Tezos: Web3’s Gritty Underground Art Scene
In this essay, Liv Pasquarelli takes us on a tour of the Trash Art movement, particularly in the Tezos ecosystem. Liv goes deep on how this subculture was shaped and how that has impacted NFT artists in the space.
By Liv Pasquarelli - Aug 18, 2022
Forefront Journal publishes essays from the frontier of web3 social and tokenized communities. This is a guest essay from Liv Pasquarelli, a writer covering web3, NFTs, and AI.
Where AI, Generative Art, and Experimentation Thrive
The NFT art that gets the most traction is typically PFP projects (piles of viral collections generated by code and used as Twitter profile pictures) and 1/1s (one-of-a-kind NFT pieces priced for fine art collectors). Underneath the noise of conspicuous digital consumerism, though, lies a dark, growing underbelly composed largely of trash. For most blockchain natives who have been familiarizing themselves with collecting NFTs, Tezos is just a mysterious hashtag they've seen floating around crypto Twitter with increasing frequency, but the ecosystem has much more to offer than most art fans realize.
Once you jump into the Tezos art scene, it's impossible to go back. Just ask Snoop Dog, who has become one of the biggest supporters and collectors of art on Tezos, spreading the word through his pseudonym, Cozomo de' Medici.
Outside of the limelight of NFTs on Ethereum, this underground collective of artists on Tezos is creating and collecting art that was either too edgy for other chains or went unnoticed thanks to the constant ebb and flow of hype in the Ethereum NFT universe. At the start of 2021, Ethereum dominated the NFT market, with 95% of NFTs minted on the Ethereum blockchain. Because of the high transaction costs, called gas fees, along with the emergence of other proof-of-stake chains like Solana and Tezos, by January 2022, that percentage dropped to 80%.
With the Ethereum merge shifting the chain to proof-of-stake vs. proof-of-work, theoretically reducing transaction costs, it's hard to predict if Ethereum will continue to dominate the NFT industry. However, Tezos has been on a steady rise since 2020.
One of the prominent art movements in the Tezos ecosystem is Trash Art, a chaotic medley of glitch art, GIFs, AI-generated mashups, and depictions of, well, trash. Like Tezos itself, the movement was created as an act of rebellion.
Tezos is a proof-of-stake blockchain founded by husband-and-wife duo Kathleen and Arthur Breitman, first proposed in 2014 but not going live until 2018. Kathleen and Arthur met at a crypto-anarchist lunch years prior and built the network using Kathleen's background in finance and Arthur's background in computer science.
Tezos (XTZ) utilizes a liquid proof of stake model (LPoS) that uses network nodes to verify blocks with operators, called bakers, earning XTZ rewards for their work. Anyone who holds XTZ can delegate (the Tezos term for staking) their tokens to the baker of their choice to earn baking rewards, too. Tezos is entirely decentralized and all updates are voted on by XTZ holders. There is no minimum to delegate or vote with your XTZ. Currently, 75% of XTZ in circulation is delegated.
If Tezos NFTs were a person, they'd wear a worn-in leather jacket decorated with DIY studs. If they were a place, they'd be a dingy, dimly lit bar in Brooklyn-- a far walk from the L train-- that hosted the occasional metal show. The walls would be coated floor to ceiling with graffiti, the floors would always be sticky, and you know you'd be able to find your drug of choice from a sketchy figure leaning against the wall near the endless bathroom line.
Since the launch of the blockchain in 2018, artists and innovators flocked to Tezos as a more environmentally friendly and less expensive alternative to Ethereum. The spirit of anarchy carried over to the type of work minted on Tezos. Because minting costs next to nothing, many artists felt free to experiment on the blockchain. Since then, there has been an influx of AI and code-generated art on Tezos, along with much more boundary-pushing art when it comes to subject matter and aesthetics.
