Just recently, NFT collector CryptoNovo was posing for hundreds of photos, taking meetings with top tech companies and attending scores of invitation-only parties across New York City.
Today, the former-schoolteacher-turned-Metaverse-mascot is raking leaves in his suburban Illinois front yard.
“Dude,” Novo remarks excitedly as he works, “That just happened.”
That would be NFT.NYC, the early November conference/gathering/bacchanal that represented a coming-out party of sorts for the nonfungible token community.
While NFT.NYC 2021 was the third event in what will almost certainly become a series of (at least) annual affairs, it represented an explosion in popularity over the 2020 offering. Ticket sales jumped. Additional days were added. NFT.NYC ballooned to a four-day extravaganza at which Quentin Tarantino, Chris Rock and The Strokes, among others, made appearances.
Among the big names, NFT enthusiasts and curious passersby crisscrossing Times Square that week, CryptoNovo stood out. Many NFT initiates knew who he was, and while NFT novices had no idea who he was, they seemed to instinctively understand that even at this event, this guy stood out.
CryptoNovo holds a collection of NFTs that is currently valued at $4 million. Meebits. Bored Ape Yacht Club. Adam Bomb Squad. World of Women. Many others. And, of course, CryptoPunks.
Novo owns nearly $2.5 million worth of CryptoPunks alone. One of them, however — CryptoPunk #3706 — stands out from the others.
Not because of its monetary value, but because Novo actually uses it as his face, strapping an LED digital mask to his head that completely covers his actual features.
For Novo, NFT.NYC was yet another leg in what has become the ride of his life.
“I had friends come out to New York with me who didn’t even have any NFTs,” Novo recounts. “They figured they’d sleep on pull-out couches in my hotel room and maybe come around with me and see New York. Suddenly, they’re on this million-dollar ride, this Entourage-type situation. We’re getting into clubs without paying a dollar. All of the access is based on NFTs in my collection.”
“We’re rubbing shoulders with famous and semi-famous people who love us for the stake of value that we put into the community. When it was finally time to take off the mask and get on the plane home, it was weird.”
We may live in a world in which Elon Musk named his child “X Æ A-Xii,” but CryptoNovo is not, in fact, Novo’s real name. What began as an online handle has evolved into, well, a full-blown persona.
The story behind that persona begins with Novo’s journey to the world of NFTs, which he considers to be a typical one.
“It goes back to toys for me. When I was a kid, I didn’t get toys all the time. Birthdays, holidays — that was it. For me, toys were something to keep track of and protect. As I got older, that evolved into collectibles.”
Novo collected rare comics, unopened Star Wars Lego sets and everything in between. Like many collectors, he viewed the emergence of cryptocurrency with less skepticism than most: Here was something that, in addition to its intrinsic value, could be valued, bought and sold the same way a baseball card could be. One day, during a cryptocurrency conversation in 2019, a co-worker mentioned NFTs. That was all it took to get Novo hooked. “I realized that we were looking at a new frontier, not just of currency but of collectibles.”
Novo threw himself into the NFT space with fervor, becoming a fixture on NFT Discord and surrounding himself with, as he puts it, “the smartest people in the space.” Noted ground-floor NFT collector Tony Herrera taught Novo NFT basics such as getting a MetaMask wallet, transferring ETH into it, getting an ENS name, and actually buying NFTs and posting them for sale. Novo met NFT creators such as the influential artist and collector Pranksy. Novo asked questions, took notes, and offered help and input whenever he felt that he could.
“I was a teacher,” Novo begins. “I didn’t have money to be dumping into NFTs left and right. I set aside one paycheck to invest, and I couldn’t really go over that. I couldn’t afford an Alien, an Ape or a Zombie [three of the most elite, rare CryptoPunks], I couldn’t afford a Beanie, etc. So, I started looking at another class [of CryptoPunks]: the Hoodie. There were more of that class, but they were statistically still pretty rare. But I wasn’t interested because of that. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and I liked the Hoodies.”
“What I have been building since the beginning,” Novo continues, “is friends. I contacted Pranksy directly. I offered him 1.24 Ethereum for a Hoodie he owned. He countered with a slightly higher amount. I basically had to come back and say, ‘Look…1.24 is literally all I can afford.’ He was able to see my wallet on the public blockchain and know that I was telling the truth.”
