Starting out stencilling tributes to Andy Warhol, LA-based ThankYouX defies categorisation as an artist. He speaks to Mariquita de Boissière about being early to just about everything: combining graffiti and fine art on-chain, elevating the earliest NFT artists on Clubhouse, and exhibiting one of the world's first combined NFT-physical art exhibitions at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
For ThankYouX, the launch of The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s latest exhibition, Pop to Now: Warhol and His Legacy, marks coming full circle. Over a decade on from the anonymous Warhol tributes he stencilled across Los Angeles, that his works should find themselves on display alongside those of the Pop Art pioneer is as much a testament to the artist’s own personal progression as it is to the fine art world’s increasing recognition of the digital talent blossoming on the blockchain.
One of the first artists to bring fine art to the blockchain, ThankYouX has played a pivotal role in beating a path for the traditional art world in the depths of web3. Featuring collaborations with brands as high-profile as the Grammys, Snapchat, and Adidas, as well as exhibitions across the globe, the artist’s career has been punctuated by a string of glittering pop-art moments. His journey to this point, however, has been far from conventional.
ThankYouX’s passion for painting first took hold during illicit late-night graffiti sessions in his local neighbourhood as a teen. “My mom would drive past something and be like, ‘wait, that's something you've written before. Did you do that?’ And I got in trouble!” Years later, inspired by LA’s rich street art scene whilst working as a graphic designer, he channelled his creative frustrations into his now-famous stencilled Warhol tributes. “I was fascinated with, to be honest, the anarchy of everything,” he admits. “What made me the happiest was when I was out in the streets at two in the morning, putting up art and seeing other art that maybe was going to be gone the next day.”
From the ephemeral world of hastily-stencilled street art to fine artworks minted on-chain, echoes of this anarchist spirit reverberate across ThankYouX’s story. They appear through his non-conformist attitude and an ethos that prioritises authenticity and mutual support from the grassroots.
It was this search for authenticity that led ThankYouX to move away from the Warhol tributes that had initially put him on the map. By 2010, he had already gained international recognition for his murals and colourful cube designs. As early as 2017 he was exploring ways to bring his art to the blockchain. Among those interested in collaborating was Snoop Dogg. At that time, it wasn't to be: “it just fizzled because we didn't have the tech side in place”, ThankYouX reflects.
“I was fascinated with, to be honest, the anarchy of everything,”
Fast forward to 2020 and a United States navigating a global pandemic. An outdoor fundraiser for New York's Museum of Art and Design, to which ThankYouX had contributed art, set the stage for a fortuitous meeting with DJ and music producer, 3LAU. As 3LAU enthused about NFTs and their significance for artists, ThankYouX began to connect the dots once again. “I started paying attention more and more, looking at Nifty Gateway, SuperRare, and all the early websites. I didn't see any [art] that looked like what I already do.” He saw the challenge as an invitation. “When you are interested in something and you see nothing like what you do, it's either very scary or very exciting because you're either going to stand out or fail.”
“If you're here to make art, you probably should have already been making art somewhere else before this space happened.”
Deciding that it was better to “fail together,” ThankYouX’s first venture onto the blockchain was a mixed media collaboration with the Miami-based artist, JN Silva. Blending street photography with fine art – at a time when neither existed on the blockchain – ‘Thank You New York’ was released on Nifty Gateway in December 2020 to instant acclaim. “The money was cool,” ThankYouX reflects on our call, adding, “but it was really the excitement that we got from doing it”.
Rather than keeping a hold of this newfound excitement for himself, ThankYouX channeled it into the nascent NFT art scene. He hosted spaces on Clubhouse alongside Lady Phoenix and other early advocates, providing an early platform for artists like Fewocious. “A lot of people were looking at what we did, so it was like, 'let's take that attention and put it on these other artists that we see that have releases coming out'.”
These days, hosting a pre-launch Twitter Space is almost a rite of passage for any NFT project. Its origins trace back to those impromptu gatherings on Clubhouse: “that format created purely organically from what we were doing”, as ThankYouX puts it. By February 2021, collectors were catching on, initiating a heady period of explosive growth for many of the artists that have gone on to become major names within the NFT scene. “I would host a room and then [the artists speaking] would sell millions of dollars’ worth of artwork that same day. It was just very surreal to be, ‘oh my God, I can't believe I was part of that history right there’.”
