A conversation with Burnt Banksy, the guy who literally set the NFT space aflame

It was a year ago that an anonymous, masked young man burned a work of art on livestream. Oh, before he burned that work of art, Morons by Banksy, he minted it as an NFT, which means he had to purchase the painting, to begin with. After the painting burned to ashes, he sold the NFT. 

While it all sounds pretty rudimentary now, back then — remember, a mere year ago — every newspaper that covered it, and most of them did, had to explain in hilariously awkward language what an NFT actually is. Reading those pieces now, it’s apparent that those reporting the story had very little grasp of what an NFT is. What naive times.

The burnt Banksy painting was one of the main catalysts of the NFT revolution, together with the Beeple Christie’s auction and maybe, on a rainy day, Justin Sun spinning a Picasso and a Warhol onto the blockchain.

But what about that guy, the guy that burned the Banksy? Well, he took the pseudonym Burnt Banksy, recently launched a decentralized NFT auction protocol aptly named Burnt Finance, and is still anonymous, albeit, hopefully, unmasked. 

To celebrate and reflect on that fiery night anniversary and the blowout year NFTs had, Burnt Banksy and I had a chat on Zoom, with cameras obviously turned off. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you still anonymous? You’re a businessman now, have your own platform, just finished a nice funding round, so why?

That’s a multilayered question. Being anonymous was an homage to Banksy, with the mask and the hoodie. I also wanted the ability for the project to get all the attention, not focus on this one individual person. I think a lot of that concept transferred over to Burnt as we started as a company, though some investors know who I am.

At the end of the day, as we get into more of a digital world, privacy really is key, for a lot of people. And it’s all about showing that whether someone is anonymous or not we really should treat everyone the same, right? Being an anonymous founder I obviously have a lot more scrutiny, which I appreciate. I don’t want you to believe my words, I want you to believe my actions, and I wanted to remove everything from the project that might be a distraction

Going back to that famous night. First, out of curiosity, where did it take place in New York?

It was in Long Island actually. It’s very, very hard to burn something in New York, let me tell you that.

Did you enjoy it?

Did I enjoy it? I mean, it changed my life.

Right. But that moment when you’re burning a piece of art; I would have been horrified. How did it feel?

I think it was horrifying for different reasons. I was obviously trying to pose the message and start a conversation. Looking back, as we are now at the one-year anniversary, it was definitely a success in getting a conversation started. My biggest fear was that the conversation wouldn’t have gotten started and we would have just ruined amazing art. 

How did you come up with the idea? Was the inspiration Banksy’s own shredding of the Girl with the Balloon?

It definitely didn’t start as let’s burn a Banksy. It started by saying, how do we make a big, bold statement and make this conversation happen, the conversation being, what is the value of an NFT? For the people who said if it’s not in my living room if I can’t show my friends, where’s the value in that? At the very core of it, that was it. 

So after a month of searching, we ended up with Banksy, just Banksy, in general, nothing more specific than that. And then, the piece that we had chosen was extremely, extremely, extremely deliberate. We were very lucky that it sold, and that the concept of the piece is his mockery of the auction, the traditional Sotheby’s and Christie’s Auction Houses. We wanted to take that a step further, to put the same mirror on to the people who do NFTs and, try to echo that same message of how do we show that something tangible, can have an even greater value being digital.

On a personal note here, do you think you would have the nerves to burn a Picasso or a Van Gogh? 

I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do it. A big reason we chose Banksy was that he is alive. Burning a Picasso or a Van Gogh would be desecrating to the deceased because their art is their legacy. With Banksy though, especially with the shredding piece, you get the sense of, is this bad, is this right?

We can assume Banksy got a kick out of that.

I hope so, I really do.

Do you know if the NFT changed hands since it was bought from you?

It did not.

Let’s take a wider view of how NFTs have exploded since. What’s your take on the best and worst things that have happened in the NFT space in the last year?

I can answer that with the same thing, actually, and I would say the generative profile picture. Think of the Bored Ape Yacht Club. I don’t even have to explain why they are geniuses, right? What they did is illuminate the broader point of where we are, for a profile picture to show belonging to a community; this is something that’s really big. 

You can have a bumper sticker on your car, you could have a T-shirt or something, but having a profile picture that says you can be a part of a community; Ape really revolutionized that, they invented this new style of community. That is one of the best parts of NFTs. 

On the other hand, it’s also one of the worst parts of NFTs – the lack of innovation coming from such a genius piece. Similarly to Banksy, we saw a couple of people trying to burn art and have it fall flat on its face because the burning of a painting wasn’t the point. Same with the profile picture, you see random NFT profile pictures; every animal in the book. A lot of the industry has gotten very formulaic, just big promises of future money, if you hold this you’ll get this. Reminds me a lot of the 2017 ICO boom.

That’s a valid point about the Apes creating a new kind of community, but with that said, it’s a very exclusive community that is out of reach for most of, well, us.

But think where the Club was two years ago, almost nothing. And very recently, you start seeing greed coming into the picture, whether it’s Big Money, rather than just being cool. It’s the community aspect that I like, and to your point, it became this exclusive thing, which undermines the entire ethos of crypto.

How do you see NFTs going from here – the digital receipt of the future? Proof of ownership? Or any other expansion that it can evolve into.

Here’s the thing – you don’t call your Roomba a robot, right? Same with NFTs. It’s just a non-fungible token, which means it can have many different applications to it. I think one of the easiest concepts was tying it to digital. That way, you could transfer something very easily without having to do much supply chain management.

Going back to the root of what an NFT is, it’s indeed a proof of ownership, that’s it, but at the end of the day, that is game-changing, something we’ve never had before.

Looking at what I’m building up around finances, a fully decentralized marketplace, we don’t store any information, we don’t control anything, we just connect people. Everything that’s done is completely on-chain, which means, record keeping but not in our database. The community has the power — everything can be verified by everyone. We talk a lot about this lack of trust in institutions, but it shouldn’t really matter because we, the crypto community, are trying to create a world where you don’t trust but simply verify. And NFTs are the enablers of this future world.

And so, with your recent venture, how do you plan to play a role in the future of NFTs?

You have two groups of people — you have the creators and you have the people who know how to use a CLI, or fork a GitHub. And with those two groups, there’s not a lot of overlap. With enough tailoring to actually allow creators to take what they’ve made and really monetize it, that’s the future perspective of Burnt Finance.

Reuben Jackson is a blockchain security consultant

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