frank | How did you get into crypto?
DP | It was around 2013 that I found out about Bitcoin for the first time. It kept popping up in news articles. I wanted to buy some after it appeared on my feed for the fifth or sixth time. I thought, "I've read about Bitcoin, it seems like a cool thing, like a cool alternative money investment that's not issued by the government, decentralized, something that's never been done before," so I decided to purchase them.
I went to the first Bitcoin ATM in Chicago, it was at an empanada place called Cassava. I put in cash, received a coin, but I didn't like the process. The bills kept going in and out – it took a really long time to get the bitcoin. I didn't want to do it again when I bought it again. Instead, I went on a site called locabitcoins.com which back in the day, had these listings where you could meet people in person to purchase Bitcoin.
We met at a Starbucks. I'd put down cash and she would send me the Bitcoin. We kind of got to talking and eventually decided even though the Bitcoin ATM I had used back in the day wasn't super user friendly, it's still in theory a better idea than meeting people in person because it's not safe. It's not really scalable. A single person can't meet with 23,000 people a day. There's a limit.
So we decided to work on the ATM thing. I was a sophomore in college, I was 20 years old, I was at Northwestern and I kept working on it. By the time I was 22 and ready to start a full time job, the opportunity at CoinFlip was too good to pass up. We had just under 20 ATMs – that was two, three years ago.
Fast forward to today, we're the largest Bitcoin ATM company in the world by volume, with 420 locations across the United States. Obviously we're growing and I hope to be able to get Bitcoin in the hands of as many people as possible.
This is different from the other conversations we’ve had about Bitcoin so far, in that most people aren’t treating it like a currency but rather a stock, or investment. But a Bitcoin ATM is tangible, immediate, more cash oriented. Do you find that because there's a physical component to what you're doing it's easier to explain to people?
What you were saying about currency versus investment, I don't know if I agree with that. I think Bitcoin can be used as a currency eventually, but in first world countries like the United States, it is still more of an investment or means tool.
I definitely agree that the physical element makes it very easy to explain to somebody. Its familiar. Essentially all you're saying is, "Okay get some cash. You already have a phone number, download a Bitcoin wallet, you're going to put the cash in, you're will see the exchange rates, you're going to input your QR code which is that black and white square, and then you're going to receive the Bitcoin instantly."
That sense of instant gratification and the physical component definitely makes it accessible. Because the ATM is something in a convenience store that you see in real life. They're not just moving imaginary money around.
How do you interact with something like Coinbase?
Coinbase is an online exchange where the exchange actually holds your money. You wire money from your bank, they hold it, and then you trade on the exchange, using the dollars that you have on the account. We don't hold customer accounts.
So for example, we don't have an account where you can deposit money and then hold it and then trade it. You insert the cash, we immediately do a conversion of the Bitcoin and then you receive the Bitcoin, it's on your phone. You own it, we are not the custodians.
You're not a custodian or a wallet at all?
We are working on expanding into a wallet, but no, we are more like a currency exchange. You go to a currency exchange, you get quotes for an exchange rate that tells you, “it's this many euros for this many dollars.” That's more similar to the model I see us as, as opposed to a company with a mechanism that people use to trade and speculate with continuously on.
Other than speed, why would I do this in person and not online?
Not everyone has a bank account. It's 30 million people that can't afford bank accounts, don't trust banks, don't have banks, think banks are inconvenient, or say they don't want to use bank accounts. They might want to use cash. There's a bunch of workers that get paid in cash.
There's a whole cash economy and you can't use cash at Coinbase.
They only take a bank wire transfer or a ACH. So you literally cannot use cash there. It’s a quick, easy and convenient way to use a different payment method to get it.
Does it work in reverse? Can I cash in my cryptocurrency for U.S. Dollars?
It actually does. We have around 30, 40 units where you can do exactly that. You send us the Bitcoin. Once we get network confirmation, you scan your ticket at the ATM and then cash will come out. It does go both ways.
Do you have competitors? Are there other ATM options?
Yes, there are other Bitcoin ATM companies. None of them have the volume and the low fees that we do, but they do exist. Like I said, we're the number one Bitcoin ATM company by volume in the world, but we do have competitors and they tend to be in the United States, but there are probably in the world 5 to 6,000 Bitcoin ATMs.
Are most of them in the U.S?
A pretty big chunk are in the United States. That's typical. The United States is often a leader in emerging technologies because we have systems in place where people are entrepreneurial and whatnot. Plus we have a large cash economy.
What is the sale for the convenience store? Why would they want them?
