Hashmasks sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they also might set the bar for what digital art should look like.
At the beginning of February, whispers on Discord quickly turned into a parabolic price chart for digital art project Hashmasks – an output of curiously named Zurich-based Suum Cuique Labs.
Suum Cuique Labs’ first project is an attempt to bridge the gap among digital communities which have sprung up in the age of lockdowns and high-speed internet access. Its collection of abstract portraits is perhaps the best example of a $350 million industry quickly making its way to the mainstream through celebrity endorsements from people as lofty as Mark Cuban .
The project falls into a niche of blockchain-based applications called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). These tokens, which mostly reside on the Ethereum network, act similarly to an old stock certificate: You are given a token when you buy a Hashmasks. That token is a public claim of ownership to digital art that resides in private hands.
Yet, Hashmasks and other digital artwork suffers from one nagging quip: Can’t you just screenshot it?
Yes, you could. But this question misses how digital art came to be, in and of itself. New digital communities like Hashmasks want to relate, build and grow together. And that’s simply not possible in the online world of yesterday’s social media giants. Digital art extends online norms we’ve all become accustomed to by introducing digital ownership. To own a Hashmask is to be part of a new community.
Behind the mask
Hashmasks was the creation of a particular community, not a product designed for a community, said “John Doe,” the co-creator of the digital art project, who requested anonymity for this interview with CoinDesk. He and his co-founder, who also asked to remain hidden, are both digital natives, one being a Solidity engineer and the other a researcher at a digital asset manager.
How did they know what to build?
“We are the exact target audience. We just build what we would like. We didn’t have to do any analysis on people’s preferences because it’s just us,” Doe said. “We hang in the same Discords.”
Doe’s passion work – borderless exchange of value – reflects his upbringing. He explained how he was raised in Berlin, attended high school state-side in Arizona, received his Masters in Economics in London before finally settling in Zurich. While he became interested in cryptocurrencies before the 2017 bull run, he only got into the NFT market this past summer.
“I feel mostly German, I think,” he added.
What’s a Hashmask?
The duo spared no expense either. Each of the 16,000 plus pieces is unique, the result of 8 months preparation and collaboration with some 70 artists from around Europe, Doe said. The compositions leaned heavily on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work in New York City during the 1980s, Doe added.
Each portrait has six features: a character, a mask, an eye color, a skin tone, an item and a background. Those features divide into further categories such as a lion or a dragon character, he said.
A few other features separate Hashmasks from other NFTs. First, the community designates rarity to each mask. Second, Hashmasks has a second token, the Name Changing Token (NCT). And third, there are hidden messages left in each Hashmask.
The original purchase of the 16,000 Hashmasks was completely random, even to Doe and his co-founder. Hashmasks could be purchased in tiers with each level costing a different amount of ether (ETH, -0.31%) (ETH), Doe said. The rarity of a Hashmask then developed organically, Doe said, based on the portrait’s features. The highest grossing Hashmask, for instance, garnered $650,000 even though the original buyer only spent 0.5 ether worth some $750 at press time on the painting.Read more: Rare Hashmasks Digital Artwork Sells for $650K in Ether
NCTs also act as a way for collectors to get involved with their work. Each Hashmask has an associated token that allows the artwork to have its name changed within certain limits. The naming tokens allow owners to build art on top of Hashmasks as a complement to the entire project, Doe said.
Lastly, hidden messages are embedded in many Hashmasks. For example, there’s a royal flush scattered across multiple pieces, Doe said. Puzzles and messages spread across Hashmasks creates community interaction and adds rarity, Doe said.
“We built the first collectable, in my view, where the rarity hierarchy is not solely determined by the creators,” Doe said. “This is not endemic to NFTs.”