The peril, pain and elusive profit of minting NFTs, as told by two Singaporeans

Still images from artist Shavonne Wong’s NFTs ‘Lilium in Pearls III,’ at left and ‘Lunah Moon III,’ at right. Images: Shavonne Wong
Still images from artist Shavonne Wong’s NFTs ‘Lilium in Pearls III,’ at left and ‘Lunah Moon III,’ at right. Images: Shavonne Wong

Two Singaporean artists who have taken deep dives into the world of NFTs say anyone thinking of doing the same should be prepared to pay surprise fees – and do tremendous amounts of research.

While the revolutionary way of authenticating digital assets for sale has led to boggling sums spent on GIFs and JPGs, Shavonne Wong and Ernest Wu caution that getting involved comes with caveats – like paying fees for crypto transaction processing – and no guarantee of success. While one has sold well, the other has yet to see any return on investment.

Wong, 30, who last year let Coconuts in on her new virtual modeling agency endeavor, has already sold all six works – animated faces of her avatars – she had minted as NFTs on a platform called Foundation, raking in over S$32,000 (US$24,000). 

“Even if you feel like you’re blindly just trying to figure things out, there are also people blindly trying to figure [it] out with you,” she said. These days, she spends most of her day in front of her screen. When she is not adding her finishing touches to the virtual beings she creates, she is monitoring her NFT auction or reading up on crypto. 

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are created using a variety of cryptocurrency called Ethereum. Just like crypto is registered in a global record called a blockchain, making a regular file an NFT – called minting – stores it indelibly in the Ethereum blockchain. 

Along with the file itself, creators can attach terms and conditions indicating things such as the royalties owed on resale or other perks, such as rights to a physical copy. NFT artists generally get royalties amounting to 10% of resale price.

Wu is having lesser luck finding an audience on OpenSea, a much larger, three-year-old platform with more than 10,000 users compared to Foundation, which is less than half the size and launched late last year.

Wu, who is also 30, minted 29 works in February listed at nearly 0.028 Ethereum (US$60) each, but has yet to sell any. He spent S$107 (US$80) on so-called gas fees, a service charge for crypto miners to process and validate transactions on the blockchain.

“I don’t expect to sell it actually, which is why I mentioned I just dabbled because I wanted to know the whole process, and so I just jumped in,” he said. 

He said that he’s become more glued to his devices than ever since he’s had to learn all the necessary hoops to jump through to get started.

“Didn’t have Twitter, didn’t have Discord, didn’t join Telegram groups. Now I’m in all 3,” Wu said. The artist spent a month jumping through hoops before listing the works – including creating a cryptocurrency account, a wallet address, and signing up with OpenSea.

His collection, It Begins With A Single Block, is a series of squares in different colors with smaller squares visible within on close look. He said it is a tribute to Russian artist Kazimir Malevich’s famous Black Square painting, that symbolizes the start of everything.

“I really just want to play with perception,” he said. “Some phones or some screens are not calibrated properly, so if you see a block of color, you won’t be able to see the nuances within a single block of color. If you look at it long enough, it emerges from the color.”

The cost of NFTs

Platforms like OpenSea and Foundation charge artists a percentage of their sales. The former charges a lower 2.5% for every artwork sold while the latter takes six times as much, justifying its 15% commission by saying it is a curated platform limited to selected creators. Wong had to obtain an invite from an artist who had already sold on the platform. 

Other platforms like Nifty Gateway and SuperRare charge 5% and 15% respectively. 

The price of the gas fees also fluctuates throughout the day depending on demand, value of the cryptocurrency, electricity rates, and number of crypto miners, who use powerful computers to do the demanding calculations required.  

“The best way to think about it is like investment, like when you want to be a painter, you have to pay for paint brushes,” Wong said.

For Wu, the cost involved is holding him back from listing more art. 

“I’m working on it, but the gas fees are not sustainable. So I think I’m going to keep my head down and continue making until a more sustainable platform comes around. I think it’s still quite early in the market, I just need to make and not worry about the hype,” he said. 

Gas fees have since dropped from S$32 (US$24) to just over S$15 (US$11) per transaction as of Sunday. 

Wu teased that his next collection will continue to explore the theme of perception and contain a moving image that will “frustrate” people.

Freedom to create

Wong’s first-ever sale in late February “definitely surprised” her because she initially didn’t expect earnings so quickly. Her first NFT featured her virtual model Lilium wearing floating pearl earrings. She minted it in late February; it sold a day later for close to S$3,600 (US$$2,700) to a Chicago artist identified only as @the_alchemist.

“That one got sold pretty quickly, so that felt pretty good,” she said. “As a creative who was never in the art world per se, never had collectors etc, this was a new experience. I, of course, knew the possible potential of this avenue but it was still very, very cool.” 

Her NFT featuring a rose blooming on the cheek of virtual model Lunah Moon, sold for 3 Ethereum, worth S$8,600 (US$6,400), a day after someone paid her listed asking price of 2.5 Ethereum, or about S$7,100 (US$5,300).

“I think the most interesting thing about NFT is there’s a lot of personal work; there’s no client involved. So I wanted to make my models as realistic as possible but do stuff with them that I cannot do in real life,” she said. It took her about a week to make each work using software such as Blender, an open-source 3D animation program. 

She is working on more featuring the rest of her virtual models under the GenV agency. 

“I’m still creating more. I’m working on my other models as well so in a good way it complements my GenV agency very well because I’m working on them anyway,” she said. 

Wong thinks that NFT could be used to sell any form of art in the future, including music or movies. 

“In the future, I feel like people have NFTs as proof of the things they like, what kind of person they are, what kind of music they follow. I have a strong belief that NFT itself maybe not NFT art itself but like the idea of NFT would be very strong in the virtual future,” she said.

To get started on the road to minting your own NFTs, the artists recommend joining NFT Asia, a Discord discussion channel on all things NFT for creators in Asia.

Four out of 29 of Wu’s single block collection. Image: Ernest Wu
Four out of 29 of Wu’s single block collection. Image: Ernest Wu

Other stories you should check out:
‘How far can this joke go?’ Li Shengwu auctions ‘economics of non-fungible tokens’ paper as NFT
Singapore’s first virtual modeling agency struts into the fashion world

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