The Third of Four Short Stories Written About the Four Different Ways Four Anonymous Collectors Came to Crypto Art
These stories were based on 18 interviews conducted in April and May 2023. While not every collector interviewed appears here, their collective insight heavily influenced the direction and creation of these essays. If you like this content and want it right in your inbox, please subscribe (for free, baby) to the Museum of Crypto Substack.
I owe enormous gratitude to all the collectors who contributed, directly and indirectly, to these stories:
Omz: Collector since 2020. First NFT: The Protector (2020) by Trevor Jones and Jose Delbo
Pindar van Arman: Artist and collector since 2018 . First NFT: Echoes of a Dead Earth (2018) by XCOPY
Artnome: Artist, Popularizer of NFTs. Collector since 2017. First NFT: Moxarra
Sarah Zucker: Artist. Collector since 2019. First NFT: Digital LSD — Synthesis_Batch_20190505 (2019) by FractalEncrypt
Cozomo de’ Medici: Collector since 2021
Sats Moon: Collector since 2020. First NFT: White Boombox (2020) by Lyle Owerko
TokenAngels: Collector since 2019. First NFT: Autoglyph #504 (2019) by LarvaLabs
TennesseeJed: Collector since 2020. First NFT: Sean Mick
Artie Handz (Punk 7635): Collector since 2020. First NFT: NBA Topshot
Coldie: Artist. Collector since 2019. First NFT: Cryptopunk 7933
Conlan Rios: Founder of Async.art. Collector since 2019. First NFT: Cryptokitties
BelleNFTs: Co-founder of NFTGirl. Collector since 2021.
Batsoupyum: Collector since 2021. First NFT: Hashmasks
Mattia Cuttini: Artist. Collector since 2018. First NFT: More the Journey than the Destination (2018) by Ilan Katin
Anne Spalter: Artist. Collector since 2020. First NFT: Chromie Squiggles (2020) by Snowfro
NFTFeen: Collector since 2021.
Samir Mitra: Collector since 2020.
(But First, An Introduction)
(I’ll be putting this introduction before each of the four stories. Feel free to skip ahead to “A Bookstore” if you’ve read it already. Or maybe you should read it again, you probably just skimmed it the first time, and I promise it’s pretty important to the whole thematic schema of these stories. I worked really hard on it. Please read it lol.)
Here I am, staring again at this damned blank page. It seems to be mocking me, as it always does, challenging me, demeaning me, daring me to live up to its promise. And here I am, thinking again that, because I know what I want this blank page to ultimately say, maybe the process of getting it to speak won’t be so hellish. But it always is, it has to be, and it will remain hellish for every writer until the very last blank page winks out of the universe.
So in the act of telling you, dear reader, what I want this page to say, I am also telling the page itself. Maybe then it will cooperate.
In each of the 18 collector interviews I conducted for this essay series, my first question was always, “What was the first piece of crypto art you collected?” A reasonable-enough place to start, I figured. But instead of receiving straightforward answers, I was often instead invited into unique and singular memories, the sudden impetus-shifts towards collection, the lifetimes spent meandering, the unpredictable catalysts/cataclysms which reoriented all these disparate people from all their disparate origins to the same place: Crypto art, a niche community of digital art lovers/makers all sequestered together within late-stage social media. And I want upon these pages to honor all these distinct, radical histories.
My other previous essays on collectorship all boasted a clear thesis. In “Where Have All the Good Collectors Gone?” the need to interrogate our Golden-Age thinking about early crypto art was obvious from the outset. In “Online but Always In-Person,” I hoped to reveal the way personal relationships with artists compel collectors to care about and collect certain artworks. For “The Collectors Who’ll Kill Crypto Art,” I got maybe a bit overzealous in my desire to explore the massive responsibility on the part of crypto art collectors, who, I argued, are unwittingly shirking that responsibility. But this essay needed to be different.
Why? Well, first, it takes no great insight to understand that all of our lives are individual and dramatic and influenced heavily by fate, chaotic fate. Second, it’s easy to see that crypto art is a collection of weirdos with unlike backstories. At the core of this essay is only the simplest of truths: There is no one way a crypto art collector is created.
And yet, though the page now says, in theory, what I want it to say, it still lacks something. It reads how I want it to read, but the words aren’t saying anything. They lack… What do they lack…What do they lack? They lack wonder, majesty. They lack that bright and sacred sheen achieved when universality and specificity merge. They lack the spark of actual experience. And because of that, they lack meaning. There may be a multitude of stories in crypto art, and we may know that these stories indeed swirl around us, but it is one thing to know the size of a library, and it is another to comb through its contents yourself.
How then might I make the infinitesimal lives of these collectors sing? How might I evoke the moments that turned them towards crypto art without being blasé or cliché or some other sinister French adjective?
And so the blank page has forced me again into an arena where I’ve spent most of my written life, where I am most practiced, yes, but also most self-conscious, most vulnerable but I believe most triumphant.
