Love and Crypto: The Hackatao Story
Just before their show at Christie's, the crypto-artist duo talk to us about money, marriage, and the blockchain.
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Hackatao (who we'll refer to simply as "S" and "N") began making art as Hackatao in 2007. Fourteen years later, they’re the self-described “OG Cryptoartist NFT Pioneers,” with more than 1,500 artworks sold, at a total value of over $15 million. We interviewed them from their redoubt in the mountains of northern Italy where they were holed up with their family, creating art, and figuring out what changes when – against the odds – your artwork makes you extremely rich. (The interview was translated from Italian in real time by their colleague, "E.")
S: The lockdown never really changed our life that much. We’re living a kind of decentralized life in the mountains.
Of course one of the things we'd like to do, and that lockdown doesn't allow for, is to meet people we've been collaborating with in the past year. The lesson you learn is you want to meet people and travel. In terms of economic value, not personally but more generally, the lockdown from COVID has given a push to the crypto art space and suddenly many artists could sustain their life through NFTs and blockchain while the physical art world and galleries were closed and everything was stopped. The blockchain art world kept going even more quickly. The volume got bigger and the space actually benefited from the situation in a strange way. For that part it was good for the crypto art space.
The lockdown from COVID has given a push to the crypto art space and suddenly many artists could sustain their life through NFTs and blockchain while the physical art world and galleries were closed and everything was stopped.
I grew up in a family of farmers and money was always seen as a means to do things. It wasn’t primary. The work was nature itself; it made it possible for us to live and survive. We used money to invest in things, like tools for the actual work. This is something we kept doing across our lives. Money wasn’t the goal, but it was the means to get to the goal. We were educated to save money, and when we were kids, my brothers and I had a piggy bank where we saved money inside, like kids do.
There was a lack of money in the family. But the real richness was to live in a situation of complete freedom. We weren’t missing anything. Sometimes we would look at ads on TV and wish we had something or could buy some toys, but then the fantasy would disappear when we’d go outside to play. The lack of money developed my imagination, for a kid like me to play.
N: My childhood was very normal. I had a feeling of respect for money because we were comfortable. My family was a regular family. We never had money problems, but although we had money available, we never wasted it. We didn’t give much importance to it.
I left for Milan when I was 19 years old. When I was in Milan I was doing so many jobs because I wanted to be independent; I was working different jobs all the time. What I learned was to be independent and to give money the correct importance — not as the goal but as the means.
S: In our family, starting from my grandfather, we had a strong education to be independent, to work towards freedom. This means that you’re the maker of your destiny, so you’re not expecting anything from anyone. When I was a teenager, the jobs that I would do were always considered and seen as jobs that would give me a base to do something else. Different from like, oh, I found a job and now I’m safe and fine, but temporary jobs that would allow me to do something else.
Regarding the dream of making art, it didn’t come out until I was 25, 26 years old. After middle school, I would have liked to study art in high school because what I preferred and what I loved was to draw, to make art. It was also a place where I could hide or find peace. It was a bubble where I was feeling very good. But I couldn’t actually go to the artistic high school because my family would never understand. It was impossible for them to think that doing art could be a job. So I didn’t do that. Later, towards age 25, 26, this will to be an artist came out very strongly and everything that I was doing was focused on reaching this goal.
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There were two creative phases in my life. The first was that at a certain point I got very passionate about writing. It’s the form of art that requires the least money and that gives you the highest expression. It was this relationship of quantity and quality that I enjoyed. I started to write even though I’m dyslexic. I had huge problems in writing, but I developed a form that was very creative. The problem was it became my job. I was a copywriter in communications at an advertisement agency. This phase was beautiful, but I was suffering. I was even writing a novel. I had the agency job to sustain me while writing the novel, but at a certain point, what I call the demons of writing organized a riot because I was using them. I was using my creative writing demons to create advertising campaigns. They said no. I was suffering because, obviously, I was putting to the side what was the creative aspect of all this. I went through a deep depression. After that, the demons of drawing came back, and I started to draw.
The reason that I went back to draw, there were many factors that went into it. I had a surgery, a total body anesthesia, so it was like I was switched off and switched back on. That’s when I started to create the first paintings. At the time my process already included the digital aspect. I would scan what I drew and remake it digitally. But at the time there was no blockchain or digital art — it wasn’t seen the way it is now. I was just printing my digital creations on canvas, and then kept modifying them on the canvas. This really was the time of freedom for me. I went back to freedom.
That’s when I met N. We put our styles together and we created what is Hackatao. At the time I was still working at the agency, but a few months later I quit. These really were the best moments, when I went back to the freedom and independence that I had lost during the years at the agency.
When N and I started to work together, everything just fit magically. When you do what you want to do and what you were born to do, it’s like you’re flying and walking two feet off the ground and going so fast. That wonderful energy came back. It happens many times to people with talent, creative people, that you get afraid to jump into something unknown, but the energy you get from doing what you want to do, that’s what carries you forward.
N: When we met and we started our adventure together as Hackatao, it was a very fascinating moment. I was going on my way and S was going on his way and the fact that we put together not only our styles, but our two different worlds, gives you a lot of energy. You’re not alone in the process anymore. You can face things together and exchange thoughts and everything else.
At the time I was working as an art director at an advertisement agency. But unlike S, I was liking it. I liked my job. I was lucky with money — I was only working three days a week and the rest of the time I was free to do as I pleased. I wanted to go to another agency, but then they made me a salary offer I couldn’t refuse, so I stayed. I worked on Hackatao on nights and weekends.