The convenience store gets the best deal of anyone. I mean, they get a check, our ATMs are really small. They're probably one and a half or two square feet by five feet. So it's really easy to place them inside a convenience store. The convenience store is not going to be able to monetize that square foot any meaningful way other than receiving rent from us, and we also give them the option for a profit share. In addition, we bring in around 1,500 people a year to any given location. So it's absolutely free advertising for them. It's not like you just see a Bitcoin ATM and you use it. You're literally searching for it and then you go to where it is. So we drive traffic specifically to that store and they can always buy something when they are in there, chips, soda, whatever it is. So there's absolutely no drawback for the convenience store.
What excites you about Bitcoin?
The thing I like a lot about Bitcoin is, you know it's deflationary, right? I love Bitcoin because of that. The U.S. dollar loses 1% to 2% of its value per year because of inflation and the government printing more. Bitcoin itself is limited in numbers, so it's a better way to keep your money long term. The blockchain it's built on is fraud proof. It's public, everyone sees it, it's fast. You can send money halfway across the world in 10 to 15 minutes, it's borderless, it's cheap. The average fee to send is probably $2 to $3. What's cool is that there's no one single issuer.
So you can't turn off the coin.
You can't sue Bitcoin. There's no company responsible for Bitcoin. It’s all around the world. It's very resistant to being able to be stopped. It's kind of like digital gold I would say. That's what I like to say about Bitcoin, it combines characteristics of a commodity and a currency. It’s something that's never been done before. And I think it's very important to keep the centralized entities like banks and governments in check. If they ever go haywire, which they have in the past, there has to be some alternative. Some digital alternative that isn't as cumbersome as gold to obtain that the average person can get.
This decentralized economy is what I’m excited about. My goal with CoinFlip is to get Bitcoin into the hands of as many people as possible so that people see what is really so cool about this Bitcoin and why it really is the future.
Not that it's going to replace Fiat currency and replace dollars, but it's an alternative and it's always important to have an alternative.
Is your prediction that this becomes a widely used and accepted form of currency in the US?
Yeah, I could always see it in unstable countries, it could even be the number one currency. In stable countries, it might be number two currency or it could just be used as an investment vehicle. But I do see it as being perhaps the global reserve currency, within 10 to 20 years as people build trust on it. It makes sense for the countries of the world to not want the global reserve currency to be issued by one country. It used to be the pound, now it's the dollar, it makes sense for it to be decentralized and not one entity responsible for it. It makes a lot of sense in my opinion.
If it does go that direction what policy will come form around it or do you think it can exist as free as it is now?
I think it's actually one of the biggest myths that Bitcoin is not regulated. That's what everyone loves to say, but it's not true. Pretty much every applicable brand in the U.S. Government has come up with regulations regarding Bitcoin. The IRS came up with guidance for how to pay taxes on it. The SEC declared it as not a security and also declared guidance on how to determine whether or not projects that are Coinbase, like blockchain-based are securities or not. The CFTC has also regulated Bitcoin as a commodity and FinCEN, which is our regulator, is the financial crimes enforcement network and we're definitely heavily regulated by them. We're treated as a financial institution.
We have anti money laundering in our customer policy, so there are rules for Bitcoin.
It's a great system and I think that it's come far from it's early days. But now I think that you still need some regulation, some basic rules to follow, even if it is a borderless, permissionless system and there are those in place in the United States.
I want to get Bitcoin again into the hands of as many people as possible and lead the financial revolution. I want to place 1,000 ATMs by the end of this year and hopefully 3,000 at the end of the next year. In addition, we're working on having an OTC desk. That would allow us to actually trade Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in exchange for wire transfers and vice versa, so that's something I want to expand into. And we're also working on a wallet and an app.
What is the app?
The wallet is the main component of the app but it's basically going to be an easier version of our website. You know, just the main parts, probably the map, customer service, or awards program, and obviously the wallet. So we're going to have our own wallet where people can purchase Bitcoin and that's something that's really cool because it's an additional service we can offer to our customers, an additional way we can communicate with them.
Blake Finucane is providing crypto context for all who will listen.
frank | My most basic question is, what is crypto art?
BF | The best question. 100 percent. There's not really an institutionalized definition, where everyone agrees upon what it is. So I break it down into three sections.
Firstly, crypto art can be considered art that’s subject matter has something to do with crypto currency, or blockchain technology. That would be a painting, a sculpture, in which the subject matter is crypto related – a painting of Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, for instance.
The second is a work of art that incorporates blockchain technology or crypto currency into how it actually operates. For example, there is this project called The Plantoid by Primavera De Filippi, the founder of the art collective Okhaos. Every Plantoid has its own Bitcoin wallet, you, the spectator, pay the sculpture via a small cryptocurrency transaction. Once the payment is received, the sculpture lights up, and basically gives you a show for paying it. It's a physical object, but cryptocurrency is also central to the piece.
