How Trevor Jones became one of the world’s most successful NFT artists - and his new coronation artwork
After graduating from art school, Trevor Jones was “completely broken” and struggling to make ends meet – but the early adopter of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, is now one of the most successful crypto artists in the world.
In 2021, the Edinburgh-based painter famously smashed records when he sold an open edition NFT of his painting, The Bitcoin Angel, for the equivalent of £2.4m. He’s also teamed up with the likes of Succession’s Brian Cox, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, and crime author Ian Rankin on a series of 2017 celebrity portraits titled The Famous, and worked closely with the American rapper Ice Cube over the course of seven months for their collaborative, mixed-media body of work, 2021’s Man Vs. Machine.
And now, the artist is linking up with the Evening Standard for an exclusive new NFT to mark the coronation of King Charles III. First created in his Edinburgh studio by Jones as a physical painting, The Oath captures the grand jewels of St Edward’s Crown – which was also worn by the late Queen Elizabeth II during her 1953 coronation – in vivid brushstrokes. Once transformed into an NFT in collaboration with Apollo Entertainment, the digitised final piece gives way to reveal a hidden, multi-layered world of animation, all inspired by the magnitude of the coronation as a landmark moment in UK history.
Unlike many other NFTs, which are typically purchased using crypto-currency, readers can own the NFT The Oath with only an email address, opening up this still-growing area of the art world to an even wider audience.
“I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to work with some really amazing people,” Jones says, reflecting on his career. “Brian Cox was so funny,” but also too popular for his own good. “His mobile phone was going off, literally every two minutes.” In many of the other augmented reality overlays from his interview video footage Jones has created to accompany his Famous portraits, there’s hidden footage of his subjects discussing their lives. Cox, meanwhile, is now immortalised in digital time and space, constantly hanging up on people. “He’s just there picking up phone calls: ‘I’ll be right back’. ‘No, no, I’m busy doing something else.’ ‘I’ll talk in a minute.’”
Labelling himself a “social realist painter,” Jones actually hails from a traditional art background, first creating his physical pieces by hand in a studio before later transforming them into interactive, shape-shifting digital pieces. He’s now one of the leading names in the growing space of NFT artwork. No wonder he’s able to pack out an entire French villa for his annual Castle Party – a gathering for crypto-converts and the token-curious, that raises money for the cancer care charity Maggie’s.
Trevor Jones’ life-altering journey into the art world began when he was 31, and in the midst of what he characterises as an “early midlife crisis”. Originally raised in Lumby, a small logging community on the cusp of Western Canada’s Monashee Mountains, following a creative path never really felt like a tangible dream for Jones growing up.
Though he briefly relocated to the big lights of Vancouver in his early ‘20s to pursue dreams of becoming a “rock star” – inspired by the likes of AC/DC, Iron Maiden, and Metallica, and playing what he now describes as “horrible ‘80s rock” – Jones soon realised there was little money to be made, and returned to his hometown. He got a job driving a loader at a gravel pit, but soon became restless and hit the road. After backpacking through Australia, he followed his grandfather’s ancestry over to the UK, eventually ending up in Edinburgh.
It was here that Jones decided to drastically start over and go to art school. Depression had taken him to “some very dark places,” around that time, and art somehow felt like the answer. “Interestingly, art just gave me more questions, and no answers, but it did get me through those difficult years.”
By the time he had graduated, he was in his late ‘30s, and “completely broken” with “nothing except a silly arts degree” to his name. “So it’s been quite the adventure since then…”
Art just gave me more questions, and no answers, but it did get me through those difficult years
During the course of his global travels, Jones was an early-doors user of social media in order to keep in touch, and has always been fascinated by technology. Fresh out of art school, with very little spare cash, he became interested in the largely untapped potential of QR codes – a unique, two-dimensional identifier that can be recognised by a smartphone – as a marketing method. Then “I started to think, on a creative level, what if I painted QR codes, and created a built-in website? My paintings would, in a way, become like a window, or a port to a digital dimension.”
