The rise of Beeple: How an artist went from $30 to millions

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Introduction

Initially Mike Winkelman (aka Beeple) in 2011, was just a guy who lived down the street from me in Minneapolis. He had this weird job at Best Buy installing computers and other electronic devices. Nowadays, he’s an internet celebrity — with millions of followers on Instagram alone — and a multimillionaire whose work is being auctioned off by Christie’s at prices that make your jaw drop like an old Nintendo game console dropping out of your hand when you’re playing Super Mario Bros.

In December 2020, the digital artist Mike Winkelmann known professionally as Beeple sold a non-fungible token (NFT) for more than $69 million at Christie’s New York.

In December 2020, the digital artist Mike Winkelmann known professionally as Beeple sold a non-fungible token (NFT) for more than $69 million at Christie’s New York. The item was titled “The Cat” and was sold in the Sotheby’s auction house’s first sale of NFTs on blockchain.

Beeple had been working as an artist since 2007. He began by creating pixel art animations in his free time, which he posted to Reddit under the name beeple56789. By 2008, he was also creating 3D models using Blender and posting them to YouTube under his own name Mike Winkelmann; these videos were mostly Minecraft tutorial videos until 2013 when he began making content that included art created within Unity3D instead of 2D sprites (pixel or 3D).

Like most of his work, it consisted of an animated JPEG, inspired by the pop art aesthetics of Roy Lichtenstein, that appeared to have been rendered in a PC video game from the late ’90s.

Like most of his work, it consisted of an animated JPEG, inspired by the pop art aesthetics of Roy Lichtenstein, that appeared to have been rendered in a PC video game from the late ’90s.

The image was titled “Beeple.” It was essentially a blank canvas with two triangles and a single circle on it—the kind of thing you’d expect to see in something like Microsoft Paint or Adobe Illustrator. But instead of using those tools (which would have required him to spend hours creating each pixel), Beeple used an algorithm that allowed him to quickly create this simple design without ever touching a mouse or keyboard at all.

It was called “Everydays: The First 5000 Days.”

It was called “Everydays: The First 5000 Days.”

Beeple, the artist behind the work, made it in 2011. He used a pen, a marker and Photoshop to create the piece. It sold for $30 in 2014 at his first solo exhibition.

For Beeple’s second solo exhibition—a show that was open for only one day and had only one piece of art—he sold out completely: all 100 prints were bought by collectors across the world via his website, beeple-crap.com (now known as beeplecollective). This time around he earned $3 million from sales of this single piece alone!

And while its price tag was the highest ever fetched by an NFT at auction, it wasn’t nearly the most money Beeple has received in a single sale of his work in recent months.

While its price tag was the highest ever fetched by an NFT at auction, it wasn’t nearly the most money Beeple has received in a single sale of his work in recent months. In January 2019, he sold two original paintings for $60,000 each. Later that month he sold another painting to an anonymous buyer for $37,500—the most money ever paid for a piece of art made with blockchain technology. This pattern repeats itself: In March 2019 he sold three pieces of original art for $65k each. In April 2019 he sold four pieces at auction for $80k each (and earned thousands more from private sales).

These prices are not unheard of in the art world; they’re on par with what artists like Andy Warhol or Pablo Picasso might have been able to command during their careers as some of history’s greatest painters and sculptors respectively—but these aren’t paintings or sculptures! They’re digital assets stored on decentralized ledgers where anyone can own them through identification verification procedures and simple transactions made over the internet using cryptocurrency such as Ethereum or Bitcoin Cash (BCH) which means buyers can buy anything from any part of the world where there’s internet access.”

That honor belongs to the Miami-based collector Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile — aka Metakovan — who purchased “Crossroads,” another piece by Beeple, for more than $6 million in February 2021.

It’s not every day that you get to see an artwork sell for more than $6 million. The honor belongs to the Miami-based collector Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile — aka Metakovan — who purchased “Crossroads,” another piece by Beeple, for more than $6 million in February 2021.

I talked with a representative from RK Art Gallery about their relationship with the artist and how they came up with such a high price tag for his work (which is still on display in their gallery). “Beeple is our most important artist at RK,” said Rachel Kauffman, a spokesperson for the gallery. “He’s been one of our most successful artists since he started showing here four years ago.” She noted that all of his pieces sold out quickly during their first exhibition together; now they keep them on display longer so visitors can see them without having to buy something right away.

For perspective, that’s about 22 times more expensive than “Salvator Mundi,” a painting by Leonardo da Vinci that sold for $450 million in 2017.

For perspective, that’s about 22 times more expensive than “Salvator Mundi,” a painting by Leonardo da Vinci that sold for $450 million in 2017.

That’s right: Beeple’s work isn’t actually a physical object. It’s a digital image, just like your smartphone wallpaper or the moving images on your screen when you’re browsing Instagram. For those who are used to thinking about art as something immovable and permanent—a physical object that can be bought, sold and passed down through generations—this idea might seem strange at first glance. But it makes sense when you consider all of the other ways we’ve started to think about our digital possessions these days—like as collectibles that can be bought and sold on markets like eBay; as assets with monetary value; and as an extension of our identity (like Facebook photos).

To understand how Beeple get here, it’s important to know two things.

To understand how Beeple got here, it’s important to know two things:

  • Beeple is an artist. He’s been working as one since 2007 and has dabbled in everything from abstract photography to 3D animation and music videos for superstars like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.
  • Beeple is also a savant. The term means “a person of unusually great ability or intelligence.” In this case, it can be used to describe someone who has special skills in artistry but also has developmental disabilities that make communication difficult for them.

First, that he’s been working as an artist since 2007 and has dabbled in everything from abstract photography to 3D animation and music videos for superstars like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.

First, that he’s been working as an artist since 2007 and has dabbled in everything from abstract photography to 3D animation and music videos for superstars like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.

Second, he’s never had a big break. He was born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada and now lives in Los Angeles—but even with all those cultural influences behind him, Beeple says he doesn’t feel like a particularly unique or special person. “I’m not sure how I’ve managed to do what I do so far,” he told Entrepreneur about his journey from $30 to millions. “It just seems like it all happened by accident.”

Thirdly, his work isn’t limited to the computer screen or canvas; Beeple also sings and plays multiple instruments (including guitar, piano and drums), which gives him more musical control over his art than most artists have been able to achieve before him.

Conclusion

Second, that he’s had a wild ride as an artist. In 2011, at just 21 years old, Beeple sold what would become his first major work: a vector-drawn painting titled “Clouds.” It fetched $10,000 at the time — not bad for a kid from Ohio who was trying to make it as an artist in San Francisco.

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