This was not, Novo stresses, a good deal for Pranksy — but Pranksy agreed to the sale, largely because of what Novo believes to be Pranksy’s faith in Novo’s desire to promote the NFT movement itself. It was almost, Novo says, as if he was buying the NFT not just with 1.24 ETH but with himself.
In any case, the transaction was made. The cost to Novo equated to roughly $400 at the time.
Savings and wise investments
“Then, I held on to it. I watched it become a primer and primer asset. It was known as ‘The Albino Hoodie.’ It had a certain look. People wanted it. Honestly, I wasn’t as focused on that. I’m busy trying to do right by Pranksy, for believing in me. I ended up helping him give away 150 CryptoPunks in a raffle that turned into a major event for him in terms of publicity and just for all of us in terms of growing NFTs.”
As Novo interacted with more and more digital artists, his view of NFTs transformed. Initially, he had thought of NFTs as assets — the right Bored Ape avatar could become his equivalent of a Mickey Mantle rookie card. Today, though, his explanation of NFTs starts not with collectors but with creators.
“Think about just how many times the poop emoji has been used since it was created. Someone made that emoji, the same way someone makes any piece of art. But who has made the real money off of that emoji? Big corporations? Was the person who created that simple piece of art the one who profited?”
He cites elements in video games that make hundreds of millions of dollars and points out that famed NFT creator Rare Diamond Hands works at a massive game company as a digital-hand designer for first-person shooters. Novo believes Rare Diamond Hands is probably not being properly compensated for his skills at his job, but he now creates NFT images of hands holding diamonds — a nod to the Metaverse’s respect for “diamond-handed” collectors who never sell their NFTs.
“Anyone who purchases one of those images knows that they have exclusive rights to a hand designed by one of the elite video game artists.” The point, Novo emphasizes, is that regardless of what someone is willing to pay for a Rare Diamond Hand or a Bored Ape, that money is money that the artist who created the NFT deserves. For Novo, NFTs represent opportunities — for creators, for collectors, for businesses, for everyone.
Mindset of a cheerleader
This mindset had crystallized for Novo by mid-2020, and it changed his life. He became one of the biggest cheerleaders in the NFT space. He hosted online video interviews with NFT creators using Restream. He tweeted constantly about every piece of NFT news. He offered help and information to every new acolyte in the Metaverse, even dubbing his own specific corner of that world the “Novoverse.”
“It’s been a grind. I’ve been producing content in some capacity every single day for over a year. Can I introduce this person to this person, knowing that they have a common understanding and can accomplish something bigger together?”
Novo can’t resist using the kind of on-the-nose reference that one might expect from an NFT loyalist: “Can I open the door for more Neos in this Matrix?”
In The Matrix, Neo’s mentor, Morpheus, is known for his iconic sunglasses.
In the land of NFTs, Novo has his mask.
For as long as he has been a figure in the NFT world, Novo has been using digital photos and “AR filters” — augmented reality images that superimpose over real-life video — to replace his actual human face with a projection of CryptoPunk #3706.
As Novo became more and more involved in the NFT community, in-person interactions — both business and personal — became a reality. Novo’s response was to bring part of the Metaverse into reality. He purchased a face-worn digital mask that could display CryptoPunk #3706. He had a friend’s mom knit him a hat identical to the one worn by his avatar. He bought a suit that would look very much at home on a 1960s Batman villain.
In New York, Novo was constantly approached by excited friends — “My Aliens, Apes and Zombies,” as Novo calls them — who had only interacted with him online. A New York Times reporter interviewed him for 45 minutes (though he was cited in the resulting article simply as “the owner of CryptoPunk #3706.”) Novo gave a raucous speech at an NFT.NYC town hall that ended with him dropping the mic and high-fiving his way out through the crowd toward the exit.
Everyone wanted a photo. Whether they knew him as CryptoNovo or simply as “that goofy-looking robot-man on the sidewalk,” New Yorkers seemed to see Novo as a “piece” of the event. A banner, a mascot, an indicator: Something different is happening here. All of this was fine with Novo, though he does worry about anything that could contribute to negative stereotypes of either the event or the NFT movement itself, including a simplistic “robot mascot.”
