“Logos, like flags, are created to capture the allegiance of a community,” writes Ray Istre. “In my art, I contrast the Bitcoin logo with other historical forms of money, such as coins and paper money.”
Ray Istre is an accomplished & prolific artist, with a background ranging from large scale murals to the first poster for the Dixie Chicks, from McDonald’s billboards to a book of sketches called Ugly Jesus, He’s Not Pretty or GQ. He’s a singer/songwriter and a cartoonist. He’s also interested in digital currency.
In his work, Istre often turns a critical eye towards generally accepted ideas. With Ugly Jesus, his sketches of a plain-looking Jesus force a closer look at the “pretty” and “studly” representations of Jesus. “The book has 66 sketches with a story line, but only a few sentences with each sketch, exploring why the GQ Jesus looks European or why the Pretty Boy looks like a transvestite. Because of my visual awareness, these are things interest me,” said Istre.
Similarly, Istre’s work provides harsh commentary on the government and the Federal Reserve. His recent series, Art of Bitcoin, explores the connection between the future of payments and the history of money. “Is the American Federal Reserve the England of the 1770′s?” he asks. “Or the Ghengis Khan of China?”
I spoke to Istre about the inspiration for his artwork and his hopes for the future of Bitcoin.
Emily Braun: I saw that you’ve made everything from wooden toys to billboards to murals! Do you have a favorite type of art to create?
Ray Istre: The creative process with any materials at hand is my favorite. Creativity is an important aspect of life. There are bills to pay, but how about limiting bills owed? That’s creative. It seems the Fed and the government wants us to keep spending the money they are printing or digitizing. This gives them more power. They don’t like the idea of anyone not using their currency, like China and Russia. I like the idea of an off-the-grid community with high speed internet, so I can use Bitcoin to order stuff online. Creativity is revolutionary, and the entrenched powers that be never like it.
Braun: What are some of the themes that you typically explore in your artwork? And what inspires you?
Istre: Great art has always been an inspiration to me. It was as much the technique as it was the subject matter. Sometimes, the subject did not matter at all, but I wondered how [an artist] got that effect out of paint and pigment. Original art is the best. Museums are the place to see that. After walking around the National Gallery in Washington, DC for about 6 hours, I stepped into this little room out of the larger room and saw a couple of small Vermeer paintings. It was like a spiritual experience. I can’t explain it. Other similar experiences were viewing a Corot landscape at the Dallas Museum and a Renoir painting in the Barnes Collection show at the Kimble Museum in Fort Worth.
My own themes go from the subject of Time to portrayals of Jesus. I have a series of monoprints, each hand-pulled on my proof press from blocks I made for each color, and they all have the 12, 3, 6, and 9 numbers like on the old clock faces. The numbers are the institutionalized icons, and the abstract textures around the numbers are the rebels, so to speak. The numbers are symbols that are driven into us from early childhood education, but the abstract is what we do not understand.
I’ve also done a number of cartoons featured on the Kitco web site, which is one of the top gold and silver news sites on the web. One of the cartoons features Ben Bernanke dressed as a French maid with a vacuum cleaner. He’s kicking his heals, throwing money around and vacuuming as best he can . I can’t help but think that one of his buddies sent the cartoon to him.
If Bitcoin is truly private and unable to be manipulated by government control, it is good.
Braun: How does the Bitcoin series tie into the themes of your other artwork?
Istre: Honestly, I am both interested and cautious about digital currency. On the one hand, if Bitcoin is truly private and unable to be manipulated by government control, it is good. If the technology will eventually be used to develop a government controlled digital currency that is forced upon us under threat of not being able to do business without it, it is terrible. I speak of digital currency at this point, as there are many different currencies out there. Even the Fed is thinking of developing its own. On the paper currency, it is written, “For all debts, public and private”. In the digital world, is there such a thing as privacy?
My Art of Bitcoin is similar to my Time series of monoprints, in that the iconic symbol of the B for Bitcoin is set up inside of abstract shapes, colors, and textures. This indicates my interest & caution about the known & unknown. I love the idea of Bitcoin in that it is a break away from the banking system and monopoly money of the Fed. This use of another money instead of Fed money is similar to the actions of the colonists in early America. Could this be why Senator Chuck Schumer was so adamant to “do something about Bitcoin”? He may be concerned about the money or power they will loose when the people find viable alternatives.
