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How blockchain can help create ‘a sustainable future’ for artists

Yng-Ru Chen at her Praise Shadows Art Gallery in Brookline.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Yng-Ru Chen, owner of Praise Shadows Art Gallery in Brookline, made her first NFT purchase three years ago in an online art sale.

“I was really intrigued by the focus on collective ownership,” said Chen in a phone interview. “Buying a NFT felt like an experiment, like I was on the edge of something very different.”

NFTs — or non-fungible tokens — are like proof-of-purchases for one-of-a-kind digital assets, usually original works of art. And NFTs can sometimes be purchased using forms of cryptocurrency that maintain a blockchain system, or permanent logs of all transactions made with that particular tender.

And what, exactly, did Chen get in return for that initial investment? A handful of pixels — specifically a 20-by-20 pixel square — from a video. Sure, she can watch her purchase on a smartphone, but there wasn’t much to see. Just a smudge of brown. (If she were to approach the other buyers about loaning her their pieces, then she could see the full video.)

Now, just a few years after that first NFT foray, Chen has announced Praise Shadow’s first exhibition of digital works that are registered via blockchain technology. What does it all mean? The Globe called Chen to parse blockchain from NFTs — and to learn how they’re changing the art industry.


Q. So, if I were to purchase an NFT, what would I actually have?

A. It’s a non-fungible token, and the token is basically a representation of the digital file that you chose to buy. It can be very ephemeral. It doesn’t need to be something you have tangible ownership over. I think that’s what’s hard for a lot of people. Traditional collectors tend to collect objects. But there has been lots of conceptual art throughout history.

So in a way it’s more of a mind-set of what you own. But you still have a registration on blockchain technology for owning the work. It’s definitely not the thing for people who love to sit in their living rooms and look at the painting they just bought. It’s definitely something for that collector who was always intrigued by how society is changing.


Q. OK — the way that I’m thinking about it is that NFTs are kind of like adopting an elephant. You pay for maintenance and you “own it,” but it’s not in your physical possession.

A. It’s kind of like that, yeah. But you can potentially profit off selling NFTs. And by putting work in blockchain, there’s the potential for the creator to actually make a sale off it — because their names are registered to their art.

Q. What is Praise Shadows doing with blockchain?

A. That’s what I’m really excited about. So I opened my gallery in December, and was doing traditional sales. If you bought a work from me and then five years later you want to sell the work, you go right ahead. Let’s say you go to Sotheby’s and sell the work for $100,000, I get nothing. But most importantly, the artist gets nothing. There are no secondary sales royalties embedded in that agreement.

When I met the folks at Fairchain [a platform that works with artists, galleries, and blockchain technologies to create trust and equity in the art market] I was excited that, yes, they are working with blockchain, but they’re really using it in a way that looks to create a sustainable future in art. What Fairchain does is it sets aside a percentage for all secondary sales to go back to the artists. There’s also a small percentage built into all secondary sales that will go to an artist Equity Fund.


Artist Nicole Wilson's legs bear the tattoo designs originally found on Ötzi, the oldest tattooed mummy.TJ Proechel

My next show, opening May 27, I feel very protective over. Nicole Wilson tattooed herself in her own blood from designs she created based off one of the oldest tattooed mummies. For years, she didn’t share the design, but now they will be authenticated and registered on the [Fairchain] blockchain. They’re only going for a few hundred dollars, so they’re not that expensive. But if you buy this tattoo design, you then have all these instant instructions on what legitimizes you getting that tattoo. Then, if you’re done with it and you’re happy with it, you can sell it and the artist will get a portion of the proceeds. There’s always going to be a life for this design because people are always gonna want it. But there’s only five editions each design available.

Q. OK so — my big takeaway: Blockchain is just another way to authenticate, and doing so with art can benefit the artists.

A. Yes. Blockchain is a registry of information. And that information can include art. It can include anything.


At Praise Shadows Art Gallery, 313A Harvard St., Brookline. May 27-June 27.


Interview was edited and condensed.

Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at