Crypto conversations on social media are now a battleground, and clear lines have been drawn. One of the flashpoints is the subject of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Hitting the market with great fanfare in early 2021, these crypto-cousins were supposed to provide new and exciting revenue opportunities for artists, and greater protection for their work via blockchain technology.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many artists discovered the opposite was true. Minting and selling NFTs can be a costly endeavor, requiring various fees for converting fiat into crypto and vice-versa. Meanwhile, people who already held crypto could easily steal the work of artists by merely saving the images and selling them as NFTs.
Many artists have taken strong, unequivocal stands against NFTs, while blockchain technology enthusiasts have sought to evangelize them. Resulting conflicts on social platforms between the groups have gotten nasty.
One artist who has not minced words about her feelings on NFTs is Eriana Ura-Smith. A fantasy and sci-fi painter and illustrator in Ventura, California, Ura-Smith tweeted earlier this month: “If the subject of N/FTs comes [up] in your community and you, as a moderator/admin/owner, elect to remain neutral, you’ve shown the artists in your community that you don’t care about them.”
More recently, she posted: “Anyway, before the crypto bros inevitably find this tweet and start minting my art in retribution, I have never, and will never, support the hyper capitalist exercise that is creating scarcity where none exists and using art as a vehicle to do so.”
We reached out to Ura-Smith, and she was willing to elaborate on her interactions with the crypto and NFT spaces, and her reasons for denouncing NFTs. Here is what she had to say.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Ura-Smith received compensation for her participation.
Business of Business: How long have you been employed professionally as an artist? What made you want to become a professional artist?
Eriana Ura-Smith: I've been working in artistic fields in various capacities since high school, though my focus was in music up until about 2014. Around then I found that fine art music was not inspiring me, and given the low income prospects of the field, I decided it best that I not try to pursue a career path that didn't excite me. Since then I have worked in both comics and illustration as a writer, artist, colorist, and letterist. Even when my interests were in music, I was most interested in storytelling and narrative art. Visual art gave me a better opportunity to express that desire.
How would you describe your style? What drew you to that style?
I would describe my style as belonging to the school of Imaginative Realism, a term coined by the artist James Gurney. In essence, I strive to paint fantastical subjects as naturalistically as possible. I'm chiefly interested in portraying fantasy and science fiction elements as if they were something you could believably see outside of your own window. Those genres have always been my favorites narratively, and my hope is that my art inspires the same interest in the genre that other artists have done for me.
Are you able to fully support yourself selling art? How do you derive income? Mostly from commissions? How would you describe the clients, generally?
At present art is a supplemental income. As an American with very expensive autoimmune diseases, it is not realistic to expect to fully support myself on freelance income alone. However I have had months, like this one, where income from my artistic projects has come close to what I make from my day job, health insurance notwithstanding.
The vast majority of my [art] income is from commissions in the tabletop role-playing game community. While I've done a lot of work for individuals wanting to see their characters brought to life, I've also gotten a lot of work from groups who live stream their games on Twitch. The clients I've had in that community are easily the friendliest and most comfortable to work with. I owe that to a shared passion for the subject matter and the medium.
When did you first learn about NFTs? How did you learn about them?
I first learned about NFTs, like many people, on Twitter this year. I've had my eye on the crypto community for several years and have had friends who invested. However, all of them have since pulled out owing to both the environmental ramifications of current crypto technology, as well as the intense volatility of the market.
What were your initial impressions? Did those change at all over the course of learning about them?
My initial impression of NFTs were that the idea of creating artificial scarcity for an infinitely replicable product was a fool's errand at best, and an obvious scam at worst. Nothing I have learned about them in my extensive research since has disabused me of that notion.
Did you ever consider selling your work as an NFT? If not, why not?
I would never consider selling my work as an NFT. The "proof of work" methodology required by most cryptocurrency transactions requires an unacceptable amount of energy consumption. As of reporting done this year, each bitcoin transaction consumes roughly 1,173 kilowatt hours of electricity. That's enough energy to power the average American home for six weeks. While ETH, the cryptocurrency most frequently used in trading NFTs, intends to switch to Proof of Stake in 2022, I do not have faith that PoS will offer sufficiently reduced energy consumption.
“My initial impression of NFTs were that the idea of creating artificial scarcity for an infinitely replicable product was a fool's errand at best, and an obvious scam at worst."
Especially given that its energy consumption is said to be scaled based on the amount of currency held by the user, meaning those who have already amassed a large amount of their chosen currency will still be using unacceptably high amounts of energy. I have a variety of other reasons that I will not be participating in NFTs that I will detail in later questions.
Are you aware of any instances where someone stole your work and sold it as an NFT? Or any other artists you know of personally who have experienced this?
I do not regularly scan NFT trading sites for my own work, mostly because from what I have seen from others, these markets are very reluctant to pull minted artwork, even with proof that the person who minted them does not own the actual work. Given that NFTs were initially touted as protecting artists by attaching their name permanently to the work, the amount of current fraud in the marketplace completely undermines this "selling point."
There are many documented cases of art theft in NFT markets. The Twitter account NFTtheft has put in a great deal of time and effort to record these incidents, as has digital artist and YouTuber Ross O'Donovan.