The stories I want to tell can only be told by, well, telling them.
My idea, as I write this, is to take a small sample of the stories told to me and bring them to life in fiction as so many moments in so many histories have been brought to life for me. I want to jump into heads. I want to suggest and subsequently conceive a gleaming future on the horizon. I want to inject myself into an imagined moment and walk around a little, try to peel away that which might otherwise hide a changed sensibility, and thus understand the urge not only to collect but to collect something experimental, often incomprehensible, iconoclastic.
The four short stories which I’m about to set down on these blank pages are to be prefaced by the actual quotes from the collectors who inspired them. Presented here without attribution to their speakers, I hope they may touch something more universal: That the universe works its odd ways on us all, and when its inherent entropy meets a mind attuned to certain sensations, it can lead one down dark alleyways, across the river and through the trees to great discoveries, great interactions with those discoveries, the building of a home in a land that most deem infertile, or which many refuse to acknowledge at all. But we know better, don’t we? We know…
All right: Let’s see if I can get these pages to say what I want them to.
“Prior to NFTs I used to collect rare books. That was something close to my heart, that’s where I got the collecting bug originally. I lived in New York for 13 years, right until Covid hit, and in Manhattan I just accidentally came across one of these old rare book stores — a few of them are scattered around the city. And that’s where it started for me. So I got the collecting bug there, and then I think it’s one of those things, first of all I believe it’s ingrained in our psychology as human beings, I think we naturally value scarce things, I think it’s just one of those things. And also experiencing a sense of ownership is quite powerful.”
The musty scent of sticking your nose into old paper, but it doesn’t usually cover an entire city block like this, nor blow almost visibly across the asphalt like that billowing smoke or steam or whatever it is that jettisons out from manhole covers. And then there’s the fact that the entire block is silent other than the quartet of cane leaners outside the Papaya King, the ambient homeless growl, jackhammer’s screeching somewhere, screeches, which for New York that’s basically silent. Not a car in sight either, just this empty 86 bus idling there in the street, its driver either vegetative or narcoleptic or otherwise absentee.
It’s just all a little bit too weird, and yes, many cities are prone to weirdness, but none like New York City. When New York City gets weird in this way, the weirdness has a texture, it’s multimodal, the city is trying to communicate something via sensory experience, it has a plan for you, and the young man on the sidewalk knows better than to ignore New York when it announces its intentions.
So he stops walking, and he brings his attention fully to this musty smell — he thinks momentarily of an estate sale once — and to the particles of shimmering gas glistening in the late-afternoon sunlight. He follows them, they spiral outwards all conspicuously from a beaten wooden door, half-askew, on the other side of the street, sandwiched between a coffee shop with unsustainable prices and a Chinese nail salon.
A sign on the door says “Hours” but contains no further information. The young man slithers inside and into a svelte hallway, electric sconces on either wall repeating themselves every few feet, the corridor like some set from The Shining. The smell definitely emanates from in here, a smell both more pungent but also less offensive when it envelops you, yes still the smell of must, but that’s but a single note in what reveals itself to be a symphony of incense intricacies. Chamomile, cardamom, must and musk and lavender and swampgrass, lemonweed, tropical but peaty, a smoke that doesn’t try to mask that it is smoke. The smell is almost tactile, seems to be coming from upstairs and downstairs simultaneously. It crowds and clouds the long hallway. Further on, there are beaded curtains, because of course there are beaded curtains. Then there is a real curtain, thick and red and velvet like he’s about to step out on stage. It’s too cold in here; it should never be cold where there is incense. But New Yorkers have famously poor command of internal temperatures.
Past the curtains, the young man emerges into a narrow space made narrower by crammed rows of ancient bookcases, their contents literally spilling off the shelves, collecting in messy piles on the floor. Everything is dusty, but perhaps nothing more than the lone woman sitting behind the lone counter, if you could call it a counter. She’s knitting. She’s wearing truly enormous glasses. A worm-like tobacco product droops from her lip; it is damp with saliva. She does not look up at him at first, but then she does, her hands accelerating as if possessed by some textile spirit, and her eyes through the glasses are magnified four, five, six times, her milky pupils like celestial bodies, her irises aquamarine and ringed by a gold corona which could denote either enlightenment or tuberculosis. She’s, like, very old. And not old in the kind way but in that harsh, frustrated way of the long-since over-it.
“Hi, sorry, are you open?” the young man asks.
“What does it matter, you’re here anyways,” the old woman says, the voice not Slavic and not exactly Turkish, then returns that gargantuan gaze to her needlework. “Let me know if you need any help.”
Not that he’d ever ask her for help. Not that she’d actually be of any help! If she were even capable of movement, it would surely be slow and clumsy; she’d probably end up knocking one of these bookshelves clean over. More people die from fallen bookshelves each year than crocodile and shark attacks combined. Otherwise the tobacco worm in her mouth would fall to the floor and burn down the entire block.
