What does early bitcoin investor Roger Ver have in common with the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns? Probably not too much, but they do oddly look alike.
This proved helpful to the Canadian artist Trevor Jones when he got to work on his augmented reality project, Crypto Royalty. Jones uses AR to turn portraits of actual Scottish royalty at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery into some of the crypto world’s biggest personalities. Users just have to download his free CreativMuse app, go to the gallery, and hold their iPads or phones up to certain portraits and watch on their screens as those portraits morph into Ver, or John McAfee, or Meltem Demirors. (The National Portrait Gallery does not know that Jones has done this, he told BREAKER.)
Sir William Forbes, the sixth baronet of Monymusk and Pitsligo, was a banker living in the 1700s. With Jones’s app, you can watch his face melt into that of Mike Novogratz, the hedge fund manager turned CEO of a cryptocurrency investment firm. The philosopher David Hume becomes Tyler Winklevoss, while a portrait of the young Lord Lewis Gordon transforms seamlessly into Vitalik Buterin. As it turns out, Brock Pierce looks quite like 18th Century architect and furniture designer James Adam.
Jones’s paintings will display at the Dundas Street Gallery in Edinburgh starting on October 22. In the meantime, he spoke to BREAKER over video chat about his cryptocurrency trading woes, John McAfee’s Twitter, and getting paid in bitcoin for the first time.
How did you get interested in crypto?
May or June of last year, there was more and more coverage in mainstream media about bitcoin and Ethereum—mostly bitcoin. I was interested in finding out more, and I was thinking, I’m looking for a new theme for an exhibition. I’ve been playing around with AR for six years now, and in a sense there were similarities between me being somewhat of an outsider in the conservative art sector and bitcoin as the outcast of the financial sector. It just made sense for me to start investigating how I could marry these two ideas together—my art and tech with the crypto world—and bring them to life.
Who’s your favorite crypto world personality?
It’s a tough one. I’ll be honest, I’m not a techie, I’m not a coder. I understand the concept of blockchain technology, but when I look at Vitalik Buterin’s tweets, I have no idea what he’s talking about. So when it comes strictly to personalities, I did a painting of John McAfee there [Jones points to a painting of McAfee holding a gun to his head]. He’s always a fun one. I follow all these people on Twitter, and the things that come out of McAfee’s mouth are hilarious. He actually tweeted the AR version of that painting, so he knows about what I do and the paintings that I’m creating for this exhibition.
What did he say about your painting of him?
His tweet was the video of me scanning the painting, and he said something like, “This is some cool shit painting by @trevorjonesart.” I think it’s been seen about 30,000 times now because of his tweet. [The painting of McAfee is also the header photo on Jones’s Twitter page.]
Whom did you enjoy painting the most?
Some paintings I really struggled with. John McAfee and the Satoshi painting, and—who else—I did Vitalik and Brian Armstrong, and I’m really happy with all those four paintings. Somebody actually bought the Satoshi painting with bitcoin, so I had my first big bitcoin transfer early, before the exhibition even opens.
How did the buyer find the painting, then?
Online. Through Facebook, there’s been a lot of interest from the crypto world in my work. It’s being shared all over the place. I just got an email from this guy in Canada, and he said he’d buy Satoshi for one bitcoin, about £5,000 or $8,500 Canadian dollars. That’s really cool. I bet it’s the most expensive painting ever bought in Scotland with crypto.
Was that the first time you’ve received bitcoin?
Yeah, that’s the first time, and a large amount, as well. I’m also doing limited edition signed prints of all these works, and I’ve had a few people buy them. They have the option of buying in bitcoin, ether, and PayPal. People have actually only paid in PayPal for them so far. They want to hold onto their bitcoin right now.
Seeing as this is your first payment in bitcoin, do you know what to do it? Do you have wallet?
I do. Last year, I did invest a bit—probably a bit too much—in bitcoin and very quickly started looking at Ethereum through Coinbase. I opened up another account on another exchange and started playing around with a lot of other cryptocurrencies. I made a lot of money and lost a lot of money and ended up breaking even. It ended up taking up a lot of my time. I neglected my painting. So five months ago, I decided to take all my money out of cryptocurrencies and put it back into pounds through my Coinbase account so I could focus on my painting. Now I’ve got some money in bitcoin, but the vast majority is out. I was waking up in the middle of the night to check my account, thinking, Oh god, have I lost everything? I was neglecting what I had to be doing with my work and my painting.
How did you pair each crypto personality to Scottish nobility?
Most of it was arbitrary, although there were some kind of facial similarities. I found Roger Ver and Rabbie Burns, the great Scottish poet, actually looked very, very similar. When I used the morphing technology to change the portraits into the crypto personalities, it made sense to try to get some facial similarities.
Who else looked similar?
Brad Garlinghouse, Brian Armstrong, and Brock Pierce all had lookalikes in the National Portrait Gallery.
Do any of these people know about your project?
A few of the crypto figures I “digitally embedded” into the National Portrait Gallery did see my promo video and commented but, like the gallery, the rest have no idea about my guerrilla art stunt. The ones who have seen it are Brock Pierce, Ariana Simpson, Chris Dunn, Elizabeth Stark, and I think maybe Laura Shin.
This interview has been edited and condensed.