The third way I define crypto art is a work that's completely immaterial, so that it only exists in digital form. Central to how this type of work operates is “tokenization.” The image itself, which is digital, is connected to a token on the blockchain. It's a completely immaterial work, and that token represents the image.
One example is this project called CryptoPunks, where 10,000 unique images of different characters were created. You were able to claim them for free, and you owned a unique token which represents the image, which was tracked on the Ethereum blockchain. Now, they can be sold/purchased via a marketplace that's also embedded on the blockchain. Of course, you can take a screenshot of one of these images and say that they’re yours, but the original and authentic ownership of each image is tracked and proven via the Ethereum blockchain. If that makes sense?
It does...to an extent. Could you expand on the last part?
Essentially, what I really see as one of the major benefits of crypto art is that it solves some of the issues that the artworld has faced for decades around tracing provenance and authenticity.
Historically, it's really hard to prove that artwork is authentic, and that it was, in fact, made by the person that people say it's made by.
If a digital work is represented by a token on the blockchain then authenticity and provenance are tracked automatically.
The blockchain is essentially a database, it's a distributed ledger that traces every single token transaction that has ever happened. If I own this crypto art token, and I want to sell it, because it's attached to the blockchain, you can actually track every single move this artwork has ever made. There's no question about when it was made, how it was made, who made it.
Which of the things you just described, are you the most involved with, and the most interested in?
I am 100 percent most excited about, and most interested in, fully dematerialized work. Probably the most famous crypto art that is fully dematerialized, and fully digitalized, is a group of works called CryptoKitties. The company behind them, Axiom Zen, is also based in Vancouver. I consider them under the umbrella of “crypto art” but are also commonly described as “crypto collectibles.” I think this term is interesting because it expands their classification beyond just simply works of art, into other forms of asset classes. CryptoKitties can also be considered a “blockchain game” because of how interactive it is.
Cryptokitties are on the Ethereum blockchain and can be traded, collected and bred with one another. This highlights one of the really cool aspects of immaterial art, as the cats are able to have certain functions that are not possible with physical art—they are able to reproduce and multiply.
I'm looking now.
You buy a digital image, and that image is represented on a token on the Ethereum blockchain. One CryptoKitty in 2018 sold for $140,000, but this is was when the crypto marketing was booming.
Totally! And something else that is important to acknowledge is that artists are so profoundly taken advantage of and blockchain technology allows artists to monetize their work – especially digital art work - in ways that I don't think have been possible before.
Of course, if a digital work is created, you can copy and paste it. You can take a screenshot. You can torrent it. These works are infinitely reproducible. There's no way to prove what image was authentic. There's no way to monetize that on the artist’s side because, again, it's just fully on the internet and everyone has it.
By tokenizing that work, sure you can still screenshot something and copy and paste it, but now, you can actually say, hey, I hold the token which represents the original of this image.
There's a way to actually embed authenticity and originality into a digital image in ways that weren't available before. I think that's super exciting for artists working in digital mediums because it allows them to monetize themselves, and protect themselves in ways that just haven't been possible.
How does the art world view crypto art? I don't think dematerialization, or the concept of a future without objects is so new, but this iteration is relatively new. How are “Art” people responding?
Yes, that's a good question. The short answer is: not particularly positively. I'm sure you may have guessed that. There's been a lot of pushback. Even for me, trying to write my master’s thesis, there was a lot of barriers that I encountered from an academic standpoint.
The criticism that I'm engaged with, a lot of it is not a rejection of the work itself, but a rejection of the technology, being blockchain. Because the technology is so new, I think a lot of people, they might not feel threatened by it, but they do feel confused. They don't necessarily know where to begin to learn about it.
Some of the other criticism, and I've also written about this, is that a lot of the artists working with this technology don’t come out of art school. They're not coming out of the traditional art training programs. They're not showing at traditional galleries. This movement has bypassed traditional art institutions.
The artists making these works are often technologists first. They are super familiar with blockchain technology. Maybe they come from a software background, a coding background. I think that it's really challenging a lot of the barriers that the art world puts in place around education, and around networks. A lot of the buyers, too, are not traditional art buyers, but they are actually crypto people.
I think all of that bubbles up to create this reaction from the art world. Obviously, this is not a blanket statement. There are people that are excited about it. The Hammer Museum, which is affiliated with UCLA, held a Simon Denny exhition a couple of years ago, where he looked at blockchain technology. Art Basel Miami has begun to present blockchain related panels. The Whitney Museum has hosted some Bitcoin related work on their online portal. But in general, this type of work is not shown at the most well-known, blue chip galleries or museums.
I think it's been slow because, I don't know if “threaten” is the right word, but it challenges and shines a light on the barriers the art world puts into place.
