Johnson is a former professional baseball player who was active in the league from 2015 to 2017, playing for the Chicago White Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and The Atlanta Braves. After multiple injuries, including a fractured wrist and a torn shoulder, Johnson retired from professional baseball to become a visual artist in 2018.
With a child on the way in 2019, Johnson felt a newfound urgency to try innovative new ways to sell his art, and stumbled upon NFTs. Johnson, a Black man entering the mostly white space of blockchain technology, understood he was something of an anomaly.
He learned more about NFTs through conversations on Discord and Twitter and then decided to give digital art a try. He sold his first NFT in 2020, an animated portrait of a melanated baseball player titled “.15 Seconds.”
After overhearing a conversation in which a young boy asked his mother whether or not astronauts could be Black, Johnson created his now-famous NFT character, Aku—a young Black boy with dreams of being an astronaut who wears an oversized space helmet. The first Aku NFT was sold in February of last year, and he has been a major recurring character in the artist’s work ever since. “Aku: The Moon God Open Edition,” a collection depicting the character in a space helmet walking through a hallway of art depicting Black figures and astronauts, generated more than $2 million dollars in sales during a 24-hour auction period. And Aku has since made history as the first NFT character to be optioned by a major production company for film and television.
Johnson hopes to use the success of Aku as an NFT character as a way to build out more opportunities for other Black creators like himself.
“One thing that I’ve always said is whenever you go through the doorway as a trailblazer, the door usually closes behind you,” Johnson told Fortune. “Especially as a Black creator. And so it’s very important that I keep that door open and build Aku out in a way that can help onboard other creators, specifically Black creators.”
In less than a year, Johnson has developed a loyal following, and the total value of his primary and secondary NFT art sales is more than $19 million, according to Cryptoart.com.
Here’s how he did it:
Gain NFT mentorship and enter online communities
During the winter of 2019, Johnson had already retired from baseball, was painting seriously, and looking for new ways to sell his art.
He had heard about NFTs, but found very few resources and articles on the subject, so he decided to take matters into his own hands, and began reaching out to people in the NFT community on Twitter and Discord, a group messaging app with subgroups on cryptocurrency and digital art.
“Learning about NFTs required a lot of organic outreach and grinding and listening and talking to as many people as I could,” Johnson told Fortune.
One of the people who steered Johnson in the right direction was an online friend and mentor, Jimmy McNelis. The CEO of NFT42, McNelis also purchased Johnson’s first NFT, which led to the two forming a friendship.
“Jimmy, he really shaped things for me,” Johnson told Fortune. “He liked some of my first NFTs and gave me a shot. He understood the importance of the technology layer, and not just the art layer. So, he was a huge, huge mentor.”
Use your personal inspirations to create your digital artwork
Johnson cites his young daughter as a major source of inspiration for creating his NFT character, Aku. He wanted her entertainment to include diverse characters that looked like her, and who she could look up to in her formative years.
“I think a lot about what I want her to watch and what I want her shows to be. I watch the shows she watches and I wish, you know, they could be showcasing more [Black] representation,” he said.
Johnson described the ongoing work that’s being done to create the Aku collections as “intricate.”
He does all of his own designs for his Aku NFT collections, but has a team he worked with on production. For example, all of the Aku NFTs contain music. Some NFTs feature popular artists like Pusha T. Johnson also bolstered his skill set by learning to animate with Adobe After Effects.
Mint your art and select an NFT marketplace
To sell an NFT, you have to “mint” it first, which involves publishing it to the blockchain. You then list it on an online marketplace like SuperRare or OpenSea.
NFT marketplaces typically exist on the Ethereum blockchain. Once NFTs are minted or published, they can be bought, sold, and traded.
Like other popular NFT artists, including Mad Dog Jones, Johnson launched his first NFT collection on the Nifty Gateway marketplace. The response was overwhelmingly positive: in seven minutes, 1,402 editions of Johnson’s digital artwork sold for more than a million dollars.
Reward your early buyers
Johnson calls his Aku NFT or collections “chapters,” because he views them as part of an ongoing story. Not unlike a comic book, the Aku NFT “chapters” are released in an intentional order for storytelling.
Because the Aku chapters exist on the blockchain, there are public records of early adopters who have bought into the project. Early celebrity buyers include Tyra Banks and Trevor Noah. Johnson intends to reward his early collectors in his next NFT drop with special perks.