When the market for nonfungible tokens began to boom in early 2021, most folks didn't know what NFT stood for, much less why anyone would pay $69 million for a piece of digital art. But by then, digital artist Frankynines had been in the game for years, having created and sold internet-based art since 2012 and worked day jobs with various blockchain firms since 2017.
NFTs allow the people who buy them to own a piece of the internet, utilizing crypto-associated blockchain technology (essentially an official, unalterable internet ledger) to track the provenance and ownership of the "original" versions of things you see online. After the market for NFTs boomed at the beginning of the year, NFT versions of memes like the Pop-Tart-bodied Nyan Cat and YouTube sensation "Charlie Bit My Finger" fetched six-figure sums.
Frankynines, also known as Franky Aguilar, doesn't have a famous piece of the internet to sell. Instead, like many who have profited from the NFT craze, he sells original digital art. According to NFT sales aggregator CryptoArt, he's sold 60 pieces of digital artwork since the beginning of 2019, for a total of 64.454 ether, the cryptocurrency associated with the ethereum blockchain that NFTs run on. At current prices, Aguilar's sales stand at nearly $180,000, though he hasn't yet converted his crypto into cash.
Here's how he did it. (This as-told-to interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
I started out as a tagger, a graffiti writer. Then in high school, I got Photoshop and started learning graphic design and how to pick apart websites. When I moved to San Francisco to go to college, I learned to do digital illustration and web design. While I was doing that, I started building iPhone apps. In 2012 and 2013, I started making these silly sticker apps. You could take a photo on your phone and put a sticker on it.
When [Apple] started offering in-app purchases, I started selling 99-cent sticker packs — digital art, sunglasses you could put on people, things like that. I started working with some big people; Snoop Dogg and I collaborated with a Snoopify app. I've basically kept with it since then.
In 2017, I started seeing things that piqued my interest in blockchain and Ethereum. When the ICO craze started happening, my buddy said, "Do you want to enter a contest to design a wallet for a blockchain company?" We won, and I landed a job in London in the blockchain industry at a company called Pillar.
One day while we were sitting in the office, the Ethereum network was crashing. Everyone was like, "What's going on?" It turned out everyone was buying these digital cats — CryptoKitties. I thought, "This is gonna be it."
Video by Jason Armesto
On the side, I started to see digital art galleries popping up. I started minting NFTs — working alongside the industry and creating art at the same time. Put myself in a good situation. I could make digital paintings, put them up for sale, and cash in. I was in early, before it was all mainstream.
[In the beginning], it was crazy. I was working full time making apps. When I started with in-app purchases, I was making $600, $800, $1,000 a day. As I was doing these 99-cent packs, I would check my bank statements and I realized I was making way more money than a full-time job, so I quit. I was pulling in anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 a month from sticker apps.
The thing I learned quickly was that it wasn't always consistent. You'd have a big burst, and then your app would die. I had to make new things and keep collaborating. The first day the Snoop Dogg app went live, I made $65,000 on digital Snoop Dogg stickers. But if you look in the App Store, the way that trends work, it was kind of like highs and lows — a lot of my apps are dead, making zero.
Video by Courtney Stith
I sold my first NFTs when ethereum was $300 [per coin] or something. Or $180. I would sell an NFT for like $6. That was like, "Yo, I made $6!" Then I sold one painting for one whole ETH. I had the highest-bought NFT on the marketplace for that time.
As the market started to tick up, I started to really understand the importance of the price value that I want to be established at. Now I'm selling my physical art for $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 per piece. I list them for like 4.5 to 9 ETH. And I just keep them there. I don't get sales all the time, but I'll sell a big batch when a big collector comes in.
I recently joined with a company called nft42, and I'm the co-founder of a platform that we received funding for, called nameless. We're building an open protocol where any creative can build an NFT system. We're looking at how we can push the boundaries of this tech — how can we make it something more than a static image? Can it be more? Can it have sounds or some kind of utility use?
We're potentially moving into the gaming space – the digital avatar and the Facebook Horizon metaverse [Facebook's user-generated virtual reality]. People will have digital IDs, digital jobs, digital experiences. We're looking at building the foundations — using the tech where people will have access to this digital economy.
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