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)
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.
“I moved from Sydney to London in the late 90s. I was just a young 20-something kid trying to hustle, trying to make my way. Spending a lot of time in Soho, I became exposed really early to the street art of Banksy. He was really active in the late 90s and early 2000s. I was always seeing street art there. I became really into the whole street art culture that was evolving. Not long after, I became aware that Banksy had a print shop in London in the East End called “Pictures of Walls.” And this blew my mind. They had Obey, Invader, a lot of the iconic street art stuff, and at that point I got obsessed with street art prints and started buying a lot.
“After about 15 years, I had a really sizable collection, about 300 pieces of work from Damian Hirst, Banksy, Invader, Obey, stuff I really very much loved. It was very much art of who I was. I got an opportunity to move to LA in 2014, and at the time I put my entire collection into a concrete storage facility in Sydney, Australia.
“To cut a long story short, in 2019, that entire facility burned to the ground. I remember I got a phone call from my mom, and she’s like, “Look I just want to let you know, the facility in Brookvale, the whole thing is on fire.” 400 storage facilities. I remember saying to my mom, “It’s okay, it’s all cool, my facility is concrete wall, concrete floor, it’s a concrete box, it’ll be fine.” Turns out — who knew? — concrete does burn, and the entire facility burnt down. 300 works of art that were securely stored in the facility burnt to the ground, and I lost everything. I flew straight home to Australia, and I remember going to the facility, and I met some random dude who was like ,“I can break in with you,” and we sort of crawled over some barbed wire fence that was still smoldering, we had masks on and gloves. I wanted to see for myself. And I remember like, busting open, seeing the metal door buckled, and everything was just ash.
“It was literally right about that time in 2019 that I came across digital art. And for me, that transition, in that moment I understood, Hang on a second, I travel the world in my job: London, LA, Sydney. I can buy art, I can store it on the blockchain, it’ll never get burnt again. I’ll never go through that again.”
There’s a man hanging around the wreckage, squinting at the sky, not smoking or anything, just one of those phantasmic figures that always seems to hang around disaster sites — sunglasses, contractor’s coat, denim. Maybe he’s also trying to believe what he’s seeing. I can’t really believe it myself though I’m definitely seeing it. Carnage, ruin, catastrophe. The eyes disbelieve such things on principle. “Can you believe this?” I ask.
“Hard not to, looking at it. What’d you have in there?” he asks, crooking his head over towards the debris. There’s something charged in his voice, a kind of graverobber’s anticipation.
“Everything,” I say, though I’m not usually a melodramatist. But who can keep from melodrama after a great blaze? Fires are inherently melodramatic; so grandiose, so all-consuming, mercilessly mustache-twirling in their devastation. “You lose something in there too?” I ask the guy, but he’s somehow vanished, replaced by the fresh, breeze-blown smell of industrial smoke: plutonic, acrid, melty. I’m thinking maybe he was the ghost of some poor sap who slept the wrong night in his storage locker after a fight with his wife, but pretty soon his boots come clop-clop-clopping up behind me. I turn. He offers me a purple paisley bandana and I wrap it over my mouth. He hands me a pair of thick gardening gloves.
“So you don’t singe your fingers,” he says. “Let’s go have a look.”
I follow him to a hollowed-out section of the storage facility’s wall, and he pulls back some fencing for me to duck through. My Virgil and I, we’re both going in there, I reckon, for the same reason, the same reason folks spend entire afternoons at yard sales scouring through buckets of old baseball cards: Because despite the obvious odds…what if?
The whole place is still molten. The air is bloodclot, thick with carcinogens. Long extinguished grandchildren of the great blaze still smolder stubbornly in spots, feasting on the last scraps of what I imagine were once family photos, dusty bookshelves, toys, a lawnmower unfortunately speckled with ancient gasoline, shirts, blouses, all sorts of once-identifiable things that have since been seared into uniformity: ash-swallowed, soot-subsumed, no longer even suggesting form, purpose, history. All individuality eaten by the fire, farted out as ash and as black smoke, cursed to orbit the Earth as an indistinguishable part of the atmosphere.
We step over enough charred bricks and crumbling cinderblocks to make a mason weep. The man it seems has stalked around here before and so leads me away from the especially hopeless areas, stands atop rubble looking into the distance like Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer. Me, I’m staring desperately downward, praying to see a recognizable something-or-other that might justify my stupid frustrating hope: a stuffed teddy bear that lost only half-an-ear, some spartan cookware that defied the melting-point mandates of its chemical composition, a guitar string, half of a locket, anything to suggest survival as a possible outcome.
