The Philippines was the epicenter of the Axie Infinity surge. In 2021, in the middle of an eighteen-month lockdown, many impoverished teenagers and young adults turned to the blockchain game to supplement their income. If you don’t already know, Axie Infinity is a play-to-earn game originally developed by Sky Mavis in 2017, which launched with its own in-game non-fungible tokens (NFTs) — “Axies”, animated Pokémon-inspired creatures. During peak NFT-mania, many of its NFTs sold for life-changing amounts of dollars. The project helped Filipino youth — over 40% of players of the game at one point — who were bored at home and looking for money make above, sometimes double, the minimum wage (even if some players are now in debt).
For a country with a low GDP per capita and widespread poverty, this kind of crypto-based boom is a potential game-changer. Yet the Philippines had already become relatively progressive toward Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in the years prior, helped in no small amount by one of its country’s most innovative crypto entrepreneurs and minds, Luis Buenaventura.
Buenaventura’s ventures have coincided with both the Philippines’ and the global cryptocurrency story. He’s had a hand in every wave of adoption, and found himself the face of NFTs for the island nation under the moniker of Cryptopop. Struggle, adversity and luck all drove him to all time highs.
That’s the price — and the reward — for being a serial, creative crypto entrepreneur.
Luis Buenaventura is no stranger to change. The Filipino technologist has been a startup founder since his mid-twenties; continuously, he’s tracked the latest digital trends, like social networks (in the 2010s), and e-commerce, a blossoming industry in Southeast Asia.
Before his tech obsession, Buenaventura thought he’d become an artist. He had a “love for comic books,” he says, in an interview with NFT collector, Zero G, and even went to school for it, obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines. Then the internet emerged, during the late nineties, and Buenaventura’s path diverged. “The internet happened in a big way, here in the Philippines,” he explains, “and I realized, I kind of want to do this internet thing more.”
While working, Buenaventura’s coding exploits kept him on the cusp of new innovations. This translated into three technology businesses he either founded or co-founded, with aims of solving online payment in the Philippines. The launchpad for this motivation happened in 2014, when Buenaventura discovered the “missing internet money solution” that would become his business and life’s focus: Bitcoin.
Buenaventura’s exposure to Bitcoin came during a time when the crypto industry was “The Bitcoin industry.” There was no Ethereum, and its creator, Vitalik Buterin, was writing for Bitcoin Magazine. Buenaventura reminisces about those early days, particularly “Saturday morning meetups in a food market,” with “just a bunch of libertarian cypherpunks trading stories.”
He continues: “Back then, it was all about the jargon that you could throw around. So, everyone would talk about things like ‘51% attack’, and ‘Byzantine generals problems’ — stuff like that. It was what made your morning an exhilarating conversation.”
Buenaventura got a job at a Bitcoin trading company in the Philippines called Satoshi Citadel Industries. He soon dove into everything he could find on the subject, which included watching hours of Andreas Antonopoulos, and listening to the CEO of Xapo, both of whom counted as “heroes, earlier on.” He recognizes his learning occurred from a different perspective than the “average American or North European” — because of the financial state of the place he called home.
“The Philippines is not exactly a stable economy,” Buenaventura says. “I was born in the early 1980s. The peso was trading at seven to one US Dollar. If you look at the exchange rate right now, it’s fifty-five to one US Dollar. Saving money is a joke. Inheriting money is a joke, because the value halves.”
As in other emerging economies, the threat of inflation looms large. Retirement funds are eroded, and money kept in savings accounts of traditional banks loses real-world value. This is partly what turned Buenaventura onto the potential of Bitcoin, and why he helped launch Rebit, a brand of Satoshi Citadel Industries.
Instead of offering trading, Rebit was a remittance platform, where people could benefit from using Bitcoin as a remittance tool. According to Buenaventura, remittance fees account for about ten percent of the Philippines’ GDP — so reducing costs and transaction time using the cryptocurrency could make lives easier for migrants and their families back home. Remittance also became the key problem to solve for Buenaventura’s next startup, Bloom Solutions. Gradually, he became an expert in the field of “Rebittance” — a term he coined describing long-distance Bitcoin-to-cash transfers — and his writing on the subject appeared in TechCrunch, The Next Web, Tech In Asia and Rappler. All this new-found knowledge was eventually compiled into a book entitled Reinventing Remittances With Bitcoin (2017), comprising essays, conversations and real field data.
