If you attended Art Basel Miami in December, you may have heard about 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, Antoine Mingo, was also there, sipping a gin and tonic at the back of the venue, but remained more reserved. He drew the faces and bodies that made up the penguins, but his connection to the project stayed under the radar. Unlike Cole, no one at the party recognized him.
The Miami event was a high point in Mingo’s unusual career as an NFT artist. Tokens built from his art have sold for over $400,000, though he largely remains on the sidelines. Regarding the NFT world, the true leaders of Pudgy Penguins are the founders, who coded the variations and marketed the project to potential buyers. The artists who create the visuals are treated like hit men – and in Mingo’s case, their reputation is the main benefit of the boom.
Mingo first got serious about art when he was at school in Woodbridge, Virginia, drawing portraits of his favorite basketball players and trying to capture small details of the game. As he got older, he began taking on small commissions – first making album covers for local Woodbridge rappers and then logos for local businesses. Every gig led to the next.
“I’ve been trying to figure out what my niche is. I wasn’t even sure who I was selling to,” he says. “The work somehow fell into my hands.”
After graduating, he entered community college and learned the rules of graphic design and typography. Those were crucial skills, but he was frustrated at how slowly his freelance career was growing. Looking back today, 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.
Looking for new challenges, Mingo found his way to Upwork, a gig work platform for graphic designers. Upwork is controversial among some artists — particularly the 20 percent cut and sometimes abrupt labor policy — but for Mingo it was perfect. He could find gigs from all over the world and often paid a lot more than his local clients. It also gave him a chance to review his competitors and get inspiration from other artists’ portfolios. His first job was designing rugby shirts for someone in Australia. He started to stray into logo design and learned the tricks of the trade to be successful on the platform. He still had to take on part-time jobs to make ends meet, but he started learning the game.
Then he was offered a gig on an NFT project that sounded interesting. He didn’t know much about NFTs at the time, only that the cryptocurrency was volatile and one of his friends had lost a lot of money mistimed the market. Initial pay was just $150, more for advice and brainstorming than for making a finished product. He wasn’t used to the cartoon style, and the trait system on which most NFT collections are based was completely new to him.
“I’m usually 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 baseform so that the trait can be swapped out and swapped out to create new tokens. Antoine designed a range of hats, clothing, glasses and color schemes – more than 100 unique features in all. There were also some penguins with unique backgrounds and themes thrown into the mix as an extra rare find. After Mingo submitted the features, the developers combined them into 8,888 images, the first batch of Pudgy Penguin NFTs. The finished product came with a huge payday: $23,000 in dollars and $37,000 in Ethereum.
Cole Thereum got in touch two weeks later and raved about the success of the project. With no connection to NFT Twitter, Mingo had no idea Pudgy Penguins was so successful. The founders were soon appearing on CNN and Bloomberg TV – with the community drawing comparisons to the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Unknowingly, Mingo became the artist for one of the largest NFT collections ever made.
“Everything has changed,” he says. “I had a crazy perspective on the whole thing. I was just the artist watching it all explode.”
He no longer had to look for work at Upwork. Instead, people came to him to create NFT collections for them – such as with the Unbanked NFT project. He also remained involved with Pudgy Penguins, creating a second collection for the group and other content for their website and social media channels. It was good enough to invite him to the Miami party — but not enough to make him the center of attention. Pudgy Penguins was his most successful customer, but still just one customer among many.
When the scandal hit, he was just as shocked as everyone else. Twitter user @9x9x9eth posted a thread He explained that Cole Thereum, the founder of Pudgy Penguins, emptied the project’s treasury before attempting to sell the company for 888 ETH (over $2 million). Soon Cole was kicked out of his own company – and Mingo’s work has met with one of the biggest betrayals of the NFT scene.
“I felt a little betrayed,” says Mingo, “but not to the point where I wanted to say something crazy online.” A few months later, an LA-based entrepreneur Luke’s net bought Pudgy Penguins from Cole and restarted the project, opening a new headquarters in Miami and planning a book.
Mingo is also planning a move to Miami soon following the rise of Pudgy Penguins and the general crypto art buzz. But until then, he’s still sitting in the same room as 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 when he saw that Steph Curry bought a chubby penguin. He needed to take a step back from his computer and get back to the feeling that made him start drawing in the first place.
“It was confirmation that I was good enough. I needed it to keep going,” Mingo said. “If I went on like this, I’m not sure I would still draw the way I do now.”