Despite the massive financial success that has accompanied the rise of NFT artists such as 3LAU and Beeple, ThankYouX has strong opinions against the portrayal of web3 as a kind of get-rich-quick-scheme. “I love artists making money. I would rather have artists making money than Wall Street. But it's not a magical fairyland where you kind of come up and it’s, ‘oh, now you're in web3, you’re going to buy a Lamborghini’.”
Indeed, ThankYouX is clear about the hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in NFTs. “If you're here to make art, you probably should have already been making art somewhere else before this space happened. If the idea is that you're going to start making art now because there's a financial element to it, then you're probably not going to do it from an authentic place”.
For ThankYouX, this authenticity is rooted in the way his works form a dialogue with the material world. “By starting in the physical, it's the most authentically me. Everything comes from the concept.” From the animations of his signature cubes embedded within Cy Twombly-influenced paintings, to the triptych, Holding On, which explores themes of time and memory through the creative depictions of a truck in contrasting states of restoration, destruction and reimagination, the artist succeeds in destabilising preconceived notions of the divide between the physical and the digital.
Whereas new genre-bending terminology is often used to describe ThankYouX’s works, it all fundamentally comes down to one thing for the artist himself: art. “I never use the term phygital, ThankYouX tells me. “Is my painting now a digital art piece because there's a screen inside it? Or is it a physical now that there's a screen? It could be both. Or is it neither?”
Besides his own unique approach to art, ThankYouX looks to the ways in which his contemporaries are pushing boundaries on the blockchain. “In the future, in history books for art, there'll be Picasso, Fewocious, Warhol. It won't be, 'here are these artists, and then, here are the digital artists’.” His tone shifts from mock derision to a defiant firmness, “it's going to be all on the same page for the people who really rise up.”
“In web2, creatives have been pitted against each other.”
Beyond blockchain-inspired innovations in form and content, web3 is changing the very conditions in which artists create. ThankYouX sees this transformation driven by a level of accessibility and opportunity that wasn’t available within the centralised models of traditional art. Describing the barriers to entry upheld by art galleries as “full gatekeeper mode,” web3 reminds him of more “anarchic” times. “Here, it's like the way that street art is. You can go and be like, ‘well, fuck SuperRare, I'm going to put up on OpenSea'. 'Fuck Nifty Gateway, I can go make my own contract and put it up wherever, any time of the day’.”
Similarly, web3 is facilitating a level of collaboration between artists that didn’t make sense before; with web2, it just couldn’t. Prior to his discovery of NFTs, ThankYouX notes that many of the biggest names in the space “had already been following each other for a long time, like the Fvckrenders and Slimesunday. Filip Hodas and I were DMing for years.” Wryly, he adds “we were always saying, ‘oh, what if we did a collab and put it on Instagram and got some likes for it’.” Today, that seems quaint: web3 lets artists collaborate so much more effectively.
The creative dead-end of Facebook and Instagram contrasts with the cross-pollination of expertise that ThankYouX describes within the NFT community, as painters demonstrate techniques to sculptors and 3D visual artists skill-share with musicians. Taking calls with colleagues and aspiring artists whenever he can, ThankYouX is generous with the advice and the support he offers others.
He is adamant that the level of cooperation he sees within the NFT space is unique to web3. “Could you imagine Billy Eilish, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna in a group text and they're like, ‘hey guys, my album's coming out next week, can you all retweet?’ They'd be like, ‘no bitch, I have an album coming out next week too’. In web2, creatives have been pitted against each other because there are only so many slots that they can fit in. And so they're all fighting for those slots”.
“That's what I love about the [web3] space, that there's an endless amount of slots. We're just like, ‘cool, you're in that slot. I'm right next to you in this slot. And you're over here in this slot and like maybe we can share this slot together’.”
Just as Basquiat and Haring took inspiration from Warhol, together forming the vanguard of the iconic Pop Art movement, artists within web3 are defying convention to collectively lay the groundwork for a new generation-defining moment in art history. “That's how movements rise,” ThankYouX observes. “It's not just a few people. We can all rise together.”
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