Bored Ape and CryptoPunk NFTs ‘Are Not Artworks’: Collector and Creator Derrick Li on the Distinctions Between Digital Art and Collectibles

NFT collector and enthusiast Derrick Li first learned about the digital art form the way many of us did—through the $69 million sale of Beeple’s 5,000 Days at Christie’s in March 2021. But that’s where any similarities with those who jumped onto the NFT bandwagon stop.

Rather than looking for get-rich-quick purchases, Li started reaching out to the NFT creators he most admired. He also founded Triple X, an organization focused on curating collections of NFTs by artists (and not by illustrators—more on that below) and bridging the knowledge gap between mainstream art collectors and artists working in the digital realm. 

Earlier this week,  Li announced that Triple X would be releasing a new curated NFT collection, “On Sparks and Souls,” featuring digital artworks by artists including Jia Aili, who is represented by Gagosian. 

Recently, we caught up with Li to discuss the volatility of the NFT market, what distinguishes NFT art from digital collectibles, and a whole lot more. 

Derrick Li, founder of Triple X.

Can you tell me about yourself and how you came to the NFT space?
I am Derrick Li, a.k.a. Tung or Triple X or X, which some artists call me. My family calls me DongDong. People say I have so many names, they hear a new one every time they meet someone who knows me. These “multiple identities” make me feel great because I don’t want to be defined, and this somehow sets me free in the NFT space; like, it’s all me, but depends on your perspective. 

I founded Triple X at the beginning of last year and have been an NFT collector, curator, and builder since soon after Beeple’s auction at Christie’s. I started researching them and realized their potential, their user cases, and their benefits to the artists and all users.

There were several factors that drew me in. First, I knew I was still early in joining this market, so that would be a great advantage—the earlier you are in and the harder you are willing to work, the better shot you get to have. Second, NFTs have the potential to do so many great things and contribute so much to artists. Lastly, I wanted to facilitate artists in making great new things. 

In your own words, how would you describe Triple X? What would you say you see as parts of its evolving role in the NFT space?
As of now, Triple X is me, but I hope for it to become an organization that is open to supporting opportunities and ideas in digital art that innovate and inspire. My goal with Triple X is to lift up people, especially artists, and make the world a better place. Triple X represents sparks and souls, inspirations and purposes, perceptions and understandings. We want people to gather with good hearts and good intentions to create long-term value in the NFT space in interesting ways.

Part of this means bringing more senior traditional collectors and the general public into the field and helping to build a fundamental and enlightening understanding of what is happening in the digital domain. From there, Triple X will be able to provide high-quality works for collectors and art lovers. I care a lot about the audience, the true art lovers. 

Classic becomes classic for a reason, and I don’t want Triple X to be seen or associated with hype. I want it to build a culture, and to have a culture within too, with like-minded people.

Your company has many dimensions in the NFT world, particularly a curatorial or almost gallery-like vetting process that brings NFT collecting into more familiar territory for art lovers. Earlier this week you announced that you will be dropping a new collection of NFTs by artists including Jia Ail, who is represented by Gagosian. Who are the NFT artists included in the collection? How did you come into contact with each of them? 

This collection includes incredible digital artists like Raoul Marks, David Ariew, and Ryan Hawthorne, and of course, the main character of the collection is Jia Aili. I have two more digital artists who are working on a piece behind the scenes, but I don’t want to reveal their identities yet. It’s more interesting to stay mysterious, but based on the quality of the works we have produced so far, people can trust me that the secret ones are also some of the most artistic digital artists in the NFT space

I also collect NFTs and love reaching out to the masterminds behind these amazing digital artworks. Luckily, many of these artists replied—at that time, NFT artists were more willing to connect with collectors. Nowadays, way too many ghost accounts would be DMing you (whether you are artists, collectors or builders, whatever) and most people wouldn’t even bother to go check the DM request anymore. 

The artist David Ariew also helped me connect with many other artists, including Raoul Marks, who is in the sale. David has always been this super helpful and nice person.

Would you say there is a common thread between the artists you have chosen to work with?
Yes, definitely! This current collection is called “On Sparks and Souls”, and one of its main intentions is to show the artistic essence of these NFTs and raise the bar for the artistic conversation around them. I asked these NFT artists to create works that in some way respond to Jia Aili’s paintings. They could explore ways of understanding the paintings, have conversations with them, and combine elements of his works with their own in refreshing new ways, while remaining close to its roots. The overarching common thread between these artists, including Aili, is the vibration they have with the essence of art, which is where true creativity comes from.

So the NFTs in the exhibition are directly inspired by 2D paintings? Why did you choose to pursue this way of building an NFT collection? 

Yes. All the digital artworks are inspired and based on at least one painting by Jia Aili, which each artist in the collection chose. The final digital artworks are mixes of Aili’s visions, art philosophy, and artistic inputs from him directly, along with each artist’s personal input, mediums, styles, interpretations and “signatures”, which are then minted as NFTs. Through this process, the meaning of the symbols in the original paintings was expanded upon.

Since the original paintings played a big role in this collection, I am contemplating planning and curating an exhibition next year that brings these paintings into conversation with the digital artworks—though there would be lots of steps, including loans from collectors, to make that possible. The paintings already have homes, but it would be a great conversation between the works. 

There is a lot of volatility in the NFT space right now. What do you think about this?
This is the consequence of non-stop speculations in the NFT space, which just happened to collapse during the crypto crash. Am I worried about the market? No. Am I worried about the people? Yes. We need more proper information and education in this space.

The market was so unstable because some people were playing this money game, trying to speculate on certain artists’ markets, and then they got to become the “influencers” to tell people what’s good or not, who should people be looking into and buying into, rather than any real knowledge of the artwork. NFTs were being sold at prices that made no sense given their actual and true demand and artistic values.

There is no liquidity flowing into the space as of now, so most NFTs become dead assets. The so-called “Whale collectors” need to take a huge responsibility for the current state of the space.

A lot of people have been very impatient; people only have short-term visions and mindsets when they are in this space. Not that many people have long-term visions or are willing to start building a healthy infrastructure for this market and its reputation. I’m so critical of this because I want the NFT space to have longevity.

Can you tell us about the difference between digital collectibles and NFTs? What are the major distinctions and how do you think these differences will be clarified in the future? 

Digital collectible projects are made by developer teams, rather than artists. Oftentimes, these teams hire an illustrator to create the visual design for their product, but does that count as artwork? My answer might sound controversial, but I say no. Not every creation is a piece of artwork. Not every single illustration is a piece of artwork.

I think it’s extremely important to differentiate digital collectibles that are NFTs from digital artworks that are minted as NFTs. People shouldn’t try to find artistic values or the essence of art in digital collectibles, It’s like expecting lychee to fall from an apple tree.

Of course, a lot of people who are seeking artworks are confused when they see the successful collectible projects such as Bored Ape Yacht Club and CryptoPunks and wonder why such “bad art” sold for so much. These are not artworks; they are digital collectibles that can offer utilities. The line needs to be drawn here, clearly. Then people can start identifying artworks and talk about things with the right definitions and expectations. 

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