New media artist ThankYouX: ‘Creating NFTs gave me that same feeling I got when I went out at night to paint the streets’
From underground art to immersive installations for Soho House Miami, ThankYouX reveals how ever-evolving technology has helped shape his burgeoning career
ThankYouX is one of the most in-demand contemporary artists working in the digital realm today. As well as releasing collaborations with partners ranging from Soho House and Samsung to the Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, he is also one of a handful of makers to have successfully ridden the NFT wave.
Rewind to the start of the last decade and ThankYouX, a young graphic designer, had begun to make his name in a traditionally analogue art world: the Los Angeles graffiti scene. Employing image-editing software such as Photoshop and Illustrator, he started creating stencils of the Pop Art icon Andy Warhol, then spraying them on walls together with his tag, ‘Thank You X’.
Soon, however, ThankYouX was in search of something more fulfilling. He began to look to artists such as Frank Stella and Cy Twombly. ‘I asked myself, “Well, what’s my version of that era’s work?”’ he tells Christie’s. ‘I went through all these different phases in my studio, like completely abstract, minimalist and sculptural stuff.’
A breakthrough moment came when ThankYouX combined the digital skills he had used in his day job with these new-found painterly ambitions. ‘I jumped into virtual reality around 2016. I would sit in a virtual room for hours and just paint these abstract worlds through my goggles. I thought it would be the next big thing.’
Not long after he began working in VR, ThankYouX was commissioned to create an immersive installation at Soho House Miami during Art Basel. But it didn’t take long for the artist to realise the tech’s limits.
‘It was an experiential thing, but then afterwards it was like, OK, you can post it on Facebook... but that’s it,’ he recalls. ‘I was doing all this digital stuff, but hitting this wall. It was really cool, but not going anywhere. For example, you’d have to email stuff, then download a certain app that had the right capabilities to display it. There were just a lot of friction points that didn’t make sense. Such as, what if you didn’t have a Samsung phone or Facebook?’
Fortunately, in 2020, ThankYouX received an email flagging a new technology that would solve his dilemma.
‘I got a link saying, “Have you checked out this non-fungible token thing?” I was like, I don’t know what that is, but I don’t have time for it. I was doing pretty well selling paintings. But a week later they sent it to me again, saying I had to pay attention, so I replied, “Can you just explain it to me real quick?”’
The ensuing conversation sparked a memory from 2017. ‘Back then I had been talking to a friend about these things called CryptoKitties, which were cats on the blockchain that people were buying and breeding and selling. At first I thought it sounded stupid, but then I thought, “What if I did that with art?” So when I had NFTs explained to me in 2020, it was a real “Aha!” moment.’
‘I think there will be a few more speculative bubbles, and then NFTs will be a normal thing. I mean, even the Picasso market fluctuates a little bit here and there, right?’
Partnering with a photographer friend called J.N. Silva, ThankYouX worked on his first series of NFTs. ‘We looked at the space and saw nothing like what we were doing,’ he says. ‘It was all 3D models of mannequins spinning in a circle or whatever. We had the idea to do my friend’s photos with my abstract shapes flying through them.
‘Creating NFTs gave me that same feeling I got when I used to go out in the middle of the night and paint the streets,’ he adds. ‘You’d happen across another artist who was doing the same thing and you became friends. It felt like this underground movement right beneath the art world’s nose. And for a long time, the attitude coming our way was, “It’s not real art, just some scummy kids doing some illegal stuff.”’
The pair got in touch with the online NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway, only to discover that the company had already been trying to contact them for months.
‘The founder, Duncan Cock Foster, had DM’d me saying, “We have this marketplace on the blockchain where you can sell your work”, but I didn’t see it because it was in my junk folder, and even if I had, it would have sounded like a scam. But then we went for it, thinking, “Well, let’s fail, but at least be part of it.”’
ThankYouX + J.N. Silva, Avenue of the Americas, NFT minted 30 December 2022 (Nifty Gateway)
The drop was so successful that Nifty Gateway asked the pair to create a second series straight away.
ThankYouX admits that he didn’t expect NFTs to prove as popular as they have, adding that initially he had to use online forums to discover a like-minded community to help him push the technological boundaries of his art.
What often sets ThankYouX’s digital work apart, however, is its physical element, whether that’s an accompanying painting or a print. In his studio, he reveals a work in progress: a huge painting with a tablet-sized monitor embedded in the surface. The screen displays the NFT component 24 hours a day — and, crucially, it can’t be reprogrammed.
‘NFTs will be called something else. Something that’s a less dirty word in the art world’
‘You can look it at it one of two ways,’ says ThankYouX. ‘Either you buy the painting then I transfer you the NFT that comes with it. Or you buy the NFT on the blockchain with crypto, then get sent the painting.’
The new work builds on an idea ThankYouX had for his 2022 drop State of the Art, which involved cutting four gigantic paintings into 400 individual tiles.
‘You could buy the NFT of each section and get the tile with it. Then, on the secondary market, you can buy the surrounding tiles and collect a larger part of the original painting,’ he explains.
One industry that has eagerly adopted NFTs, says ThankYouX, is the music business. He has received collaboration requests from several famous musicians.
‘They were searching for alternative revenue streams, then discovered the NFT space,’ he explains. ‘I told my agent, “I don’t need a big-name artist to work with me — their name doesn’t matter as much as mine does in this space right now.”’
But then came an offer ThankYouX couldn’t refuse. ‘I paint to Hans Zimmer’s music in my studio. He was the only musician I considered working with on a drop. My agent said, “What if we can get him?” One week later, I’m sitting in his studio.
‘Hans said he didn’t want to just give me a song he had made for Gladiator years ago, but wanted to start from scratch. That was the perfect scenario for me. He recorded the sound of me painting in my studio and moving my canvases around, which made it into the final composition. It was such a special experience, going back and forth, me teasing him with an image, then him teasing me with a piano lead.’
Does ThankYouX see parallels between the music industry’s adoption of digital technologies and the way the art market has taken to NFTs?
‘I certainly think NFTs are here to stay. As more people come on board, it’s going to get there. Auction houses like Christie’s are igniting interest with sales of work by artists such as Beeple and FEWOCiOUS. They have given these artists a platform in the physical art world, and that has made galleries and museums pay attention.’
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ThankYouX also makes it clear that he sees a widening distinction between some NFTs and others. ‘It’s like comparing Pokémon cards to Picassos,’ he says. ‘Bored Apes are collectibles, not fine art.
‘I think there will be a few more speculative bubbles that will come and go, and then NFTs will be a normal thing. I mean, even the Picasso market fluctuates a little bit here and there, right?’
Does he have any other predictions? ‘NFTs will be called something else, hopefully. Something that’s a less dirty word in the art world.’