Last year at this time, Michah Dowbak had never heard of crypto art. Last week, his latest drop grossed more than US$4.3-million – the bulk of that in the space of five minutes. This has cemented the Thunder Bay-born and raised artist – who goes by the name Mad Dog Jones – as a crypto-art sensation, with the most successful primary drop to date on the Nifty Gateway platform.
“How do you describe making $4-million in five minutes?” Dowbak said a few days afterward. “My hands were numb, for one. I couldn’t feel my fingertips. My whole body was shaking.”
Crypto art is digital art with an attached unique identifier, in the form of a non-fungible token (NFT), on the blockchain. NFTs can’t be replicated and only the holder of the NFT can own that piece of crypto art.
The work is offered in “drops” – online sales that generally happen in two ways. Buyers can purchase an open edition (think of it as a numbered print, in traditional art terms). Each edition is sold at a set price, but purchasers have only five minutes to buy. The other part of a drop is the auction of a 1/1 edition, a single unique work. Bids for those are taken for 23 hours.
The sales are held on platforms such as SuperRare and Nifty Gateway, which is the site Dowbak uses. Nifty Gateway, which launched its platform last March, is owned by Gemini – the company founded and controlled by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the twins perhaps best known for their Facebook history.
The crypto-art market has grown steadily, building to a buzz now audible in the mainstream, in large part because of the artist known as Beeple (real name Mike Winkelmann). Beeple’s opus is currently for sale at Christie’s – the first time the storied auction house is selling a purely digital work. Bids are being taken over two weeks.
Separately, on Wednesday, a work of Beeple’s sold on the secondary market through Nifty Gateway for US$6.6-million.
Beeple made US$660,000 from that. Unlike traditional sales of art, artists in the digital space earn a percentage of secondary sales; 10 per cent is standard. This is a major departure from the fine art world, where an artist is paid only for the original sale.
The platform also takes a cut – on both primary sales and secondary sales.
Buyers often come from the crypto space, says Tommy Kimmelman, head of artist relations at Nifty Gateway. “It’s largely technical-minded people who inherently understand how this stuff works. But we are starting to expand into other demographics.” He says the platform did about US$8.5-million in sales in January and, in a staggering jump, more than US$50-million in February.
Owners might display the art through their online profile – their website, social-media accounts, etc. It can also be cast to a screen, such as a TV or a tablet to show in a physical setting.
A common question, as people try to wrap their heads around this, is: Couldn’t somebody just screengrab the art and display it without actually owning it?
“Well, sure,” Dowbak says. “Somebody could also take a picture of the Mona Lisa. But they don’t own the Mona Lisa.”
Dowbak, 35, grew up around art; his father, Damon, is a glass artist and the family business involves stained glass windows. Michah and his brother Josh were sometimes used as models. “There’s a Last Supper window where I’m one of the disciples and my brother is Jesus,” says Dowbak during a phone interview, while out walking his dog Diablo in the rural community of Kaministiquia, outside of Thunder Bay, where he lives.
You can detect a stylistic influence from those early stained glass windows on Dowbak’s crypto art: the bright colours, the line work. The subject matter, however, is another thing. His work, as described by Nifty Gateway, is “a cyberpunk rendition of metropolitan lifestyle rooted in nature.” A black cat lounges in a laundromat as laundry spins in one of the machines and breaking news scrolls by on the television above. Or a taxi is stuck in a storm, its doors flung open as its hazard lights flash, along with lightning in a purple sky.
Music was his first career. A classically trained violinist, high-school turntablist and keyboardist, Dowbak played with Coleman Hell, who had a breakout hit 2 Heads, in 2015. Dowbak was also making art for bands – such as posters and album covers.
He started his Mad Dog Jones Instagram page in 2017. The account gained traction and Dowbak’s design career took off. He did work for Diesel, the Snowpiercer TV series, the Conor McGregor Reebok campaign, Maroon 5′s Super Bowl halftime show. With the art career momentum, Dowbak stepped away from music.
He heard about crypto art last summer and was immediately intrigued. He did his first drop on Nifty Gateway in November: 100 pieces that he sold for one dollar each.
He did more drops and charged more. There was some income from secondary sales, too. One piece that originally sold for US$3,500 was purchased by a secondary collector for US$18,000. It was steady and encouraging.
In a deal he put together by his manager Jonathan Simkin – who runs 604 Records, Coleman Hell’s label – Dowbak collaborated with musician Deadmau5 for his next drop. (Digital art can also have a soundtrack.)
That drop grossed more than US$404,000. “Just total flabbergasted pandemonium of the mind,” is how Dowbak felt. “It was really a turning point.”
Still, it wasn’t clear how much of that success was due to the involvement of star musician Deadmau5.
Another drop was planned for February 18. They called it Crash + Burn.
“There were a lot of eyes on this drop, in that world, to really get a sense of where the value is,” notes Simkin. “Did we gross [that amount] with Deadmau5 because of his name, because of Michah’s fan base, or a little of both?”
There were two open collections: Why would I care I’m just a cat? priced at US$2,500 each and Déjà Vu, priced at US$5,000 each. The first sold 909 works; the second, 328. The 1/1 auction for Boardwalk sold for US$388,888. The total was more than US$4.3-million. Of that, US$3.9-million was raised in those first five minutes.
“You have to understand how insane it is,” says Simkin, who was watching from Vancouver. “I’m sitting there on Thursday when the timer starts: and I’m refreshing my screen … in disbelief, watching Michah becoming a multimillionaire in five minutes.”
Another part of Crash + Burn involved those pieces Dowbak sold for one dollar each, way back in November when he was a crypto-art rookie. He released seven new 1/1 artworks. But they couldn’t be purchased with money. The only way to get those pieces was to collect five of those US$1 works from his first drop and trade them for one of the new ones. Once the old works are sent to Dowbak, he destroys them (“burn” is the crypto term).
That pushed up the secondary-market price of those works that originally sold for US$1 – benefiting Dowbak, sure, as the strategy drove up his prices, but mostly rewarding the people who had invested in him.
“Holy crud,” he said at one point as we spoke late Wednesday night. One of those original US$1 pieces had just sold for more than US$47,000 and another for US$49,000, as a buyer attempted to collect five to trade them in for one of Crash + Burn’s new pieces.
Dowbak plans to pay off his parents’ mortgage, contribute to care for his nephew, who has autism; and give to charity. And continue to make art.
“What’s crazy, too – I don’t want to sound cocky, but the year is not done. There’s still more that we can do here,” he says. “And that’s what’s breaking my brain about this.”
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.