I’d thought it was, like, common knowledge that concrete can’t burn, and that’s why they upsell you a fully-four-walled concrete locker for top dollar. But when you look around a place like this, you realize that everything burns. Price is not a factor. “Fifty firefighters,” the man shouts over to me, “cherry pickers, drones, HAZMAT crews. Could see the smoke all the way in Manly!” He’s almost excited about it, and truthfully, there is an excitement in all of this. No, not excitement, exactly. Energy, that’s the word. Energy.
My brain buzzes with details of this place which I’d never consciously catalogued, but here they are anyways, flooding into my consciousness through otherwise unused mental channels: the graffiti on a pillar by the entrance, the slight dent under the painted number denoting what was once my very own overpriced locker. I’m possessed not only by this place’s memory but by the memory of the 300-or-so artworks I stored here, their actual aesthetics so crystalline in my memory: the shine of black ink on eggshell paper, textures and singular smudges, the lilting signature scribbled in pencil along the bottom-left edge of a frame, or, wait, was it the bottom-right of the frame? And was the paper eggshell or off-white? The details change now in my supercharged memory, the fire having somehow made its way within me, ground my certainties into a paste, the bright spot of scarlet maybe actually, yes huh, it may in fact have been mahogany, I can’t remember or maybe I’m remembering too much, outlines usurping specificities, remembrances turning as smoky and scattered as the physical objects they connote. I remember there was that one piece with the little girl, but what was the expression on her face? The one with the purple dots, were they really purple? They flash before me all polychromatic but then disappear entirely. I’m vibrating too wildly, my memories surging, blowing their transformers. I’m losing it all, the minutiae I sought to preserve in this locker for my retirement, for my children and my children’s children to observe, appreciate, exalt. Every detail I fail to recall, I know, is gone, gone forever, gone from the universe, burned away from the fabric of reality. My power of recall alone stands between preservation and oblivion, yet I can muster only suggestions, fifteen-maybe-sixteen pieces in a collection of hundreds, for I’ve spent years now in LA, years have passed since I’ve last been here, last fingered through the prints and posters I spent my twenties and thirties collecting. And the apparent punishment for my negligence is exodus. I knew from the moment my mother told me about the fire that I’d lost so much, but the reality is even worse: I have no idea what I’ve lost in the first place.
It is obviously all gone. If the flame bested concrete, then it would have dominated paper, ink, balsa wood, all these famously flammable materials I foolishly believed would be my legacy.
15 years, my entire adult life, the changing sensibilities of my many minute eras, beautiful things which correlated to beautiful moments, artwork that was so beautiful and also so rare, rare as I am so rare, this locker I’d stuffed with the contents of my very very particular and uncommon life. My life was inimitable and impressive. It was specific. But sufficient heat stole its details and its shape, left it formless and generalized. A four-minute phone call from my mother, a 16-hour flight across the Pacific, a grief-crazed taxi ride to Brookvale, that was all the time it took for the nights and nodes and idiosyncrasies of my life to all be burned away. Now without proof, I will have to spend my remaining days convincing myself that I was real.
“So, you never said. What’d you have in here?” the man asks me again. He has climbed over a wooden beam charred with what looks like the face of Christ. His gloves seem to be dissolving, but it’s just sifted ash blowing off from the fingers.
“My life,” I tell him all resolute, like I’m some great philosopher, but it’s true isn’t it, and I leave another footstep in this soot which is indistinguishable from all this other soot but also might be the soot that I, over decades, brought here. How could I know? I keep thinking mercilessly that I can never do this again, can never allow my life to burn, this life I had given so much to expand, nurture, become something, and then I cursed it to die in the shadows. I can’t burn again, I can’t allow myself to burn, the whole world will have to burn, the sun will have to belch itself outward and consume the Earth, then maybe I could stomach this burn, maybe I wouldn’t feel so much like ash, which, yes, I know I am — ash in training, ash awaiting my betrothed at the altar — but god damn it don’t remind me.
I was not given a chance to rage against the dying of the light, to drink every antidote in vain, to use every technological and astronomical advancement at my disposal. I was not given a chance to screech and hoot and holler as the fire licked my soles.
God, please give me more life, and I promise I’ll — no no no, I will not ask, I will not beg, I will not pray, I will snatch as much life as I can carry, I will take it and run, and all future flames will have to dance for their dinner.