Because of Bitcoin’s decentralized nature, Buenaventura faced many difficulties in dealing with traditional centralized institutions. “In the first three years, we were constantly doing shell games with banks,” he says. “They shut you down, as soon as you were doing something ‘weird’, even if it was trading amongst peers.” He was forced to operate in “chaos” and “uncertainty.” Technically, Bitcoin trading was illegal in the Philippines at the time, due to a lack of formalized regulation. But Rebit, and Bloom Solutions, earned some leeway with the Philippines Central Bank, because they were trying to solve a uniquely Filipino problem. “It almost felt wrong to stifle that innovation,” Buenaventura points out.
To help Filipinos gain access to cryptocurrency’s hedge-against-inflation-power, Buenaventura then launched BloomX, a crypto exchange, supported with data from Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange. BloomX is the only official exchange licensed by the Philippines Central Bank. This was in 2017, after the Philippines became one of the first countries to write a licensing framework for crypto exchanges.
There are a lot of “awkward asks”, Buenaventura explains, to running an exchange in that part of the world; strict Know-Your-Customer Policies (KYC) and anti-money laundering requirements. In fact, you even have to screen your members’ names against the US governments’ wanted lists. Regulators aren’t “going to bend over backwards to help innovators do their thing,” Buenaventura explains. “No one is going to work hard to lighten the load when it comes to things [like that].” This results in vasts amount of paperwork, needed to be stored in filing cabinets, which, Buenaventura jokes, “almost makes the speed or efficiency of blockchain transactions redundant.” But he acknowledges that to operate in crypto, “either we comply, or we shut down.” And the pay-off for the people is greater than the red tape. The “mission of making crypto more accessible for our country,” he adds, “was a higher value target than the requirements on us.”
As Buenaventura’s influence in the Filipino Bitcoin space grew — he made appearances on television, as a speaker at conferences, and in lists of top blockchain personalities — Bloom Solutions hit a rough patch. Feeling the pressure, somewhat, Buenaventura decided to return to his roots: the arts, which, despite his degree, he’d never pursued as a career.
“It was not until my third year in crypto that I started to get an itch to do something creative again,” Buenaventura recalls. “It was low-key at the time. (…) 2017 was a rough year for us business-wise, so I needed some kind of creative outlet.”
That outlet manifested as “Bitcoin doodles on the memo-pads of Filipino banks.”
“I thought that was kind of ironic,” he says with a smile. “So I was drawing it right underneath the letterhead of these banks. I posted these [doodles] on Facebook and Twitter, and that was kind of funny, I guess. As I got into it, I realized, I really missed creating art.”
What he missed, especially, was the ability to lose himself in an activity. He’s experienced that with other activities, but there was an “in-the-zone focus” he felt with art again after nearly twenty years.
After the initial positive response, the Filipino founder decided he could use his art to spread awareness; to introduce others to crypto. And so, Buenaventura’s doodles morphed into comic commentaries on the Bitcoin industry, as well as its players, memes and milestones.
It was an entirely new genre of art: cartoon crypto pop art, often with a satirical bent; playful, humorous depictions of Bitcoin-related stories and characters. They caught the attention of a global audience, including crypto news publication Coindesk, which would commission him to do a series called Coindesk’s Most Influential People in Crypto 2017.
The Filipino art grad-turned-rebittance-founder was now no longer just Luis Buenaventura — he was Cryptopop.
As Cryptopop’s art circulated the crypto scene, Buenaventura was still looking to grow his young crypto exchange. But seeking out funding was proving difficult in Southeast Asia, because of a lack of education around Bitcoin and crypto. “You’re not going to really spend much time with investors from this region,” Buenaventura explains, “because they don’t really know much about this stuff, and they’re not really comfortable making these types of high-risk investments. Instead, you’ll probably try to raise your money overseas.”
And that’s exactly what he decided to do, by flying to San Francisco — a Bitcoin- and crypto-immersed city.