His 2016 collection Would I Lie to You: the Art of Politics and Propaganda meanwhile – which featured a series of world leaders including Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin – paired his seemingly conventional fine art portraits with an extra layer of AR, taking viewers to additional elements such as video, with an alternative narrative for each subject.
Jones thought he had struck gold with these earlier pieces, but “unfortunately, nobody cared,” back then, he laughs. Still, the whole endeavour did prompt him to begin questioning the processes and norms of the traditional art world, and he began slowly distancing himself as he struck out alone. Then, the stars aligned when Jones was first introduced to the idea of NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which are often bought and sold using crypto-currency.
In essence, an NFT is a one-of-a-kind digital trading asset, which is completely unique, and cannot be replaced by anything else. Though it’s certainly true that the clout of owning a one-of-a-kind object is an age-old concept, the interesting thing about NFTs specifically is the manner in which ownership data is stored in the form of digital ‘smart’ contracts that travel around with the object, wherever it goes. In theory it’s possible to turn virtually anything you can imagine into an NFT if there’s ownership involved – from music to house deeds – but the tech is often used as a method of selling and trading digital art.
At first, he admits he was baffled by the whole thing – why on earth, he wondered, would somebody want to buy digital versions of physical artwork? It’s a very fair question, but the sheer interest in his earliest forays suggested that the demand was there. When his inaugural NFT piece EthGirl sold for a record-busting 70 ETH (the abbreviation given to the crypto-currency Ethereum) Jones knew he was onto something.
That piece “opened my eyes to the possibility that this was genuine, and that there’s an opportunity here to make a living,” he says.
So, where does this value stem from? For Jones, the answer lies in subverting the traditional structures and mechanisms of the art world. If somebody rocked up at the Tate Modern wanting to buy Matisse’s The Snail, they would probably be laughed straight out of the Turbine Hall – conventionally, collecting art is often quite an opaque process, involving having connections in the right places, and getting vetted as a buyer beforehand.
This is not so in the world of NFTs. Here, everything is available on the public record, with smart contracts also offering up the possibility of an artist continuing to earn royalties every time their NFTs are resold in the future. For Jones, this means that he has continued to earn royalties on his best-known work, such as The Bitcoin Angel, since its initial sale in 2021.
“It’s more democratic, and it’s also more transparent,” he says. “Whereas, in the traditional art world, a lot of it is done behind closed doors. I’m not saying that that doesn’t happen in this space at the high end, but for the most part you can see exactly what was sold, and how much for.”
Unlike delicate canvas, there’s also no need to worry about digital pieces becoming damaged during transit.
Jones has long been interested in the idea of modern age icons in his work, immortalising world figures alongside divisive personalities like Dr Jordan Peterson and Milo Yiannopoulos.
As he prepares to release a brand new NFT work to mark the coronation of King Charles III, in collaboration with this newspaper, this same idea of iconography is naturally playing on his mind. It’s hard to name a more ubiquitous establishment, after all, than the British royal family – their name is embellished across every postbox, every banknote, in the UK.
“As a painter, and from studying the history of art, I recognise the value of the social content that artists have contributed over centuries,” he says. Creating a new piece that reflects the coronation of the King, he continues, feels like a once-in-a-lifetime chance to commemorate a truly historic day. “I’m trying to capture the things that are happening in the world today that are relevant, and our uniquely monumental occasions. This happens to be one of them”
“What are the chances, you know? A boy from Lumby, living in the UK now as an artist, and able to create this amazing artwork in collaboration with the Evening Standard.”
To mark the coronation of King Charles III on May 6, the Evening Standard has teamed up with Trevor Jones for a brand new commemorative art piece, available as an exclusive free NFT for Evening Standard readers. It will be available between May 4 -7 on Nifty Gateway
The Bitcoin Angel Castle Party is at Château de Vallery near Paris from September 3-5; for tickets visit trevorjonesart.com