It sounds like a lot of artists have very negative interactions with "cryptobros" about NFTs on Twitter and other platforms. Have you ever been dogpiled/harassed/etc. because of your opinions about NFTs?
I have not personally experienced dogpiling by cryptobros, but I have witnessed it happening to others with a larger following than mine. A particular case sticks out in my mind where a rather popular artist had negative things to say about NFTs, and one user minted her artwork in retribution. The closest I would say I've been to being harassed [is by a Business of Business writer replying to criticism of his article on Twitter].
You have tweeted that even electing to "remain neutral" on NFTs is showing "the artists in your community that you don't care about them." What do you mean by that?
This question is best answered in an analogy. However, I will preface that in using this analogy, written by another, I am in no way trying to draw equivalence between crypto/NFT-enthusiasts and Nazis. They are simply the subject of an apt analogy.
“I have seen first-hand that the presence of NFT users in online communities causes a chilling effect on artists sharing their work, for fear that they'll be taken advantage of."
In this analogy, a bartender swiftly kicks out a patron of his bar who was seen to be wearing Nazi regalia, but not otherwise causing problems for the bar. The bartender related to another customer that sure, this Nazi was not causing problems. But if we let him stay, he might invite more of his friends. And maybe those friends just sit quietly and drink, but then they might invite their friends, who are the sort of violent, problem-causing Nazis.
The NFT community, as I've stated already, is rife with fraud and art theft. By remaining neutral on NFTs, a community sends the signal that it is safe for NFT users to join. Those users might not cause problems, but then they invite their friends. Those friends have no scruples about stealing art, and suddenly artists in those communities find their art has been minted without their permission. I have seen first-hand that the presence of NFT users in online communities causes a chilling effect on artists sharing their work, for fear that they'll be taken advantage of.
What would you say is the biggest negative about NFTs?
The biggest negative of NFTs is clear: The market as it currently exists is a classic Ponzi scheme. Users invest in something more-or-less intangible, a digital receipt of ownership of an infinitely replicable image or other online object. The general consensus is that they will, in turn, be able to sell this intangible thing for absurd returns. Early investors are paid out from the money coming in from new investors, seeing the success of the early ones. Wash trading inflates the value of NFTs, and original owners slowly cash out by selling off the NFTs they've minted for extraordinary prices.
“NFTs offer adopters the illusion of quick and easy profits, and in some cases the feeling of community or belonging, coupled with exclusivity."
NFTs offer adopters the illusion of quick and easy profits, and in some cases the feeling of community or belonging, coupled with exclusivity. Platforms exploit the "Fear of Missing Out" to attract new investors, or extract further funds from existing investors. Already we've seen multiple examples of projects where the creators were able to extract massive sums of money and abandon them, often leaving the investors with no opportunity to recoup their losses.
Look to examples like the CryptoPunk wash trade or the rug pull with Squid Coin. Squid Coin is the perfect example, as it not only was a huge scam cashed out by it's creators, but it relied on stolen intellectual property for its appeal.
Did you see the news about [former First Lady] Melania Trump launching an NFT platform (something that just came out [yesterday]). Any thoughts on that?
I did not see the news about a Trump-backed NFT platform. However, I feel the news underscores my point. One need only look to the "success" of Trump Shuttle, Trump Steaks, or Trump University to see a family that routinely uses its brand to extract money from investors, skip out on debts, claim bankruptcy, and walk away with huge tax breaks. When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty. The Trump family no doubt sees NFTs as another scam it can pull on its devoted followers.
You seem to also have strong feelings about unionizing Paizo (at least based on your Twitter bio). Do you want to discuss that at all?
I do have strong feelings about the newly formed United Paizo Workers. Paizo publishes the tabletop role-playing game Pathfinder 2nd Edition. It's a game I play extensively, and many of my private commission clients request art based on their characters from that game. Tabletop gaming is my passion, and until UPW, there were no unions to protect workers in that industry. While the union does not primarily benefit artists, who are usually freelancers rather than employees, it does help establish an environment where all contributors to the product are valued.
I have friendly relationships with a few Paizo freelancers, who pushed for this union alongside their colleagues who work for Paizo. Unions within the gaming world are rare, almost unprecedented, in an industry that routinely exploits all of those who contribute, employees and freelancers alike. While United Paizo Workers is fully established as a union, I keep #UnionizePaizo in my profile as a reminder that the work is not done until the union and management reach an agreement that addresses the employees' concerns.
“That said, while artists thrive on creating happiness, we live on money. The starving artist is a destructive trope. Artists work better when we're paid with fungible currency."
Is there anything in particular you would like to achieve or accomplish as an artist? What defines "success" for you in that chosen career path?
There's a lot I'd like to achieve. I'd like to have both interior and cover art on tabletop role-playing games products. I'd like to reach a point where I can step back from my day job and focus exclusively on my art. I have comic projects in the works with my favorite collaborators that I'm very excited to see come to fruition.
As for success? Success to me is a lot of small things, rather than one particular goal. I have a client whom I care a great deal for, and the excitement and enthusiasm they show for my work when it's done is enough to keep me in good spirits for weeks. So long as I continue to make people happy with my work, I will always be content. That said, while artists thrive on creating happiness, we live on money. The starving artist is a destructive trope. Artists work better when we're paid with fungible currency.