Because of the spirit of rebellion, experimental art has flourished on Tezos NFT platforms like Objkt, Teia, and fx(hash). Glitch art, seizure-inducing GIF animations, and haunting AI-generated portraits grace the homepage of these marketplaces. Artists push the boundaries of generative art on fx(hash), which simplifies the process of creating generative NFTs with open-source code. Many artists, such as Absolutely Wrong and Calypso, use emerging digital art trends like glitchy GIFs to make statements about consumerism, politics, and war.
Experimentation with AI further pushes the question of what should count as art. For that reason, it's no surprise that the most innovative artists working with AI have been minting their work on Tezos. Freshpaint explores the layers of human consciousness with portraits that combine traditional painting with AI-generated visuals. Nikita Panin's hugely popular series Fragile Ones also combines traditional methods with AI to create portraits that strike the viewer with both porcelain skin, translucent as moonlight, combined with the corrupted fragmentation characteristic of AI art. The end result is haunting; something close to realistic but not quite, leaving viewers with a knot in their stomachs caused by the uncanny valley of distorted realism.
There is a common theme amongst art found on Tezos even without the use of AI or generative code: an ominous darkness and a feeling of unease. Even the bright, cute art on Tezos, such as paintings of various pastel animals by Lacetail, have an underlying sense of dread, similar to the malicious clown from the 1982 film Poltergeist. Writers can also experiment on typed.art, a barebones platform to publish writing as NFTs, with early-internet ASCII art mixed with lines of poetry populating the home page. The Tezos community found its natural home in the bizarre, experimental, boundary-pushing new wave of Digital Art born onto a blockchain as NFTs. Because of this, when artists began to experience rejection from mainstream blockchains like Ethereum, Tezos welcomed them with open arms. When Trash art screamed into existence, it was only natural it would find its home on Tezos.
Trash art became a common thread, something many artists in the Tezos ecosystem to interpret in their method and medium of choice. By 2022, the movement had grown considerably, with Trash Art Day on July 22nd, 2022 breaking the record for the highest number of new mints of NFTs as well as highest volume of NFTs purchased on Tezos.
The trash art movement began in 2020 when NFT artist Robness had his piece, 64 GALLON TOTER, removed from Ethereum NFT marketplace SuperRare. The glitched animation of a trash can revamped the age-old conversation: what is art?
The discourse from Robness's removal from SuperRare turned into action, and other prominent NFT artists began to make representations of trash in their styles. After 3 months, Robness announced the movement on his Twitter. After that, Robness and a collective of other artists who felt rejected from the hype of Ethereum NFTs brought their work to Tezos, minting on platforms like Objkt, Teia, and fx(hash).
BEING PART OF THE TRASH GIF SCENE HAS BEEN AMAZING, I AM ALSO DECLARING IT AS A THING AND IT DIDN'T HAVE A NAME UNTIL NOW. EXPECT MORE TRASH GIFS COMING AND WELCOME TO THE PART OF THE CRYPTO ART SCENE THAT MOST HATE BUT I LOVE.— 🔳👃🔳 (@ROBNESSOFFICIAL) January 10, 2020
The idea that an artist's work could be removed from a marketplace at the discretion of centralized moderators didn't sit well with the quickly growing community. They encouraged NFT artists to mint their best trash on Tezos.
Well-known collectors further publicized and amplified the movement by criticizing the art, which they also called trash. Other prominent artists such as Max Osiris, and Jay Delay with his piece Gang Green, had pieces removed from SuperRare, Foundation, and KnownOrigin. One notable piece, "Low Effort NFT" by Max Osiris- a piece of paper with "Low Effort NFT" scrawled on it- was removed from Foundation, an Ethereum based NFT platform for fine artists to sell their work. Many artists resonated with the message of Trash Art and began to migrate over to Tezos, including Zancan, whose generative collections Garden, Monoliths, and Lushtemples continue to be the highest grossing generative collections on Tezos. XCOPY, one of the oldest NFT artists in the space, originally sold his piece "REACHBACK" for 4 XTZ, with the last sale for 13,333 $XTZ ($533,348 USD) as of January of 2022.