There’s so little space in the aisles that the young man must crabstep to the ends and turn tightly if he wants to inspect the opposite side.
The spines of the books are mostly bent, and if they aren’t bent then they’re charred, and if they aren’t bent or charred — even if they are — they’re faded, damaged, flickering out of reality in real time. The names of their writers are in type uniformly bolder than their titles: Captain Alvin Shenandoah; Shinzo Dogen; multiple bear the moniker “Winking Goose.” Others are marked only by initials or Kanji.
“What is it you are looking for?” the old woman’s voice echoes, no no, it BOOMS through the bookstore. The young man nearly sends the bookshelves around him flying backwards, his astonishment generating some kind of force. The old woman, phantasmic in a palm-frond mumu, appears at the edge of the aisle, her hands still needle-working, perhaps they never stop, maybe she made a deal with a demon where eternal life is hers until she produces idle hands, long tendrils of yarn puddling around her feet, and also, the young man now sees, snaking around the store underfoot. She is bent over at an almost 90-degree angle, yet the cigarette thingy in her mouth does not appear unstable.
“I don’t know yet,” the young man says.
“Do you believe that after enough time you will eventually come to know?” she asks.
To which he has no response.
The old woman puffs a plume of deadened smoke through her nose and teeters in reverse towards her counter, really she floats back, her feet not yet proven to exist under the mumu and the yarn. These kinds of New Yorkers, shut up for untold ages amongst ancient things, they’ve been known to dabble in levitation and the like.
Now, we all know it’s bad juju to enter a bookstore and leave empty-handed. For old/rare/specialty bookstores that counts double. And old books like these, they’re all like prophecies, they have a power, it stems from their stature. Like fortune cookies that come true. The difficulty, then, is both in choosing, yes, what to leave with, but also avoiding the many things you shouldn’t.
Readers have developed many different approaches to this quandary, all intuition-based. “Vibes,” you might say. Some readers will feel attraction of a cover’s color. Some seek familiarity in a title, or shared cultural heritage gleaned from an author’s pen name. Others do it by feel; you’ve seen these people, dragging their fingers across the shelves until friction or static electricity make the decision for them. The young man, however, has nothing in the way of proven methodology. He waves his gaze wildly over the first shelf, then the next; he spins at the end of an aisle and rushes back along the other side. He stoops to view the second level of shelving; something emanates from there. This happens. And so on this second shelf he applies more focused methods of discernment. His preternatural affinity for small things leads him to diminutive volumes hiding frightened between larger, bolder guardians. Ah, this one looks promising, this one with the empty spine. He removes it from its perch, but it’s sticky and seems reluctant to move, so he has to jiggle it free like a Jenga tile. The cover is green and barren and made of felt. He resists the urge to open it.
He maneuvers his way out of the aisle and walks — feet moving following the tightrope of rampant yarn — towards the counter. The woman has put down her needlework.
“Do you know what this one is about?” he asks her.
“If I told you that,” she says, smacking her lips, stalactites of spittle visible, the cigarette thing cannot possibly still be lit, “you wouldn’t ever read it.” She wraps the book in brown paper and begins to tie a knot with twine around its four sides. She scotch-tapes its four paper edges down. She applies a purple stamp to the top-right corner, but the stamp is only of an empty circle.
“Oh you don’t have to wrap it, it’s not a gift!” the young man blurts somewhere along the painstaking process.
“Not yet,” she says when she’s done, and pushes it across the counter. “But give it time. Give it time.”
The bookshop, of course, is no longer there. Maybe it never was. It was only a narrative device, after all. That city street itself, as if trying to unburden itself of any remaining thematic weight, exploded the very next day with things that mean nothing: a Sweetgreen, a European Wax Center, a thrift store that only takes cash. The book, the green felt book wrapped in brown paper and thus believed by many visitors and one parent to be a brown book, occupies a prominent place on the young man’s desk from that day forward. It hasn’t yet been opened. Still in its wrapping, it could contain anything. A fortune untold. It could be an Argentine cookbook or Abraham’s sacred instructions on how to erect a Golem from mud. Whether he keeps it in its casing until his eventual death, bequeathing it to a beloved grandchild in his will, whether he gifts it to a lover for a narrowly-remembered birthday present, whether he loses it in a fire or, under thrall of some intoxicating and sudden spirit, tears the paper open one day and reads it all in a single manic go…
It assaults him with the urge to provide it brethren. Books, like birds, get lonely, and boy do they both make sure you know it. The young man begins to fill the rest of his life with unread things, and tasks the future with making sense of them. He needs only collect them here, he being only the steward of mysteries, not their decoder. Anyways, acquiring the first mystery, we know, is the hardest part. But they build upon themselves in a chain. A single unruly tangle of yarn.