“On one hand,” Novo offers, “Any kind of discussion is going to onboard more people, and having a discussion — negative or positive — will drive conversation and allow people to come to their own conclusions. Ninety-eight percent of the people who read an article about NFTs have no clue what an NFT is. If my glass is always half full, their glass is empty. I want to fill it. So, I’m always happy people are talking.”
On the other hand, Novo explains, he chafes at two conceptions: that the NFT movement is composed of “a bunch of crypto bros” and that it is about making a quick buck.
“When I showed up in New York for NFT.NYC, I had hundreds of people I was expecting to interact with who I’d never seen before. Maybe I had tweeted with them, or had them on my Restream show where they had an AR filter on.”
“Honestly, I was stunned by the diversity. I’m posing for all of these pictures, and it’s such a mix of gender, of ages, of cultures. And I’m realizing, ‘This community is everyone now, and everyone is bringing their unique aspect to it.’”
The second conception is a little more tricky for Novo to tackle. After all, he is near the head of the line of NFT “early adopters” who have made real money.
One day, someone contacted Novo on Discord, asking if he’d be willing to sell the Pranksy Hoodie. Novo keeps the buyer anonymous, but not the offer: 350 Ether.
Both NFTs and cryptocurrency had recently skyrocketed in value.
Novo was being offered the equivalent of $1.07 million for his Hoodie.
“I had already realized I was going to have to sell some of my NFTs just to cover taxes,” Novo admits. “And, um… that’s a lot of money there.” He made the sale.
“Here’s what I don’t like,” Novo quickly continues. “Any time I tell this story to anyone who isn’t already in on NFTs, at this point I feel like I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”
Novo is referring to what he did, or rather, what he didn’t do with his million-dollar windfall in cryptocurrency. He didn’t cash out — not most of it, anyway. He almost immediately reinvested in another Hoodie of lesser value that he felt he could get at a bargain price.
“So, let’s think about this,” Novo levels. “If I put my money back into our community because I see value, but mainly because I believe in the power of this movement, then I’m an idiot because this is all a big bubble that is going to collapse, according to people who aren’t actually a part of this. But if I do cash out, then I’m just another bro who’s only in it for the money. I’m going to be stereotyped either way.”
“I just have to believe,” Novo finishes. “Stories like this are going to make more people really see what’s going on, and those people are going to get it, and that’s going to grow our community.”
Explaining what’s going on, by the way, is now effectively Novo’s full-time job.
Earlier this year, Novo finally reached a crossroads. He had received offers to work full-time in the NFT space, and he sat down with his wife to discuss a career change. Fortunately, his wife — an advertising executive — believes in the power of NFTs as a new force in both technology and the marketplace. She encouraged him to make the switch.
Today, Novo is, for lack of a better term, an “ideas man.”
“It’s calls,” he laughs. “Lots and lots of calls — but fun calls!”
The business of NFTs
NFTs, Novo explains, are a space that the business world wants in on but doesn’t fully understand. Novo often helps businesses find pathways to meaningful NFT involvement. One day, he might be connecting a blue-blood corporation with a promising digital artist. Another day, he might help a major hotel chain understand just what is possible in terms of a Metaverse-themed resort.
Novo believes that anyone — from a major corporation to a struggling artist — who treats NFTs not as a novelty but as a vehicle to truly add something to the NFT community will be rewarded with brand loyalty. Some producers or collectors will strike it rich, but the space itself will be transformational — an entirely new landscape in which all people can interact, gather and, yes, profit.
This, of course, is the kind of rose-colored premonition you might expect from someone who regularly sits in boardrooms while wearing an NFT on his face.
“Yeah,” Novo admits. “I’m a true believer. But I don’t think it’s just me. I think the evidence is right there for anyone who actually looks.”
Novo mentions a podcast he listened to recently. “The same reporter who interviewed me at NFT.NYC was on it. He said that NFT.NYC was celebrities, scene people, hackers, artists, venture capitalists, libertarians and more, all mixing together. He said it was really weird. Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like ‘weird’ to me.”
“That sounds,” Novo opines with typical optimism, “like everyone.”