TECH hopes NFTs and cryptocurrency will help Filipino creatives

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"Lazy Sunday Afternoons" (left) and "Analog Love" — two works by and AJ Dimarucot featured in apl.d.ap's recently launched NFT collection. Photos courtesy of APL.DE.AP

At 11 p.m. on a Monday night, I sat down to have a Zoom conversation with It was surreal to me for two reasons. First, because I grew up listening to him and the Black Eyed Peas. I remember sitting next to my CD player, manually pressing rewind so I could listen to “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” and “Bebot” over and over again. The second was because we talked about NFTs and his upcoming NFT collection — a first for him.

Like with anything that exists within the blockchain, the concept of NFTs is something that continues to confound me. To the uninitiated, NFT stands for non-fungible token. When something is fungible, it can be replicated and replaced, like buying new shampoo after you’ve run out. Non-fungible tokens, on the other hand, are unique and invaluable, like your birth certificate or Frida Kahlo’s “Self Portrait with Monkey.”

NFTs can be anything — a JPEG, a video file, text, websites, or even a GIF — as long as it’s been uploaded onto the blockchain. “When you put it in the blockchain, you can create an NFT to authenticate that piece of digital creation. The NFT provides you with provenance basically, when was this created, where was this created, and who created this,” explained AJ Dimarucot, one of two artists Apl collaborated with on the collection. “If Instagram dies tomorrow, everything is gone [but] when you put a media file on the blockchain, it’s independent of any platform. The NFT will always point to that file or that creation you put in the blockchain.” Because no single entity governs the blockchain, NFTs are decentralized assets. Nobody can take it down. That idea is surreal to me.

During our conversation, Apl’s background had been replaced with two of the NFTs in the collection. To his right was a pool, a soft pink plastic flamingo floating at the center, while to his right was a rotary phone illustrated using different shades of orange. “There was one day, I was in the studio, and I was hopping on random Clubhouses. And then I joined one of my friend’s from New York, and then they started talking about NFTs - how it’s this new wave,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was. There were a lot of big different words that I’d never heard of before, crypto art and stuff like that. I started wanting to learn about it. I started researching with my team.”

“I took the video, listened to it a hundred times, and picked up on the elements of the video that I really liked and created two pieces based on a couple of elements in the video that stood out to me,” said artist AJ Dimarucot on his work with Photo courtesy of APL.DE.AP

The project’s timeline was tight. They began work at the start of May, with a targeted launch date for the end of that same month. Apart from Dimarucot, Apl collaborated with artist Tom Coben. The only condition of the partnerships were that Dimarucot and Coben take an element from Apl’s music video as inspiration for their NFT pieces, but other than that, he gave them free rein. “Filipino artists are highly talented,” Apl declared. “It’s a testament to what a collaboration is — you just let two artists do their thing.”

“I took the video, listened to it a hundred times, and picked up on the elements of the video that I really liked and created two pieces based on a couple of elements in the video that stood out to me,” Dimarucot said about his creative process on the project. Because both the song and music video had what he described as a “vintage vibe,” he decided to create two pieces using items that reminded him of his childhood in the 80s: a rotary phone, and a vintage turntable.

Apl’s NFT collection, which is already partly available for auction on Portion — a platform that lets artists and collectors buy and sell NFTs using Ethereum (a cryptocurrency just like Bitcoin) — aims to be more than just another drop.

“I always find motivation and value when I’m helping somebody else. It gives me a lot more ideas. Sometimes, when you think for somebody else, you get all these ideas, then when it comes to you it’s like, what do I do?” Apl said. He and his team decided to donate everything they earn to the First Mint Fund, an organization that helps Filipino and other Southeast Asian artists get started with their own NFTs. “Just also [supporting] my fellow Asian artists, especially in the Philippines — it takes a whole salary to even start something like this,” Apl said.

“The First Mint Fund is the first step to help bring down the barrier and have more talent from Southeast Asia and the Philippines be included in the space, hindi lang people who can afford,” said Dimarucot, who also manages the fund. When creating an NFT, every step involved incurs some type of fee. You need to spend on a wallet to store cryptocurrencies and NFTs, to convert PHP into Ethereum, and to pay to upload your NFT onto the blockchain itself. These are called “gas fees,” and can go up to $300 or ₱14,500. The First Mint Fund sponsors artists by paying for all of these gas fees, helping them get their art out into the world and earn better wages.

“This is a faster way of promoting and introducing Filipino art around the world,” Apl said.

So how much do NFTs sell for exactly, and is it comparable to traditional, physical art? Like anything collectible, it depends on the art itself and the person buying it. Grimes auctioned off “Death of the Old,” a 50-second video featuring angels racing through red hued landscapes while an old demo played in the background, for $388,938. That’s around ₱18.6 million. The “Gucci Ghost Yellow Aqua” by artist Trevor Andrew was purchased for $3,600 or ₱170,000. A landmark first NFT sale for auction house Christie’s, Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” sold for $69 million (around ₱3.3 billion). There’s even an entire game called CryptoKitties, where users can buy, sell, and breed different cats. Each CryptoKitty counts as an individual NFT, and the most expensive one, a cat named Dragon, was sold for $172,000 or ₱8.2 million.

In Dimarucot’s case, selling his NFTs had given him enough cushion to pay for his bills, especially after the pandemic made it difficult for artists to earn. “This NFT is not physically dependent. It all lives on the blockchain and the exchange of value is within the digital space. Even the currency is digital currency,” he explained. “I suppose you can say it’s pandemic proof in a way, so if Filipinos get into it, it’s another source of income.”

This is exactly what Apl and his team hope to do by bringing NFTs to the forefront of the Philippines’ creative industry.

“This is a platform for them to create value in their product. It’ll be much easier for artists to get their art out there. It gives them a direct connection to enthusiasts and collectors. It cuts off the middle man,” Apl said. “Often, we just think about the brand but not the person who creates it. Especially creative artists in the Philippines. We’re always outsourced but not paid well. This is a way to get paid not in peanuts but with the true value of the art and their work.”

Even artists who don’t create digitally can stand to benefit from uploading their art onto the blockchain. Converting them into NFTs creates a sense of permanence. Street artist Nathan Murdoch spoke to this by destroying his work once it’s been uploaded. “I think there’s a huge opportunity for physical based artists because, if you can convert it into digital content, then that could be an NFT,” Dimarucot said. “It adds another dimension to how I can monetize my creativity.”

“It’s something tangible that people can grab and have with them,” Apl said, grabbing his phone to demonstrate. “It’s a new way of [saying], ‘Check out my art, it’s on my phone now, bam!’”