It just didn’t go bankrupt a few years ago. But then the graphic artist discovered NFTs and made $1 million worth of crypto. Breakfast with El Tiempo.
“I don’t know where the coffee is.” Breakfast at Bert Dries (34) is one among the moving boxes. In it he has kept almost all of his kitchen utensils. There is no longer a cup or a saucer. “He was a little too keen on the packaging,” he admits. The move is coming up: in a few days he will exchange his house in a quiet residential area of Ghent for a flat in the city center. “I have a new girlfriend and we want to start from scratch.”
A bag of croissants is waiting on a high kitchen table, which Dries himself will not touch. He points to the big black boxes of protein powder still on the shelf. “That was my breakfast: a 400-calorie shake.” The slim-built, black-clad graphic artist happens to be an avid fitness enthusiast. “I need that training to keep feeling good mentally. And not to turn off. I spend most of my time behind a computer.
Dries does graphic work under the alias Musketon. 113,000 followers on Instagram see colorful and satirical illustrations every day, with many references to games and television series, but also to Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg.
With the same job, he took his first steps in the NFT market last year. NFTs or non-fungible tokens are proof of ownership of digital items. Art dealers, among others, buy digital works with the crypto currency ether. This is done through a blockchain, a kind of registry that keeps track of all transactions. In 2021, the market exploded: at least $25 billion would have been sold. World famous artists like Pak and Beeple now contributed to this. At $91.8 and $69.3 million respectively, they were able to sell the most expensive NFTs ever.
“My friends had been trying to talk me into taking that step for some time,” says Dries. At first he ignored his advice. At the start of the pandemic, Gentenaar had launched into ‘The Last Supper’, a corona version of Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ in which you continuously discover new details as you go. When that ‘time document’ was ready, he became curious about NFTs. He tried to offer his best work for 6 ether, then the equivalent of $12,000. “A ridiculous amount of money, so I assumed no one would respond.” But he was wrong: five minutes later the money was already pouring in.
Today Musketon is one of the best known NFT artists in Belgium. In a few months he sold 92 works, good for 291 ether. He earned him the status of a dollar millionaire. ‘I found the headlines about it very upsetting. But I can’t deny them either. I experienced ether’s all-time high: 1 ether was worth over $4,800 back then.’
It is not wide
That was impressive for someone who grew up in a social housing area in Zonhoven, Limburg. Dries’s mother has always taken care of a family with four children alone, they were not very rich. She “was motivated to work hard so I could live a different life.” From the age of 16 she began to earn money with posters for parties. ‘From the moment someone gave me 50 euros for a design, I thought: ‘This is the way to go, this is how I can distinguish myself’.
Musketon was able to collaborate with brands like Mazda and Coca-Cola. The ZEB clothing chain sold tens of thousands of T-shirts and sweaters featuring cartoon drawings of an angry bear and a beer can. That is the advantage of living in Belgium. In a small country you don’t need many connections to reach the right people.’
I wanted to do everything myself and finally found myself in mountains of unsold items and returns.
That trail led him to a white Tesla at the front door, not the NFT story. ‘That has mainly brought financial peace of mind. And even more fame. At the same time, I think NFTs are a poisoned gift. Since my success, I have been approached from all sides for advice I cannot give. People also come with unsolicited financial advice.’
Dries doesn’t feel like cashing in on his ethers. ‘What am I going to buy with that? Property? I have nothing to do with it. The material matters little to me. I just want to be able to live comfortably. No more.’
He assumes that the value of the ether will continue to increase considerably. But that takes years of patience and calm. The price fluctuates wildly. According to him, this is because NFTs are still too hyped. “As long as there are artists like Eminem or Justin Bieber investing a million dollars in something like a monkey avatar, people don’t take that trade seriously. That is too extreme. Why would you spend such sums on something so silly? Dries calls NFTs a great investment in an artist, but he would never buy one himself. ‘Honestly? There are some good artists, like Beeple, but I think 95 percent of them are bad.
Dries believes in the anticipated arrival of Web 3.0, an internet revolution in which everything related to blockchain plays an important role. ‘Daily cryptocurrency interactions, I really see that happening. I can’t afford a pack of chips with crypto today, but who knows in a few years?
Although he also considers the opposite possible: that the value of the ether plummets. “Especially when you see the sad world we live in now, with a war that puts everything under stress. But there’s no use in rushing. If ether will soon be worth just $1, so be it. He takes comfort in the fact that he has not invested a dime in cryptocurrencies. ‘It is with old work that I have earned that money. I see it as a surplus.
In his illustrations, Dries often adds references to Elon Musk or the metaverse. Is that why his work is so popular with art collectors? ‘It has to do with recognizability,’ he says. But really that’s a gamble. He doesn’t even have a clue who belongs to his NFT clientele. Most remain anonymous. “I reached out to buyers to ask if I should send a physical copy after all, so they have something to hang on their wall.” Usually he follows a njet. ‘I personally still believe in physical art. But that is not what these buyers are interested in. They are purely concerned with digital, investment. And many are so rich that they are afraid to pass on their identity.’
All is not gold that glitters in Musketon. At the beginning of the corona pandemic, their long-standing relationship broke down and a close contact of theirs died unexpectedly. “Instead of talking, I started working more.” That’s how it went wrong. On the way to an assignment there was a first panic attack. She ignored him, with the result: more and more fear. ‘After a while, it was no longer possible to work.’ He followed a diagnosis of exhaustion. “Although I always thought it was something for people who didn’t feel like working.”
There were still bumps in the road. Five years ago, Dries and his company were on the verge of bankruptcy. His web store, where he sold clothes with his graphic work, was not doing well. “I wanted to do everything myself and finally found myself in the mountains of unsold items and returns. In frustration, I hit my hand against the wall and broke it, so I couldn’t draw for six weeks.’ That stupid move led to a turning point in his career. ‘I started a crowdfunding campaign and it went unexpectedly well. In a short time I had 20,000 euros, enough to start my own art project.’ That became Vector City, a digital city that he built with highly detailed and custom houses.
In a small country you don’t need many connections to reach the right people.
Dries calls himself an autodidact. He mastered a number of digital techniques primarily through YouTube tutorials. He now also shares those videos. Of course he doubted it. Like many artists, he was afraid of imitators and didn’t want to give up my working method just like that.’ But through trips abroad he realized that this reflection is very Belgian. ‘In the United States they believe in the added value of sharing knowledge. I see that gain now. By being transparent about my production process, I have a huge following. They not only find their way to my webshop, they also inspire me.’
From time to time you see how people on social media copy your work almost verbatim. In such a case, you will be contacted. ‘At a certain point you have to find your own style. But usually something like this can be resolved with an email. He doesn’t want to be naive though: he knows that, let’s say, in Turkey his counterfeit goods are sold at bargain prices. I’ll leave it like this. You can’t control something like that.
It’s almost noon when Dries’s new girlfriend walks in. After a quiet chat, she remembers the boxes that need to be packed. Will she then jump back into the NFT market? I’d have to create new stuff for that, but I don’t want to stress too much about it. That is counterproductive. No, I’m going to slow down. That is my most important lesson from last year.