From cube farm to comics to digital art: This artist has made $2.2 million at the first woman-run NFT marketplace


John Lê’s journey to becoming a professional artist began in a cubicle.

“Growing up as an Asian American,” he told Fortune, “creativity wasn’t exactly nurtured all the time, which is completely understandable if I look back. But it’s one of those things where I think I had a knack for art, but because it wasn’t nurtured I got quite a late start.”

He’s since made up for it, racking up over $2.2 million in NFT sales at the online marketplace Exchange.art. Although he says he did a bit of design work at age 16, he mostly shelved the idea and took a corporate job, where at 22 he discovered he loved to draw. Lê then became an apprentice at a screen printer in Los Angeles, where he’d work once a week after commuting from Orange County.

“I fell madly in love with what I can say, and what I can do, and the conversations that art would let me have with other people—and I just kind of have chased it ever since,” Lê told Fortune.

His next stage as an artist was livestreaming his illustrations on Twitch, at a time when non-gaming content was scarce. In 2019, after he’d moved on from Twitch, he got the chance to publish his comic, Giga, under Vault Comics. But, in 2021, after becoming frustrated with the financial framework of the comics industry, he began exploring crypto and NFTs.

“There were other projects that I actually had signed on for—comics with other publishers—and, at that time, it was really tough because I am in love with comics and the medium,” he said. “But the business has some primitive perspectives of how to run a business.”

Illustration of boy sitting on floor holding a tag.
Illustrations, such as this by John Lê, have found an audience in the Exchange.art marketplace.

Courtesy of John Lê

Discovering and using smart contracts—which can allow artists to receive not just initial sale proceeds but royalties from future sales—quite literally changed Lê’s life.

‘Making it accessible’

The same year that Lê was getting interested in on-chain possibilities for his artwork, Exchange.art began operating on the Solana blockchain. Larisa Barbu, a cofounder of the digital art marketplace, recently took over after serving for six months as interim CEO—the first woman to hold such a position.

Unlike the NFT marketplaces that cater more to traders, Exchange.art sought to attract artists by providing features such as pre-sales, auctions, and buy-nows. Artists also can produce the equivalent of real-world prints—called “additions”—which means multiple copies of a single piece rather than individual mints of each each piece. Instead of a single sale of, say, $500, an artist could sell 10 additions for $50, making it more accessible to some buyers.

This flexibility, both for creators and buyers, led to transactions skyrocketing in the fourth quarter of 2023, Barbu explained.

“Last year,” she added, “we were in the depths of the bear market, therefore buyers were less likely to go for one piece that has a higher price and more likely to go for pieces that have smaller prices—even if they were additions or even if they weren’t unique pieces.”

As Lê can attest, Barbu noted how the smart contracts used by Exchange.art make the entire process more sustainable as well.

“It’s really difficult to make a living in the traditional art markets because it depends a lot on being accepted by a gallery, and there are very few galleries, and it’s a very gated process,” Barbu told Fortune. “We are actually making it accessible for artists to sell their art.”



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