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A case study of one of the most notable NFT success stories: Mike Winkelmann – more widely known as Beeple – an American digital art
A man laying on the floor of a gallery in front of an artwork of an astronaut
© RMIT 2022

We’ll start our exploration of NFTs by examining one of the most notable NFT success stories: Beeple.

NFTs have created incredible opportunities for digital artists; providing new sources of income and financial freedom, and in some cases propelling artists to global fame. The most notable NFT success story has been that of Mike Winkelmann – more widely known as Beeple – an American digital artist, graphic designer, and animator. Beeple has been called a “visionary digital artist at the forefront of NFTs” by British auction house Christie’s, and the “Picasso of pixels”, “known for his controversial mash-ups of pop culture and political leaders” by Fortune.

In 2021, Beeple topped the NFTy 50 – a ranking of the most influential builders, creatives, and influencers in the NFT scene – beating the likes of Jay-Z, Paris Hilton, and Mark Cuban. Countless stories have been written about him in major media outlets (see e.g. New York Times, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal) and he has even made an appearance on The Tonight Show. But why has Beeple attracted so much attention?

Beeple is one of the world’s most prolific and highest selling NFT artists. His output has been primarily image and video-based works of art, although he has also found creative ways to incorporate NFTs in physical sculpture-like works. His work is often comical or satirical, using internet memes and pop culture references to make political and social commentary. Politicians such as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un, and fictional characters such as Mickey Mouse and Pikachu, frequently make appearances depicted in disturbing and dystopian scenes. And of course, crypto cultural iconography is another common theme represented by imagery of bitcoins, bulls, apes, and astronauts.


Beeple’s opus, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, is a monumental collage of digital images created over 5,000 consecutive days of work. He started the “Everydays” series on May 1, 2007 and hasn’t missed a day of digital art creation since, including his wedding day and the births of his children. On March 12, 2021 the NFT associated with the project was sold online by Christie’s for USD $69,346,250. This made worldwide headlines as the first purely digital work offered by a major auction house and the third most expensive artwork ever sold by a living artist.

EVERYDAYS was purchased by Singapore-based programmer, cryptocurrency investor, and founder of the Metapurse NFT project, Vignesh Sundaresan (also known by the online pseudonym MetaKovan). The auction was conducted on Christie’s website and transacted in the Ether cryptocurrency (for 42,329 ETH), with Beeple immediately converting his share of the sale into US dollars. The NFT itself exists on the Ethereum blockchain as an ERC-20 token, and conveys the right to display the artwork but not to receive copyright.

EVERYDAYS was displayed in real life for the first time at the Dreamverse NFT festival in New York City in November 2021. Of course, because the public could have viewed the image at any time on its OpenSea page, and still can, the ultimate value of this display is that it was the first authorised public projection of the work in a physical viewing space.

EVERYDAYS was perhaps Beeple’s crowning moment as the “Picasso of pixels” and made his name synonymous with NFT art – but it wasn’t his first or only notable foray into the world of NFTs. Beeple already had an established career in graphic design and animation, having created concert visuals for performing artists such as Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, worked on live events such as the MTV VMAs and the NFL Super Bowl, and showed short films at festivals such as the Sydney Biennale and Miami Art Basel. His graphic designs had even been featured in a Louis Vuitton collection during Paris Fashion Week 2018. Despite this he did not make it on the mainstream art circuit and was not nearly as well-known as he would become through the world of NFTs.

Beeple’s first NFT sales were made by OpenSea auction at ETHDenver in February 2020: SUPER EXTRACTION for 3.2 ETH (USD $1,119) and COIN ONE for 1 ETH (USD $236). An inauspicious beginning to Beeple’s NFT art career, but things would soon take-off dramatically. In October 2020, Beeple sold his first NFT collection, CROSSROAD, on Nifty Gateway for USD $66,666.60 – an animation NFT initially depicting a naked Donald Trump and Joe Biden floating in fighting positions, that would later change into one of two animations depending on the victor of the 2020 United States presidential election. In February 2021, CROSSROAD was resold for USD $6.6 million, earning a nearly 10,000 per cent return for the buyer in just a few months, and a hefty resale royalty for Beeple. In December 2020, Beeple sold his second NFT collection, THE 2020 COLLECTION, to Metapurse (the 20 NFTs that became the B.20 Museum) on Nifty Gateway for USD $2.2 million.

Crossroad Artwork Image from CROSSROAD, Nifty Gateway

In less than a year, Beeple had gone from selling NFT works for thousands of dollars to millions. His name and artistic style had become emblematic of the skyrocketing NFT art world. The USD $6.6 million resale of CROSSROAD was the highest priced NFT art sale ever, although this record only lasted a matter of weeks until a couple of CryptoPunks took the title in March 2021. CryptoPunk #7804 (USD $7.6 million, March 10) and CryptoPunk #3100 (USD $7.67 million, March 11) both sold for 4,200 ETH one day after another. The very next day (March 12), the auction of EVERYDAYS took place, selling for 42,329 ETH (USD $69.3 million) which remains the record NFT sale price at the time of this article.

With this, Beeple established himself as not only the world’s leading NFT artist, but as one of the highest selling living artists in the world. He has sold 1,351 works of crypto art for a total value of over USD $173 million. Beeple’s latest major NFT art project is his first physical work, HUMAN ONE, which is a seven-foot-tall LED-screened sculpture of an astronaut walking around. On November 9, 2021, this kinetic video sculpture with corresponding dynamic NFT was sold by auction at Christie’s for USD $28,985,000. Both the crypto and art worlds await his next move.

Now it’s your turn

Beeple is undoubtedly one of the NFT world’s biggest success stories. Why do you think Beeple has been so successful? Share your thoughts in the comments.

© RMIT 2022
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