After years of debates over who decided what is and isn't art, the role of decentralization and censorship, and the wild success of the trash art movement, 64 GALLON TOTER returned to SuperRare, quickly selling for the USD equivalent of $252k in February of 2022 (remember the bull market?). "Low Effort NFT" returned to Foundation and immediately sold for 1 ETH.
It is the audacity of the artist to say WHAT art is - Max Osiris
Both trash and art are subjective to the maker and collector. What defines trash has more to do with intention than it does with aesthetics.
Trash Art became a microcosm of the larger Tezos community, with expression and interpretation mattering much more than profit and floor price. The low stakes of minting on Tezos gave artists the opportunity to express themselves without overthinking their work, giving way to art that pushes the boundaries of what is possible for NFTs, challenges our ideas of what art is, and allows thousands of artists to thrive and make a liveable wage doing what they love.
Stylistically, Trash Art varies greatly. However, when it comes to the subject matter and intention, there is an obvious theme: trash, whether that be dumpsters, garbage bins, or piles of rubbish. A lot of Trash Art also has underlying themes of destruction, consumerism, waste, and degeneration. For many, trash has a double meaning derived from the last 50 years of increased industrialization, capitalism, and consumer waste. It's no coincidence that Tezos, the clean, proof-of-stake NFT platform, would also host the world's largest consortium of Trash art. The Trash Art annual events also encourage NFT artists to reuse and recycle the art that was deemed not good enough for other platforms.
Trash Empress, a prominent Trash Artist in the Tezos ecosystem, described the mutability and layered meaning of trash,
We remember from ancient civilizations a few things - their monuments, art, and trash. Just because society tries to devalue trash doesn't take away the fact it is created by humans. Trash art - crypto or physical - transmutes it back to cultural value. Trashmutations.
Reinventing the Dumpster
Turning trash into art is nothing new, and using trash to make a statement about the perception of art isn't new either. Dadaism was an absurdist art movement in the early 1900s. Chaos and nonsense led the movement, often seen as a reaction to the death and destruction caused by World War I. In 1917, famous Dadaist Marcel Duchamp created the first readymade, Fountain.
The sculpture was simply a urinal turned on its head and shown in a gallery. Duchamp had submitted the work to the newly formed Society of Independent Artists, which had written in its constitution that they would show any work by society members. Regardless of their oath, they turned Duchamp's piece away because of its vulgarity, sparking debates over what was and wasn't art. Duchamp resigned from the Society and wrote about the incident in the Dada publication at the time. The Society replied in defense,
The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not in an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art." (Naumann 2012, p.72)
Fountain became a turning point in Duchamp's career and for the entire Dadaist movement, going on to be one of his most famous works. The similarities between Dadaism and Trash Art are undeniable: both the art itself and the public reaction to it are nearly identical.
Like most art movements, Trash Art was born out of chaos and nihilism. The Covid-19 pandemic had a global impact that, at this time, seems understated and largely unaddressed. Isolation and grief left us numb, and now many of us are experiencing a strong desire to feel. To feel anything. This has allowed art full of feeling, energy, and turmoil to take center stage. As we move forward in this post-Covid world, experimentation in art and music will continue to thrive as we work together to redefine the human experience. The trash of artists will become our treasure, and the movement will grow into a burgeoning scene that encourages raw emotion and expression.
If art provokes a reaction, it's doing its job. Art that forces people to question their definition of art has impacted culture and changed our understanding of the world time and time again. It's now Trash Art's turn to leave its mark.
The concept of trash inherently means that the object, whether a physical item or a piece of art, once held a different meaning.
In the words of Trash Artist TrashPaintTycoon:
Trash needs to exist because humans exist. The truth of the matter is that trash travels so many separate times in its history. It's riddled with human emotions and experiences. Much like humans, it gets buried in the grass when it "no longer has use. - TrashPaintTycoon