Yet finding investors still wasn’t a piece of cake, even if Cryptopop’s art, like The Gingerbread Man (2017) was being worn on T-shirts around town. The trouble was most prospective investors didn’t know much about the Philippines. They probably couldn’t have even pointed it out on the map, Buenaventura explains, and knew nothing about the economics and culture. This meant he had to spend a lot of time catching up investors on the state of things back home before pitching his product.
He was also abroad by himself; living humbly, while trying to remain in San Francisco “as long as humanly possible.” This meant he’d sleep in “some pretty crappy places.” Some of these were so-called “startup houses” — “a euphemism for a barracks,” Buenaventura says, with thirty people on bunk beds in one large room.
If it wasn’t the company of startup-hungry strangers, then it was insects in the bedroom. Buenaventura recalls staying “in really seedy hotels in the Tenderloin district, “where you couldn’t actually sleep on the mattress itself. [Instead], you had to sleep on top of the blanket, because (…) there were bed bugs in the mattress.”
The exorbitant price of living costs in San Francisco will make any frugal visitor discover new hacks for saving cash. One of these, which Buenaventura figured out, was that at every single crypto meetup, there was always free food and free drinks. So, whenever possible he made the rounds while getting to know the local community. But there was one specific meetup, which would prove to alter the course of his and NFT history: Proof of Drink.
Proof of Drink was held every second Thursday night at a bar called El Rio, in the Mission, in San Francisco. It was sponsored by Coinbase — “when Coinbase still sponsored meetups” — and usually brought together about “60 people or so,” Buenaventura says. These were Bitcoin-passionate people, who “went out of their way to meet [others].”
So, Thursday night arrived, and in search of a free dinner, Buenaventura decided to attend.
“I was enjoying my free pizza and my free beer, kind of just hanging out with other crypto people there,” he says in a Cryptoday video, created for his thirty-thousand-subscriber-strong newsletter. “And a small team of startup guys kind of approached me. And they said, ‘Aren’t you that Cryptopop guy from Twitter?’ Now, I was, of course, ‘that Cryptopop guy’ from Twitter.”
The trio that approached Buenaventura in El Rio included Travis Uhrig, Thomas Hunt (or Mad Bitcoins), and Rhett Creighton. They were fans of Cryptopop’s cartoons and had an offer for him: they were “working on a new Ethereum project, playing around with smart contracts, (…) a completely digital trading card collection that features the artwork of artists within the crypto community.”
The concept was called Curio Cards, and it appealed to Cryptopop on a creative level, but also as a fun, risk-free experiment. “I was an artist in the crypto industry,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly good, but I guess I was ok. And, I’d never really done anything in Ethereum before. So, that sounded like a fun little thing to try. Honestly, because I’d never actually made any money from my art, at that point, I figured, if I made any non-zero amount from this project, that’s probably already a decent outcome. So, I contributed three of my pieces to this project. And, as luck would have it, by the end of that year, that startup had already gone bankrupt, or shut down. I never heard from them again. And, I thought that was the end of that story.”
“So, the rest of my 2017 just kind of flew by,” Buenaventura continues. “And as far as I knew, the project hadn’t done well. The project team stopped talking to me, and I assumed that it was maybe because they’d kind of killed the project.”
In fact, the project, Curio Cards, was only dormant; its art and provenance remained pristine. Uhrig had kept the website running, and most of the Cards — the artwork submitted by the seven artists that were featured — hadn’t sold.
Crypto winter came around. And Buenaventura was still trying to solve payment issues in the Philippines with blockchain, and grow his exchange. He continued doing art, including memorializations of each significant Bitcoin price breakthrough, first in thousand-dollar increments, and then in the five and tens of thousands (he still has one to commemorate $70,000, depicting Thor, in celebration of the Lightning Network, which he hopes to release eventually when the price rises). His art became more successful, and Coindesk — ardent fans at this point — commissioned him to lead another round of art profiles pieces, this time in collaboration with other artists, for Coindesk’s Most Influential People in Crypto 2018. He also made a series called Bitcoin: A Visual History, and even wrote another book; a group effort created during a week in a house in San Francisco, which turned into The Little Bitcoin Book. So, things were business as usual for a while, for the creative crypto founder.