The first big thing we did, S created these little pieces called Podmorks and asked me to take care of the communications for these art pieces. But when I saw them I really fell in love with them, and I thought that maybe I could help in painting them. I really gave a new look to the Podmorks. That’s how we started to work together.
We were born as Hackatao in 2007. We were still in our thirties, but today we feel like we’re actually 14.
S: When it comes to how to spend money as a couple, we talk about it. We discuss it. We try to find a balance in that, like we do in art. Based on our personalities it can happen that I get pretty hyped about buying tools or things that could be useful to create or to use in interesting ways. N doesn’t get the same hype. She’s more grounded than me. But she gets convinced and we buy the tool and then we have to use it to do something because otherwise she’ll be upset that we bought something we didn’t use. Not because of the money itself, but because of the principle behind it — the waste of it.
On our first date, I took her to a chapel in the centre of Milan, which is actually an ossuary where they keep bones. It was full of skulls. In the 1700s they found this cemetery nearby and gathered all the skulls and put them in this chapel. It’s fascinating, so I took her there. And then I took her to sushi. We split the check.
N: Actually I love skulls. You can see from our art that skulls are present in our art. I really liked the fact that he took me to the ossuary on our first date. I have a necklace of a skull made by these monks where the teeth are shaped in the form of a skull. So the first date went very well.
When we started making digital art in 2018, the prices we would sell at were ridiculously low. That’s why when we told other artists about crypto art they’d make fun of us.
S: Splitting the check, that was sort of from the cultural heritage and education that we both got, coming from different valleys but both from the mountains. In farming communities in the mountains, it’s the women who manage the money in the family. So N has always managed our money, first as a couple and now as a family. When I quit my job to dedicate myself completely to art, N kept her job. Our earnings weren’t balanced. But we found a balance back, either monetarily in the future or in the balance of the couple. I was concentrating on creating art, and she would create a base that would support us as a couple. She supported us.
When we started making digital art in 2018, the prices we would sell at were ridiculously low. That’s why when we told other artists about crypto art they’d make fun of us. But we were so fascinated by the international space and the community and the novelty aspect and the fact that we could build something totally new. What kept us in the crypto art space wasn’t money, for sure. In 2021 things changed and we reached the volume that we know now.
Our life hasn’t changed a bit. Well, maybe we’re busier than we were before. That’s because we really believe in what we do and we see the possibility to create beautiful things, new things. Maybe we’re not even aware of what we’ve reached. In terms of what we’ve earned, we always use the money to buy new tools, to create art, and to express ourselves in different forms. It doesn’t mean we have to abandon our nature, but maybe we can create projects where the budgets are something we couldn’t even think of earlier.
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The feeling that something really is changing was during the art show in Rome, Renaissance 2.0 2.0, where on the opening night, in just one night we sold all the canvasses plus tokens. It was October 2020. But, in fact, the moment where things really changed was the sale of Promised Land, which was in 2021. Things changed a lot there. (Editor’s note: In February 2021, Promised Land sold for $140,457.60.)
It felt good, especially when you see the bidding wars between collectors, when you see them competing for your art. It’s very exciting and moving. But we aren’t the kind of people who get too excited about money and go spend it on a Ferrari or something. We’re pretty grounded. After the feeling of excitement, we stay pretty grounded. The first satisfaction I gave myself was buying something from Mongolia, this curved bow. As a kid, I loved bows and arrows. So the first thing I wanted to do was to buy this bow from Mongolia. And also a shaman drum, because it’s a very spiritual tool.
N: I don’t really have the desire to buy things. If I want to buy something, I’ll buy it – before or after having money. Since we’re in a lockdown, we can’t go to celebrate anyway. If we could, we would love to go to Mongolia to bring our whole family there to visit the country. To make travel a part of our lives is something we really aspire to do.
We don’t want to be the credit card parents. Everything they want to do needs to be earned by them. That’s what our parents taught us.
S: We have kids. We think you can have kids in any situation. If you look at our ancestors or grandfathers, they had kids during war and under bombs. The most important thing is love and affection. Everything else isn’t that important. We try to transfer to our kids the fundamental values, which for us are independence and freedom and respect toward others and respect toward ourselves. Pretty much what is really important in life. Sometimes certain things like the value of money can be transferred and transmitted. We try to let the kids understand what the value of money is, and that if now we have a certain monetary availability that doesn’t mean we should take it for granted. We don’t want to be the credit card parents. Everything they want to do needs to be earned by them. That’s what our parents taught us.
We believe in a creative mind in facing problems. It’s like we’re not yet aware of the big change that happened in our life. We need time to digest what’s been happening to understand and to use this availability in a good way. For instance, we’d love to create a foundation where we organize creative activities for people who have dyslexia. Being dyslexic gave me huge strength and I was able to transform this problem into a power. I would love to simulate and let people understand this thing that I lived and I experienced and be able to help kids who are affected by this problem. To let them understand that it’s a potential strength that is sometimes repressed by society, but can really become a strength.
What do we want our legacy to be? We would like to leave beauty to the world through our art. We would also like to leave an example. We really like to collaborate with other artists and players. We want to be an example of how you can create not just collaborative art but a community of people. We involve musicians and other artists and we really care about curation when it comes to drops and projects. Something we really hope to see and that we will always contribute to is the fact that, through the blockchain and smart contracts, different people can be remunerated automatically when they’re involved in a project. That’s something we really care about and we’ll help as much as we can.
You know, to live this example of how you can create community and an economy, and how you can make the economy circulate so that you’re not just taking in, but to redistribute what you get to many other people.
Alex W. Palmer is a writer based in Washington, D.C.