If you were passing through Art Basel Miami in December, you may have heard of a Pudgy Penguins club night. Founder Cole Thereum was there, surrounded by penguin artwork on the wall and even etched in ice. The artist behind it all, Antoine Mingo, was there too, sipping a gin and tonic at the back of the room, but he kept a low profile. He drew the faces and bodies that made up the penguins, but his connection to the project has remained under the radar. Unlike Cole, no one at the party recognized him.
The Miami event was a highlight in Mingo’s unusual career as an NFT artist. Tokens created with his art have sold for over $400,000, even though he remains largely on the sidelines. As for the NFT world, the real leaders of Pudgy Penguins are the founders, who coded the variations and marketed the project to potential buyers. The artists who create the statues are treated like mercenaries – and in Mingo’s case, they mainly benefit from the boom through reputation.
Mingo first took art seriously when he was at school in Woodbridge, Virginia, drawing portraits of his favorite basketball players and trying to capture small details from the game. As he got older, he started taking small jobs – first making album covers for local Woodbridge rappers and then logos for local businesses. Each performance led to another.
“I was trying to figure out what my niche was. I wasn’t even sure who I was selling to,” he says. “The work kind of fell into my hands.”
After graduation, he entered community college where he learned the rules of graphic design and typography. They were crucial skills, but he was frustrated by the slow growth of his freelance career. Looking back now, he remembers that period as a low point in his life as an artist. “Honestly I didn’t even know if [clients] were so into art,” he says.
Seeking new challenges, Mingo found his way to Upwork, a gig work platform for graphic designers. Upwork is controversial with some artists – especially the 20 percent discount and sometimes abrupt labor policy – but for Mingo it was perfect. He could find gigs from all over the world, often paying far more than his local clients. It also gave him the chance to check out his competitors, guided by the portfolios of other artists. His first job was designing rugby shirts for someone in Australia. He started to wander into logo design and learned the tricks that succeed on the platform. He had yet to pick up part-time jobs to make ends meet, but he was starting to learn the game.
Then he was offered a gig for an NFT project that sounded interesting. He didn’t know much about NFTs at the time, just that cryptocurrency was volatile and one of his friends had lost a lot of money by mis-timing the market. The pay was initially only $150, more for consulting and chatting around ideas than producing a finished product. He was not used to the cartoon style and the trait system on which most NFT collections run was completely new to him.
“Normally I’m a realism artist, but [the founder] really wanted me to draw these simple penguins,” he recalls. “When I drew them, I had the penguins from Mario 64 in mind.”
The founder of Pudgy Penguins, Cole Thereum, showed him how to build separate traits over the same penguin shape so that the trait can be swapped to create new tokens. Antoine created a range of hats, clothes, glasses and color schemes – over 100 unique properties in all. There were also some penguins with unique backgrounds and themes thrown into the mix as an extra rare find. After Mingo handed over the properties, developers combined them into 8,888 images, the first batch of Pudgy Penguin NFTs. The final product came with a huge reward: $23,000 in dollars and $37,000 in Ethereum.
Cole Thereum got in touch two weeks later and was enthusiastic about the success of the project. With no connection to NFT Twitter, Mingo had no idea that Pudgy Penguins had been so successful. Soon the founders appeared on CNN and Bloomberg TV – drawing the community comparisons to the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Unwittingly, Mingo had become the artist of one of the largest NFT collections ever created.
“Everything has changed,” he says. “I had a crazy view of it. I was just the artist who saw it all explode.”
He no longer had to search for assignments for Upwork. Instead, people approached him to create NFT collections for them, such as with the Unbanked NFT project. He also continued to be involved with Pudgy Penguins, creating a second collection for the group and other content for their site and social media channels. It was good enough to invite him to the Miami party, but not enough to make him the center of the action. Pudgy Penguins was his most successful customer, but still just one of many.
When the scandal hit, he was just as shocked as everyone else. Twitter user @9x9x9eth posted a topic explaining that Cole Thereum, the founder of Pudgy Penguins, had emptied the project’s coffers before trying to sell the company for 888 ETH (more than $2 million). Soon Cole was kicked out of his own company – and Mingo’s work was tied to one of the NFT scene’s biggest betrayals.
“I felt a little betrayed,” Mingo says, “but not to the point of wanting to say something crazy online.” A few months later, LA-based entrepreneur Luca Netz bought Pudgy Penguins from Cole and restarted the project, launched a new headquarters in Miami and made plans for a book.
Mingo is also planning a move to Miami soon, following on from Pudgy Penguins and the wider buzz around crypto art. But until then, he’s still sitting in the same room he was a year ago, at the same desk where the Pudgy Penguin artwork was created.
It’s not the usual reward for an artist whose work sells for six figures – but there are other kinds of satisfaction. Mingo still remembers the moment he saw that Steph Curry bought a Pudgy Penguin† He had to step back from his computer and return to the feeling that had led him to draw in the first place.
“It was confirmation that I was good enough. I needed it to keep me going,” Mingo said. “If I continued the way I was doing, I’m not sure I’d still be drawing like I am now.”