There's a lot of really cool and unique platforms that show crypto art. And you can buy crypto art on them. DADA is a platform where you can buy and also sell your work, they make it super easy for you to engage. A platform called SuperRare acts in similar ways.
There are these cool platforms emerging where you can buy and sell. That's where I think a lot of the heart of the movement is. It really lives online. I learn a lot through being on Twitter, being on Reddit, and engaging in the crypto community, and learning what the exciting projects are.
Where do you store / show crypto artwork?
You can buy a traditional painting or sculpture which features a crypto theme in the subject matter. But I think another one of the interesting ways in which crypto art challenges the traditional art world is through expectations around display.
In general, most of what you're buying is digital, and there's not an immediate, obvious way to actually display it. This art fits more into the category of collecting, in which you can enjoy online or in a digital medium, but not so much in the physical world.
Our lives are increasingly online anyway.
Yeah. The other really cool thing about the melding of crypto and art is that there have been certain companies popping up, where they tokenize real world art. Probably the most famous example is a company called Maecenas, they got a lot of attention in 2018. They tokenized a piece by Andy Warhol called 14 Small Electric Chairs made in 1980. You were able to buy a “digital certificate” which would be verified by the blockchain, so you could own a fraction of the work, and you are able to resell your portion on the Maecenas marketplace. By the end of the sale, they had sold over a 30% stake in the work. I think fractionalized ownership will continue to grow in popularity, because it allow you to capture the value that something generates without owning the entire thing.
Again, because of the security and the trust system that blockchain really is, you were able to really trust that the token you're owning does represent part of the Warhol piece. What you're buying is just a piece of the Warhol. You'll never be able to display that piece. It's in London. But you own a part of it, and there's some value in that that people are getting not only monetarily but I think socially as well – they can tell their friends about it and post on social media.
Because so many of the artists come from a tech background, what do you think of the style, how the art functions as art, the quality of the art itself?
A lot of the work I actually love. A lot of it is quite self-referential. A lot of it is meta, in that it references things in the crypto community, or in internet culture. A lot of it is quite memetic. It borrows from the language of memes. It is such a product of internet aesthetics. It's able to do that because it's so reliant on digital technology.
So, I think in that sense, I'm very, very interested. I'm very excited by the imagery that's coming out. It's for sure not everyone's cup of tea. But for people who are, first of all, engaged in the crypto community, but also on Twitter, on Instagram, if you can get over the issues around what things cost, and if something is art or not, because I think that question is one that has infinite answers, and creates infinite debates, if you can get over that, a lot of people can enjoy the work. You can engage with it on a really light level.
I'm trapped in this idea of Instagram aesthetic and internet aesthetic moving into the real world. Petra Collins is an easy example. Waves looks like a Petra Collins set meant to look like a modern high school experience. I just read about Instagram Face. Glossier is an Instagram aesthetic that then exists IRL. The internet influencing everything. I'm spiraling. That's not a question.
I totally get what you're saying. I wrote about Petra in my honors thesis in my undergrad. When you look at the history of art, there has been, since the 1960s a lot of art practices that had to do with paperwork, looking at contracts and legalities (like Sol LeWitt, Seth Siegelaub, N.E. Thing Co., etc) It was never actually about material objects. For a lot of conceptual artists, one of the most important things they were looking at was the portability of their work. It was about using a limited amount of material and supplies to make art. Artists were really thinking through and challenging the sensory experiences that people often associate with and expect when they engage with an art work. In those ways, there's been a history of art challenging that.
This question of democratizing art, what you were talking about with Glossier, where it's all disseminating on social media, is interesting. Social media has a reputation of being this democratic place. But when you really look at it, there's certain types of bodies and faces people want to see online and certain bodies and faces that often gain more traction than others. There is this democracy, but there's still this very specific way in which images circulate and need to fit into literal boxes on Instagram. Certain images are still privileged over others.
That's, again, one of the issues around people talking about crypto art. They say it's democratizing. And it is, I think it really presents new things that haven't been available before. But at the same time, there are major barriers to accessing, consistently using and creating with technology. And often the main builders of the tech we use are white males who are economically privileged.
Again, I think a lot of the inequities that we experience in the world, are reflected in how we go about using technology, and who's privileged on these platforms.
In the same way you were saying technology and internet culture has morphed into the real world, I think the real world, and people who are coding, and designing, and running a lot of the powerful technology companies, are grafting those privileges onto the tech they create.
That's no difference with crypto art. A lot of times, the people that actually have the skillset to engage on these platforms or even know that these platforms exist are the same people that go to tech conferences, who you see getting funding from venture capitalists. A lot of inequities exist offline and online.