On depth, treasure hunting, and Kawaii Skull...
7 min read

On depth, treasure hunting, and Kawaii Skull...

On depth, treasure hunting, and Kawaii Skull...

So Ukraine is happening. I could write about that, but there's a plethora of better things to read out that by far more informed people. Instead I'll share this cheerful article drafted right before all hell broke loose.

I've spent more than a couple of hours this week looking at and thinking about skull gifs. Yes, you read right: skull gifs...

Several days ago I came across 10,000 pixelated skulls, many of them gifs, by a young Japanese artist. Sold as NFTs initially for $30 each, most are now selling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

So how is it that these seemingly simple images can attract the attention of thousands of buyers, generating over $2 million in revenue so far?

And how is it that I can fill up an entire page talking about gifs?

I can think of two reasons for the success of these skulls. The first is depth, the second is treasure hunting.

Persistence

At first glance, I thought the collection looked rather, well, standard. Simple skulls, different colours, some animation here and there. However, on closer inspection, I began to see more. Much more.

You see, many of the NFT projects that generate thousands of images, including my test case, don't create each image by hand because it'd take a really long time and it would be a really boring task. Instead, automation is used.

The standard way to build an NFT collection is this: you would create different layers such as hair and body variations, and then you use a programme to combine all the possible variations for you. For example, if you have five different faces with five different hairstyles with five different hair colours, you can generate 125 different images.

Here's an example of some of the layers I put together for the Crafty Miners:

After staring at these skulls for a longer than a reasonable time, I began to see automation wasn’t possible. They were all too different with all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes, colours, and effects at play. This meant only one thing: they were all hand-drawn. Every one of them.

I later found out that the artist, named Skull, managed to draw the 10,000 skulls over only 4 months. That's on average creating 84 skulls each and every day.

That's a lot of work, but you can begin to see a longer process at work. After all, it takes years of work to be an overnight success.

"For about two years, I have been constantly going through trial and error in order to get results. The fact that my persistence over the past few years has finally started to show results has given me a lot of confidence." - Skull, creator of Kawaii Skull

Depth

When you become more familiar with what you see you begin to know that there's a story behind this work. That is what we look for in art, something more than just words on a page or paint on a canvas. Something transcendental.

"But the eyes are blind. One must look from the heart." - The Little Prince

Looking at these skulls, I could see the dedication and hard work. I saw the creativity, I saw an eye for colour and form. I saw humour and Japanese cultural references. It began to feel artful.

The artist was originally a photography student specialising in still life with a focus on flowers as well as fashion photography. After coronavirus forced him to stay indoors he put away his camera and began to experiment with old photos. This was the beginning of his transition from real image to digital image.

"I quit taking pictures of people, and since I couldn't even go outside, I started a project to retake the pictures I had taken so far on the Internet. It was around this time that I began to create works that took advantage of the bug that occurs when you take a screenshot of a photo that has been taken once and then retake it with a cell phone screenshot and import it into Illustrator on your computer," - said Skull on their website.

The first project was titled 'PNG.' After that, Skull began to learn about NFTs and decided to focus most of their time on their art while working part-time jobs.

Their first published project focused on the theme of death, pulling in two central motifs: flowers and skulls. Skull left a touching statement for what motivated them:

"When we die, we gain new strength. That's what I've always thought and lived by. Two years ago, when my grandparents died, I felt it more strongly. I did. I should have talked to them more. I should have met them more. I should have seen them more. When a person dies, a tremendous amount of power is generated. A few memories are transformed into strong memories. The experience of death seemed to imprint them in my brain more. Since I was unable to do anything for my grandparents, I decided to send them a bouquet of flowers through my work. I decided to make a colorful bouquet to cheer them up. The skull is said to be a symbol of death, but I don't really know what death is, so I used pixels, the essence of digital technology, to express the ambiguous image of memory and death."

See, I like to think that this kind of process and feeling flows beneath the images, barely but just about perceptible if you look hard enough. People have a knack for seeing the unseen when they genuinely pay attention.

Hunting For Treasure

We humans love hunting for stuff. Whether it be a bargain in a shop, a rare vinyl or comic book, or the worst pub in London, we spend much of our time seeking treasures.

The Kawaii Skulls have two things going for it that tickle this human desire to go treasure hunting.

The first, as I've mentioned, is the fact that they're all so different and unpredictable. You can never really be sure your rainbow unicorn skull is going to be better than another skull.

The second thing Kawaii Skulls have going for it is, I think, a happy accident.

When you upload your art to sell as an NFT, you usually have two things: the art and the metadata. The metadata helps people figure out what's rare and what isn't. For instance, you could get a rarity score of different traits: 1% of skulls have glasses meaning it might be desirable to have this rare trait. This helps treasure hunters pick out what's rare and what isn't.

However, Kawaii Skull seemingly messed this up because the traits are a chaotic mess - a mess I'm happy about. The metadata works for some images but not for others. One Skull with a sword is listed, whereas another with a sword goes unregistered.

I remember as a kid going to comic shops trying to find rare Marvel comics and, ahem, X-Files trading cards. You had to look, there were no search engines you could use by ticking boxes and typing names. I remember being excited seeing new boxes full of unopened comics, and enjoying the moments flicking through one after another trying to find 'the right one'.

Kawaii Skull brings this back. By making it difficult for people to search and sort the skulls, they're making people search and as new skulls are put on the market, new designs are discovered.  This also allows personal preference to trump rarity.

A kawaii future?

The artist has already done well out of this and I have a feeling Kawaii Skull will continue to be in demand. They are unique and have also appeared at a time where Japanese-style NFTs are on-trend. As I type this, 10 Skulls have been sold in the last hour alone.

Now, if you don't consider yourself a pixel enthusiast you might find what I've written a bit strange. Maybe the lack of sleep with the new baby has affected my brain? But I think there are some good lessons for everyone.

I wanted to share this story because, as I’ve said before, pixels have always been underrated. Photographers, videographers, and graphic designers have learned a serious craft yet in recent years their work has been undervalued because pixels are considered to be a free asset, no matter how they are put together. This should change.

It's also a lesson about putting the work into something meaningful to you. The artist, Skull, followed their passion and interests, as niche as they might seem, every day for four months. People see that effort in work and respond to it. I can't imagine what I'd achieve focusing on one thing every day for four months, aside from weight gain of course.

It'll be interesting to see how the Kawaii Skulls do over the course of the year, but I also hope it's a trend that'll help change how people see work on screens. With NFTs giving some value back to pixels, maybe more people can retrain their eyes to see more of what can’t be seen.

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