Meier, 29 and Aidan Cullen, 22

Estimated total sales volume: 3,700 ETH

First mint date: September, 2021 

Where their fans hang: @TheHeartProject on Discord

Above: The Heart Project's unofficial mascot. (Courtesy the artists.)

About two years ago, Meier, a Los Angeles-based artist and fashion designer, began working on a series of paintings inspired by cartoons he loved as a kid. He was drawn to hearts, he says, “because of [their] simple and universal message of love, healing, and compassion.” He teamed up with Cullen, a photographer and director who has worked with A-list artists like Trippie Redd and A$AP Rocky, to launch generative NFT series The Heart Project this fall. The Heart Project bills itself as the first “decentralized creative studio” — holders of the 10,000 NFTs can collaborate via Discord on creative projects including photo zines, music videos, and a clothing line. Up next: the community is working with Grammy-winning producer Benny Blanco and rapper Lil Dicky on a song that will be sold as an NFT.

Micah Johnson, 30

Estimated total sales volume: 426 ETH

First mint date: January, 2020

Where his fans hang: AKU World on Discord

Until a few years ago, Micah Johnson only made art part-time, because his day job was kind of a big deal: he played second base for major-league baseball teams including the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The self-taught artist discovered painting after Dodgers manager Dave Roberts asked players to show off a talent as part of a spring-training tradition. He enjoyed his hobby enough to begin nurturing it during downtime and was soon showing work at an Atlanta gallery. In 2018, Johnson retired from baseball to focus on art full-time. His work is centered around empowering young Black kids to dream without limitations. His breakthrough collection “AKU: The Moon God” — based around a Black astronaut character — was inspired by his four-year-old nephew asking: “Can astronauts be Black?” AKU NFTs generated more than $2 million in sales over the course of a two-day auction in February and the character has been optioned for TV and film projects.