Braun: How has your Bitcoin art developed & changed since you first began the series?
Istre: So far I’ve done 24 small paintings on heavy paper using the Bitcoin Logo, as well as some imagery of colonial money and faces or quotes of the Founding Fathers of America. I think the idea of Bitcoin resonates all over the world and do not think that it is strictly American, but I saw how Bitcoin related to the actions of Colonial America.
I would like to do more Art of Bitcoin paintings as the inspiration arrives. I am certainly open to commissions to do paintings or murals involving ideas from clients. I love to do large work.
Braun: How did you first learn about Bitcoin?
Istre: I’ve played with the stock market and even dabbled in penny stocks, so Bitcoin was an extension of that. I like new and innovative things in any field. The original concept of Bitcoin is gutsy, and I like the independence of it. Another aspect of it is that it cannot be manipulated – you can’t print more Bitcoin, because it is based on the logic of math. This takes the manipulation of the economy away from those who gain power from manipulating currencies. It puts generosity or favoritism back into the hands of the individual who owns the Bitcoin, instead of the government or the Fed, who just print more money as a tax on everyone who uses the devalued currency.
Braun: Do you believe that the current Bitcoin logo will become an iconic logo?
Istre: I think it will, but I’d design it a little differently. The B with the bars is here to stay. Let’s just be a bit more modern about the design.
“Screw the gold; we don’t need their money. Here’s some cabbage for carrots. Deal?”
Braun: Why is Bitcoin worth painting about?
Istre: The idea is revolutionary in this day and time, but it is not the first time this type of revolution has taken place. Imagine a time when the kings, popes, and ruling aristocracies had all the gold. What did the smart, hardworking people do? They bartered: “Screw the gold; we don’t need their money. Here’s some cabbage for carrots. Deal?” Bitcoin is interesting to me because of the social impact it could have. If it is allowed to exist without being tampered with or outlawed, it could be revolutionary. These things alone make it worth documenting in art. And by documenting, I mean using art quality materials with paint that will last for 500 years.
It can and must be an incredible algorithm, but it can’t look like one.
Braun: Bitcoin is fairly abstract, and there’s an ongoing challenge to find images to link to digital currency. How does this impact your paintings and your use of abstractions?
Istre: Iconic imagery is intentionally simple. It is designed to be seen and understood very quickly, so it has as much or more of a utilitarian purpose as it does aesthetic. At this point in time, Bitcoin is more for computer geeks, if you will, and seems abstract or misunderstood by the masses. It must break out of this image and become something that is easily adapted by middle America and the world at large. It can and must be an incredible algorithm, but it can’t look like one. This may explain why so many Bitcoin owners hold it in hopes of huge gains in the future. Sure, there are purchases being made, and I hope [Bitcoin users] buy my art work, but it seems that many want to wait to sell when the price gets back up over $1000, at least. Some will hold for much higher than that.
Braun: Have you made any Bitcoin sales? And on the other side, do you use Bitcoin?
Istre: I should mingle more in the Bitcoin world. I do have some of my pieces on BitPremier, the luxury items website where you can buy real estate and Rolex watches for Bitcoin, but I have made no sales. My art will last a long, long time and may be recognized as some of the early art of Bitcoin before it was widely adopted. I hope it is seen as some of the more thoughtful in regards to the revolutionary aspect in monetary systems. I have purchased Bitcoin. If I were a billionaire, I would own much more. I like to trade in some of the lesser known digital currencies as well.
Braun: Do you see any ways that Bitcoin or blockchain technology could have a positive impact on the art world?
Istre: Art work could be scanned as very precise pixel measurements, and then, using a formula, each pixel could be given a number according to color and value. The first number could be added to the next, subtracted by the next, multiplied by the next, and divided by the next to create a formula that creates an “Art Coin”. There would have to be a standard of process or exacting protocol, but it could be done. A coin would be minted by the uniqueness of each work of art. The value of the coin, as well as the art, may very well increase. My art work is available for testing.
– Emily Braun