And then, in 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic happened. The world went into lockdown, in a bid to save lives and to stop the spread of the disease. Big cities were no longer busy metropoles, as businesses shut down. Buenaventura moved away from metro Manila, to live in La Union — a coastal town four hours north of the capital, where he hid out during the height of Covid. And he remained there, through the rest of the crypto winter, selling enough art on Makersplace to consider it “a fallback career.” Until March 2021 came around.
“I wake up one Saturday morning, in March,” he says, talking about the day when his life would change forever. “And my twitter inbox is exploding with DMs from people I’ve never met; and I don’t know who they are. But they’re all asking me the same thing. They’re all asking me, ‘Hey, are you one of the Curio Cards artists from 2017. And I actually don’t even remember what Curio Cards is, at this point. Because, it had been a long time. And, as far as I knew, that project had actually failed. I mean, I never heard from the founders again.”
He continues: “But it turns out, there had been some blockchain forensics going on, and they had discovered that the smart contracts that they had written for Curio Cards officially made that collection the very first NFT art collection minted on the Ethereum blockchain. And that made it really special. It made it kind of like a historic milestone for NFTs. And, in 2021, NFTs were really at the height of their popularity.”
A community of cardholders rallied around the collection. Curio Cards went on sale, on OpenSea, for the first time — nearly four years after the project had seemingly folded. The NFTs sold in large numbers, and for staggering individual amounts. At the time of writing in September 2022, the collection has done over 38,000 Ethereum in total sales volume, which, at the recent Ethereum high of $4,865 in November 2021, equals over 130 million dollars. Despite that staggering number, and the one percent royalty Curio Cards artists receive (split seven ways equally), for which Buenaventura is truly thankful, he’s quick to point out another statistic “that really blew [his] mind: “the entire country of the Philippines’ entire visual art industry, on any given year, only does 90 million dollars in sales.” According to Buenaventura, this shows how massive the NFT art movement is.
While those he tells that story to in the Philippines might not realize how significant the NFT rise has been for the traditional art world, auction houses already embraced the movement in 2021. A full set of Curio Cards was auctioned by Christie’s and Sotheby’s in the same month (October 2021), marking historic sales for the collection. As an “art school kid,” Buenaventura says, these achievements — being sold by the same, centuries’ old institutions to sell Da Vinci’s, Van Gough’s and Picasso’s work — weren’t “even a part of his dreams.” The possibility never even occurred to him, because, as “a rando artist from the Philippines — it’s not something you ever expect your work to hit. It just kind of happened randomly.”
And that randomness is at the heart of crypto, too, he says. “The crypto industry is pure chaos. And out of that chaos, sometimes, we see miracles.”
Out of Cryptopop’s Cards — 17, 18 and 19 — and the combined full set of 30, miracles were created for a group of artists who’d never met, and founders who’d closed up shop. And Cryptopop’s Cards were random pieces too, in some sense, because they featured dogs. Part of the reason for wanting to draw dogs was that he just wanted to get better at drawing them.
“The thing about artists is that, a lot of the time, the motivation is something very practical and personal,” he explains. “So, the things that make you excited about your work, does not necessarily have to have big meaning other than, ‘I really want to practice dogs.’
But he also wanted to break the stereotype of bulls being depicted as the animal for upward trending markets, like in crypto (classically, ‘bulls versus bears’). And, there was also an artistic, cartoon-driven motivation: “Bulls are not cute. With dogs you can just do a lot of things. (…) I find they’re a lot more expressive than other animals. Very fun subjects to illustrate. (…) Dogs or androids.”
Buenaventura went for bulldogs at first, as a kind of wordplay, to still retain the idea of bullish sentiment. Card 17, UASF (which stands for user-activated soft fork), refers to an uncertain moment in Bitcoin’s history, when part of the community proposed forking the chain. This echoes Buenaventura’s view that art is an “indirect look at history,” a reflection of the moment in time it was created in, either because of the genre, style, era or details the artist included. Card 18, To The Moon, captures a common Bitcoin refrain, referring to the price rocketing. And Card 19, entitled Dogs Trading, inspired by the 19th-century artwork Dogs Playing Poker, refers to a time in 2017 when holders of “altcoins” (any coin that isn’t Bitcoin) were doing “nothing but shilling [or promoting] their coins.”
