Portrait of Noah Davis, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
Beeple, detail of Everydays: The First 5000 Days2021. Courtesy of Christie’s.
As the person who facilitated Beeple’s $69 million sale at Christie’s in February 2021—the event that ushered NFTs into the mainstream—Noah Davis has already cemented his place in art history. Last month, he started a new job at Yuga Labs—the company that creates and develops NFT collectibles such as Bored Ape Yacht Club—where he is now brand lead of the recently acquired collectible CryptoPunks. With CryptoPunks constituting 7 of the 10 highest-selling NFTs, Davis’s new role is both enviable and daunting.
Cryptocurrency is in the middle of a bear market, and Yuga Labs is involved in a high-profile lawsuit against conceptual artist Ryder Ripps for trademark infringement. Yet Davis, who believes that “Web3 is good for not just artists, but for humanity in general,” is undeterred. After a short Zoom chat, it’s easy to see why if there ever was a person for this job, it is this forthright and idealistic 33-year-old who, in addition to having serious business savvy, is an artist himself.
larva labs, CryptoPunk #20992017. Courtesy of Noah Davis.
Davis’s entire professional career, up until joining Yuga Labs, was in the traditional art world. He interned in the publications department at Gagosian before joining Christie’s in 2017. There, he worked his way up the ladder to become a specialist and ran the online sales department. “I was selling post-war contemporary art online only—a category I grew from a kind of backwater or a bargain-bin fire-sale place to a pretty reliable moneymaker over the course of four years,” he said.
As the “online sales guy,” Davis was also the person to evaluate the Beeple NFT when it was proposed to him by his colleague Megan Doyle, and pitch its sale to the 300-year-old auction house. However, the lightning bulb moment with NFTs didn’t happen for him until later. Everything changed, he said, when “I realized what it is that NFTs do and got past what they are.”
By this, Davis means that he saw beyond the aesthetics of most NFTs—a hurdle that stops many traditional art-world people in their tracks—to the potential of their decentralized technology. “Once I got past what the NFT is and into what it does, which is give currency to an ephemeral good, I learned that digital goods are not the only use case for NFTs,” he explained, alluding to their ability to function as everything from a conditional contract, to a collective recordkeeper, to a keepsake, to an event pass, and more. “They are basically super dynamic objects without objecthood. That’s what sold me,” he said. After learning more about decentralization, he also felt that NFTs and blockchain aligned with his personal values in a way that the traditional art world did not.
Davis doesn’t hold back about his distaste for the traditional art world. He nodded to a famous David Hammons quote (an artist he called the “greatest living artist”), to summarize his opinion: “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s put to criticism, not to understand and it never has any fun!” Hammons said in 1986.
“That’s scathing, but I think totally spot on,” Davis said. “This is a world that operates with its own clandestine rituals and its own weird pacts behind the scenes; its own cabals within cabals. I don’t resonate with that kind of structure at all.”
Noah Davis, Howlerz #22722022. Courtesy of the artist.
Noah Davis, Howlerz #18252022. Courtesy of the artist.
Davis also said that he made more money from his own collectible, Howlerz, than he did during his five years at Christie’s, even with the $69 million Beeple sale. “It was so incredibly empowering. It was massive for me. It totally changed my life,” he said of making Howlerz, two 5K sets (with a third on the way) of cartoon-/tattoo-inspired wolf heads, drawn by Davis and generated via a randomizing algorithm. In addition to giving him financial freedom, Howlerz allowed Davis to build his own NFT community, all of which helped him feel confident enough to openly call himself an artist for the first time while further strengthening his belief in the fundamental goodness of Web3.
But what about the punks? What will Davis do to ensure or raise the brand integrity of the world’s most collectively valuable NFTs? And how did they get to be so valuable in the first place? On this final point, Davis explained, “Provenance is something that’s really important to understand here. And the fact that CryptoPunks were born onto the blockchain in 2017 is an enormous deal.” He clarified, however, that “early does not necessarily equal elite.”
There are other 2017 NFTs, such as Crypto Kitties and Curio Cards, that did not achieve CryptoPunks’s steep trajectory. The reason Punks have this incredible staying power and are as valuable as they are, Davis said, “has to do with the makeup of their community. There are still claimers out there who are active members of CryptoPunks, which is incredible to think that they’ve held onto these assets from zero, quite literally almost $0, to where they are now.” That is especially true when you consider that the highest selling Punk sold for $23.7 million in February 2022 and the lowest priced available Punk, as of this writing, is $128,961.53.
Davis’s first big move as brand lead is to head up the release of licensing rights to CryptoPunk holders that mirrors those of Bored Ape Yacht Club holders. These rights include the ability to create new IP (intellectual property) using the CryptoPunk image a holder owns, as long as it does not include hate speech or get used for illegal purposes.
CryptoPunk pendant. Courtesy of Tiffany & Co.
larva labs, CryptoPunk #5447, 2017. Courtesy of a private collector.
An example of this at work is the recent collaboration between Tiffany & Co. and CryptoPunk holders to create custom Punk pendants, which feature at least 30 gemstones each and go for the modest amount of 30 Ethereum, or about $51,000. Empowering NFT holders to be creative, entrepreneurial ambassadors of a brand rather than doggedly controlling a brand’s context from the top down is a hallmark of Web3, and a notable departure from how brands have operated in the past.
“I think brands have been very aggressive to protect those boundaries historically, because there’s been a financial incentive to do so, but that is now culturally changing with Web3,” Davis said. “The focus is way more on autonomy and encourage that creativity rather than stomping it out. It has to do with the trustless nature of blockchain and the permissionless way that this technology works. It feels wrong to put barriers in between creative people and what they want to create.”
Noah Davis, Howlerz #13082022. Courtesy of the artist.
Noah Davis, Howlerz #46172022. Courtesy of the artist.
When pressed about the current crypto winter and looming lawsuit—and whether or not he ever had any doubts about his move away from the traditional art world—Davis said, “I had no doubts, frankly. There’s no safe harbor in crypto, but the safest one that I could pick if I was going into choppy waters is Yuga Labs.”
Regarding the lawsuit, he added, “It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of friction from the old establishment reacting to the arrival of Beeple. There was some really problematic stuff in Beeple’s earlier work that got called out by traditional media and I think rightly so, and there was a conversation around it that was, I think, ultimately good for the space, and Beeple looks back on that problematic work with a cringe or two. Yeah, deep cringing. But it is true that this is a space that is very, very much in its infancy and going through growing pains.”
Clearly, there is no place Davis would rather be than at ground zero of these growing pains, playing a pivotal role in molding the better NFT future he so fervently believes in.
Mieke Marple is an artist based in Los Angeles.