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Philly Street Artists Are Dipping Their Toes Into NFTs

August 22, 2021

Written by Streets Dept Contributor, Eric Dale

When was the last time a visit to a gas station made your day? If you said “never,” we’re in the same boat—at least, we were until last week, when I went to the Sunoco in East Falls. There, at the intersection of Ridge and Midvale, I spotted a piece of street art by “well-known saxophone player and artist” Butter and Salmon (as they asked to be identified).

Actually, on its face, the piece hardly qualifies as street art—it’s nothing more than a large QR code sticker with the words “Butter and Salmon” in the middle. But when I held up my camera and saw where the code led, it immediately clicked as the perfect evolution of Butter and Salmon’s work. It was a link to their OpenSea profile—a platform for buying and selling NFTs.

You’ve probably heard about NFTs by now. And you probably still don’t understand them. That’s ok! For the purposes of this post, all you need to know is that an NFT is basically a unique digital artwork that can be bought and sold online and whose ownership can be proven and traced.

NFTs experienced a large bubble this spring and summer as they were discovered by artists and consumers, many of whom were stuck at home with a lot of stimulus money lying around. NFTs haven’t been in the news as much recently, but they are slowly growing in popularity. To me, the whole concept still feels highly experimental and slightly rebellious right now—which makes it ripe for adoption by street artists, naturally!

“I decided to hop on because it’s another avenue for an artist like me to get paid doing what I already like doing,” says El Toro, one of Philly’s first two sticker artists. “Digital art is in a weird space where I can upload it to IG, but it doesn’t have any return value to me besides some likes and comments.”

He’s right—digital art, like street art, is difficult to sell. But NFTs solve one of the problems purchasers can encounter: ownership. “Proof of ownership is important to collectors,” Butter and Salmon told me. “[I’ve] done digital art now for 10+ years and no matter how big or nicely framed my prints were, people refused to place a value in my work anywhere close to [that of] a painting.”

Another Philly street artist who has started creating NFTs is Kyle Confehr. He has different reasons for exploring this new way of selling art. “The biggest appeal for me is the momentum that explodes from creators surrounding each project. The other appeal is the low barrier to entry. Unlike the physical exhibition space, NTFs allow artists to create and curate their own body of work.”

There may be a low barrier to entry in terms of what can be created and sold, but there are currently some pretty extensive technological barriers that might stop the average person from buying or selling an NFT. “I was hesitant about getting into NFTs initially,” acknowledges Confehr. “The process can be complicated, but if you do the research, there’s ways of creating and selling work that have little to no environmental impact, and you can make some profit without having to ‘sell your soul.’”

Wait—environmental impact? Confehr is referring to the sometimes staggering amounts of electricity required to process NFT creation and transaction. NFTs are built on blockchains, the technology that also underpins Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. And right now, many blockchain systems are afflicted by a very energy-intensive digital mechanism that’s used to process transactions. Luckily, engineers are working on how to reduce these costs in the future.

So, back to that original Butter and Salmon sticker. Why did it make my day? Well, as any Butter and Salmon aficionado knows, the value $20,000 holds special significance for them. They put it on stickers, they write it on sidewalks, and they paint it in huge block letters on the sides of buildings. $20,000. No more, no less. Why? I’m not sure—the artist denied the explanation that I had been told anecdotally. But it’s their number.

So how much are their NFTs listed for? $20,000. Of course. Perfect.

“I certainly will sell multiple pieces for $20,000 a pop because I know my worth,” said Butter and Salmon.

I love that Philly street artists are experimenting with NFTs. If they take off the way some people predict, now might be the time to join the party. El Toro is certainly onboard. “I believe the future is all about having digital collectibles,” he said. “I just want in on the ground floor where the space is so new and anything is possible.”

See past work around Philly from Butter and Salmon here, and from Kyle Confehr here; read our 2020 interview with El Toro here!

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