“There is one detail that most people miss,” Buenaventura adds, referring to Card 19. “If you look in the background, there is a kind of weird pixelated work there; that is a screenshot of a subreddit r/place, where they were selling pixels, and you could buy pixels within this massive piece of artwork” — (much like the 2016 NFT art project “Pixelmap” by Ken Erwin).
Dogs Trading was completed mostly in one sitting, on a flight back home from San Francisco to Manila. Buenaventura is pretty proud of it, and considers it his best depiction of dogs in the set, because, he jokingly adds, “Every dog there looks like a dog. That is the highest bar I can set for myself as an artist.”
Since the Curio Cards “boon” to his career, Buenaventura feels both “flabbergasted” and extremely grateful. The success has opened the door to further opportunities, especially for educating and uplifting others.
Presently, a lot of his daily work focuses on crypto education, and tying it into relevant local examples, like the context of the Philippines’ inflation woes. Teaching about crypto requires practicality, because his area of concern is “low-income brackets, the people who won’t have a hundred dollars to buy a Trezor.” Simultaneously, the learning curve for blockchain is “fairly massive,” Buenaventura says, especially if you’re the type of person who’s “used to using the same password for all your online (…) accounts.”
Recognizing this gap in knowledge for future users is critical, however, to ensuring they navigate crypto safely, as fraught as it is with scammers, hackers and manipulators. Buenaventura says, “The average person on the internet isn’t ready for the amount of responsibility that Bitcoin can bestow on these kinds of self-custody holdings.”
From his background in programming, he says he also knows, “how much work it takes to educate people just to use new interfaces.” Ultimately, this has led to an audience- and circumstance-aware approach: “I know this means, for example, not starting with the suggestion of getting a paper or hardware wallet,” because, aside from the financial cost, “for most people, it’s such a high bar for comprehension, that it will turn them off entirely.”
Because of cryptocurrency’s volatility since its inception, new waves of users have arrived with each watershed innovation. These are “the moments when these messages hit better,” Buenaventura says. In 2021, that moment was NFTs — and as a result, Cryptopop became a household artist, and leader in the Philippines in the space. Part of the earnings he’s received from the Curio Cards one percent royalty has gone toward his non-profit initiative to uplift aspiring Filipino NFT creators: the Cryptopop Art Guild. Uhrig, from the original Curio Cards team, also made a donation to the foundation as a show of support.
Undoubtedly, the catalyst for NFTs in the Philippines has been Axie Infinity. Because of its earning potential for players, guilds have formed around the world, beginning, predominantly in the Philippines. These guilds arose from an intent to reduce the cost of entry to participate in the game — purchasing a few Axies — by splitting the cost and having players use Axies loaned to them.
One of the largest Filipino guilds is run by Yield Guild Games (YGG), which has over 5000 players. Buenaventura became the country manager for YGG in December 2021, with the aim of improving crypto onboarding nationwide. He envisions using the game as a means to introduce crypto newcomers to improved earning opportunities, even setting up Axie Infinity scholarships via axiearchipelago.org. Buenaventura has called “play-to-earn” the “first crypto-native idea to reach sustainable adoption in the Philippines.”
Even with the positive new changes in his life over the last eighteen months, Buenaventura remains grounded, and, importantly, focused on the next moves. “I never had any idea that this would be kind of where I’d end up,” he says. “I don’t quite know what to make of this whole experience. Was I lucky? Yes. For sure. Did I deserve any of it — I’m not sure. That part, I don’t think I’ll ever get a satisfactory answer for. But one thing I am sure of, and one thing this experience really proves to me, is that crypto and blockchain is pure chaos sometimes, but sometimes it can also create miracles for the people that participate in it. And I guess that’s why I’ve kind of been doing Cryptoday — why I’ve been working so hard on the Cryptopop Art Guild. And why I’m the country manager of YGG right now. I’m trying to connect as many people as I can with the income opportunities that crypto can create.”
It’s this thinking that led Buenaventura to Bitcoin, Curio Cards and flipping the local art industry; allowing him to turn the tables, and, as a result, help other Filipinos get their turn to create and grow.
This article was written and edited by Curio DAO contributors. To find out about becoming a contributor, go to docs.curio.cards. And visit the Curio Cards Discord to get to know the community.