During the past year and a half, Trevor Jones has shattered multiple crypto art records. He has topped the highest bids on non-fungible token (NFT) marketplaces, including SuperRare, Nifty Gateway and MakersPlace. In February, his Bitcoin Angel set a record for the “most expensive open-edition NFT artwork” when it raked in $3.2 million.
Jones, 51, didn’t go to college until his thirties and worked three to four jobs after graduating to support his painting career. Today, he still leads a relatively quiet life with his wife outside Edinburgh, Scotland. To him, his journey in the NFT art world has been “a crazy success story.”
“It started with being depressed at 30 and deciding to do an art degree,” he says, “to [becoming] an overnight sensation.” His rise is emblematic of the transformative effect the recent NFT boom has had on artists’ lives. Far from an abstract internet phenomenon, NFTs are responsible for some becoming millionaires – in the exclusive art world no less, where it’s not easy to get rich.
Since his foray into “crypto art” in 2018 – when he used augmented reality to transform paintings at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery into crypto bigwigs – Jones has become one of the most important artists minting NFTs. Everybody in the sector knows his name. He’s collaborated with Pak, whose work recently sold for $16.8 million at Sotheby’s. And when Beeple, who famously auctioned an NFT at Christie’s for $69.3 million in March, first hit him up for advice on how to make drops on Nifty Gateway last summer, Jones was too busy to respond (they later discussed collaborating). His next collaboration is with the rapper and filmmaker Ice Cube.
As the hype around NFTs has grown, Jones still stands out as a classically trained artist in a digital world. Though many of his works include tech components (like animation, AR and of course, NFTs), his primary medium remains oil on canvas. Meanwhile, he’s watched the crypto art world evolve in a very short period of time. In a way, it’s come to look like the traditional art world he came up in.
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“In the early days …there really were only a handful of [crypto] artists. We all spoke to each other daily and got excited about who’s doing what,” he says. “In the last six or so months, it’s really blown up…It mirrors the art world in general, with money, egos, and personalities, and everybody wanting a piece of the pie.”
Growing up in a “small logging community” in Western Canada, Jones always excelled in art class, but his dream was to become a rock star. When that went “horribly wrong,” he says, he started backpacking around the world, and found himself “at a crossroads” in his early thirties while living in Edinburgh.
“It’s all very cliché,” he says, speaking from an unadorned spot in his home over Zoom in April. “I decided that I needed to become an artist to save myself and find redemption.”
Several years later, at 38, he graduated from Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art. He immediately landed a director job at the nonprofit Art in Healthcare. It was a competitive position, says Margaret Hurcombe, who hired him in 2008, but Jones stood out for his “practical skill set” – he had business sense in addition to artistic talent. At the time, Jones also taught art classes and rented out spare rooms in his apartment to make ends meet while working toward solo exhibitions.
He learned quickly that solo shows alone wouldn’t pay the bills. With galleries’ 50% commissions, and artists paying for their overhead costs like framing, he was left with about £9,000 from a show that took a year to produce.
“I started looking at this objectively and rationally,” Jones says. In his early forties, he needed to find a niche that would distinguish him from other artists. So he started looking to technology, first painting QR codes in 2012 and venturing into AR in 2013.
At the 2013 Edinburgh Art Fair, its founder and contemporary art dealer Andy McDougall remembers Jones showing up with “traditional looking” paintings of landscapes and animals. “We were all a little perplexed by this sudden change in style,” McDougall says, until Jones brought out his iPad and scanned it across his paintings, which began to move, play music and offer information about its subjects. “He could bring the paintings to life,” McDougall says.
Jones used AR similarly in a “world leaders” portrait series from 2016, blending paint with garbage to portray the likes of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. One buyer bought all ten paintings. “For the first time, I had a bit of money in the bank,” Jones says, “and I could look at investing.”
His timing was fateful. Around 2017, bitcoin (BTC) and ether (ETH) prices had begun to rise dramatically. Jones got caught up in trading. “I found out I’m a bit of a gambler,” he says. His “investing” efforts didn’t end well.
But they did introduce him to new subject matter – the crypto sector, which hadn’t yet been explored by traditional artists. He painted portraits of Vitalik Buterin and John McAfee (who re-tweeted his work), and created his stealth AR exhibit at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Again, Jones had gambled, by spending so much time on works in this uncharted territory. This time, the gamble paid off.
