While in Tokyo in November for a group show with a New York-based gallery, Alex Headlam, 23, decided at the last minute to put on a solo show, as well. “I realized that I want to maximize on this moment, because I was making a lot of work here on my iPad, just getting really inspired,” he says.
Read more: Presenting CoinDesk's Most Influential 2022
He’s working on a billboard for the show as he catches up with CoinDesk about his portrait of Binance’s CEO Changpeng Zhao, known as CZ, who recently almost bailed out the fallen crypto exchange FTX. The situation’s given Headlam a dynamic subject to work with, someone who’s involved in a bad news story but isn’t the bad guy. He’s looking to longtime influences like pop artist Andy Warhol and filmmaker Tim Burton to help craft his piece, resulting in an artistic style that straddles the real and the imaginary.
How and when did you first learn about NFTs?
At the tail end of 2020 I heard whispers, but no one was really expecting it to do anything. But 2021 came around, and we saw more success stories within the artist community. One was Fewocious, who I’d been following for a while. He's always been good at marketing, but then something really shifted. It got everybody's attention – mine, too.
At the time, I was creating a lot of digital work out of my Baltimore apartment, where rent was $600. I needed a new way to monetize my work, since my drawings were just Instagram and Twitter posts. I did as much research as I could over a few months, then somebody gave me $200 to start minting on OpenSea.
Who gave you $200 to start minting on OpenSea?
I'm a little embarrassed to say it, but it's this YouTuber, very controversial, named Sam Hyde. He’d won this auction I did on my Instagram, where I took the last $23 in my wallet, framed it, and wrote on the frame, “This is the last $23 in my wallet.” I auctioned it off and it sold for $86. [Sam] thought it was a good idea and said, “Get into this NFT thing. I'm going to give you $200.”
What was the first-ever piece of NFT art you minted?
I was uploading stuff that I already made, including a black and white drawing that just says the word “Cope,” which I use a lot in my art. It’s like a brand.
Why did you decide to make that piece into an NFT?
I had some foresight that I would be expanding on “Cope” with this burgeoning technology. If I want to start off with something, that’s probably my best foot forward – it's something I believe in, kind of my lifestyle.
What were some of your main considerations when making CZ’s “Most Influential” portrait?
I wanted to emphasize duality, something that echoes, “I'm a nice guy. But if you interfere, it won't be so nice.” It’s simple, but also has humor injected into it, like, “I'm very good at what I do, and I'm laughing at you.”
I wanted to poke fun at the situation [of CZ almost bailing out FTX], because on one hand, I acknowledge it was borderline altruistic, but was it really? Or was he acting out of personal gain? That’s most businessmen in this situation, so I tried not to make him so much of a hero but acknowledge that what he had done was disruptive – the talks of buying FTX, and then that not happening, and then the social response and dynamic.
What did you do in your piece to reflect that?
I'm an Andy Warhol fan. His portraiture work is very flat, but the subject’s personality is on display. Using multiples, variation of facial features, and distortion is my visual language. My color palette is very contrasting, and oftentimes very explosive, like Warhol’s. Doing that with this piece, my intention is to make it stand out, but also make it almost cartoonish – the borderline between real life and this fantasy cartoon world.
The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, institutional digital assets exchange. Bullish group is majority owned by Block.one; both groups have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary, and an editorial committee, chaired by a former editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, is being formed to support journalistic integrity.