More and more people began following Jones on Twitter, where he has no qualms about self-promotion, and interest in his work pervaded the crypto market. By 2019, he was painting portraits for this publication’s “Most Influential” series. “That kind of solidified my reputation in the space as the go-to traditional painter,” he says.
Though NFTs had been around for some time, Jones didn’t learn about them until April 2019, when the CEO of digital art marketplace KnownOrigin, David Moore, approached him at CoinFest in Manchester. “He was telling me about NFTs,” Jones says, “and I could not get my head around it at all.”
A couple months later, Jones started seeing artists selling their work on KnownOrigin. “I thought, okay, I can’t ignore this anymore,” he says. So he messaged his friend Alotta Money, a French artist who had been selling his NFTs for hundreds of dollars.
“All the NFT world wanted Trevor to get in,” says Alotta Money. “He asked me if I could help him.” Inspired by Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin (1910), their collaboration EthGirl features an animated girl in the shape of the Ethereum symbol, which separates to reveal Picasso’s pixelated eye. It broke SuperRare’s sale record when it sold for 72.1 ETH in December 2019. Jones’s description of the piece on SuperRare reads, “Watch this space. This is just the beginning.” He was right.
The following year saw the launch of NFT art marketplaces like Nifty Gateway, which expanded the audience for NFTs by letting buyers pay with fiat. Jones sold his Picasso’s Bull there in July for $55,555, again breaking a platform record. Then 2021 ushered in multi-million NFT auctions by both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Azealia Banks sold an NFT of her audio sex tape for $17,240, Grimes made an NFT artwork that sold for $5.8 million, and the “Leave Britney Alone” video creator, Chris Crocker, sold an NFT of that video for more than $44,000.
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Many who got into NFTs since last summer “reference Picasso’s Bull NFT as the one that got them into the space,” says Jones. By the end of 2020, Jones had gone on to release his second collaboration with Alotta Money, which sold for about $140,000. His collaboration with Pak went for $1.4 million (Jones still doesn’t know Pak’s identity).
To collectors, Jones’s work is worth holding onto. Colborn Bell, an NFT collector who owns Jones’ Putin portrait and Cubist Satoshi, says he wouldn’t sell a Jones – unless “some Russian oligarch showed up and was like, I need this Trevor Jones President Putin piece…and offered me an absurd amount of money.”
With his background in the legacy art world, Jones could see the NFT market blowing up before it happened. “I knew there was going to be a Beeple who would come in and completely open things up,” he says. “I just didn’t know it was going to happen so quickly.”
The acceleration of the market, Jones says, is both “good and bad.” There’s more money and attention available for emerging artists, who can make more from their work because NFT platforms take smaller cuts than traditional galleries and offer royalties for re-sales. But it also makes it harder for those emerging or lesser-known artists to get seen.
Jones likes to help artists entering the market. As Aisha Arif, community manager at MakersPlace, a marketplace for digital art, puts it, “Trevor [is a] role model… On Twitter, he is constantly…offering valuable insights to help artists.”
But these days, he gets flooded with messages. He can’t keep up with the inquiries, and plans to hire an assistant soon.
The success, say friends and colleagues, hasn’t changed Jones – he has remained humble, gracious and a good friend. If anything, it’s made him more guarded. The negativity that can permeate the crypto sector reaches sensitive artists, and there were times in the past year when Jones has been tempted to “completely step away,” he says. Instead, he focuses on his work.
After all, aspects of blockchain technology excite him from an artistic perspective, and will “completely shift the way art is consumed,” he says – like the Metaverse, where artists can show their NFT work in virtual worlds.
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In spite of his major success in the past year, Jones’s sudden wealth remains “a number on a screen” (well, several numbers—he holds bitcoin, ether and fiat). He still shops at the cheapest grocery store and doesn’t own a car, but he and his wife are looking at moving to southern Germany next year. He loves Edinburgh, but says that “the weather sucks.” In Germany, he will probably buy a Tesla.
In the meantime, he’s using artificial intelligence in a hush-hush project and starting research for his latest collaboration – with Ice Cube. “It’s going to be a very powerful work with a strong message and not a ‘celebrity cash-grab,’” Jones says. And he doesn’t think the NFT market is a bubble. Rather, it’s a fertile ground for the “future of ecommerce and art.”
“When it comes down to money and art, there will always be one conclusion,” he says. “Is the money driving the space, or is art driving the space? And we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”
UPDATE (April 26, 15:20 UTC): Jones’ Bitcoin Angel is a solo work, not a collaboration with Jose Delbo.