Chicago isn’t a city for wimps.
While her teenage peers hung out at the mall, Josie Bellini waited tables. While other kids went to the movies, she took care of her sister.
“I’ve just turned 26. It wasn’t that long ago, but it feels like a lifetime. It feels like someone else’s life.”
Bellini made choices that some of us don’t have to make. On the girl in math class who helped her slog through lessons, “It was kind of a strategic friendship at that point, and then we really became good friends.”
Good enough that her friend’s family soon offered her the chance to enjoy greater stability, inviting her to move in with them. “That definitely changed my life.”
She was the first in her family to graduate from high school, so it was justifiably considered a major accomplishment. But encouragement from her friend’s family helped her to see she had much more potential. “They took these blinders off and said, ‘There’s so much more you can do.’”
Since then, education has proven to be a driving force in Bellini’s life. She insists it’s not just about getting a job; it’s about getting the right tools to succeed in the future. Bellini applied to Lake Forest College and, despite missing admission deadlines, was fortunate enough to be accepted anyway. The second luckiest thing after staying with her friend’s family, she says, was getting accepted into that college.
Bellini was first exposed to Bitcoin during her junior year. In an economics class, she was assigned to write a page about a lecture from a guest speaker, who happened to speak on the topic. “Immediately when he was talking about it, I was so intrigued. I was locked in on it.” Following the write-up assignment, Bellini promptly looked into buying some Bitcoin. “I think it was a few hundred bucks. It was too difficult and I just gave up and forgot about it.”
Bellini graduated from the college in 2016 with a major in finance and secured a job in a private wealth management company. “My career in finance helped me build my skills and learn about the world, learn about investing and just keep my interest in so many other things.”
Earning while sleeping
Bellini began her finance career managing portfolios for high net-worth clients. She soon realized what made so many of the people she was working for so successful: “They were earning while they were sleeping.”
She became aware of the flip-side of the capitalism coin: working smarter, investing capital versus working harder, investing labor. But despite her knowledge and expertise she was not herself permitted to participate in the same financial opportunities.
The irony, of course, is that since Bellini did not hold a net worth of at least a million dollars and thus did not meet regulatory requirements to be an accredited investor, she could not make the same investments for herself that she routinely made on behalf of her clients. Still, she explains, “I was absorbing as much as I could while I worked there.”
It was around this time that Bellini revisited her earlier interests in cryptocurrency, but now it was the new kid in town — Ethereum — that caught her eye. “I started learning about Ethereum when it was getting hot in 2017. It seemed like it had a greater upside than Bitcoin.” The novel cryptocurrency offered programmability and a plethora of use-cases, Bellini explains. “I thought, that’s my way into getting an investment that will grow long-term.”
With the small amount of money Bellini had set aside, she started investing in Ethereum. “Once my investment started growing… I got really intrigued. Okay, there’s something here. I need to learn more about it. I started moving my investments around a little bit in the crypto space and I was able to earn a great amount from it.” Her fortunes then motivated her to continue learning even more about the technology.
Bellini was unhappy with her job in finance, even though she was good at it and loved working with clients. “The hours were crazy demanding,” she says. She decided she was too young to be unhappy with her choices, and decided she could figure something else out. Returning to serving tables during the evenings to pursue classes during the day, she enrolled in a coding bootcamp at Northwestern University to learn more about crypto.
It didn’t take long for Bellini to discover that coding was not her passion. “I loved the design aspect. I hated coding. It just wasn’t my thing.”
Bellini turned her focus to design and began working for companies in Chicago, mostly freelancing, until she landed a more permanent role at bloXroute Labs. Bellini recently left this design job to commit full-time to her crypto art business.
Genesis: a turning point
Bellini had always maintained a lifelong passion for art, but says that she “just didn’t see it as something that I could take as a full career.” This all changed in 2017, after she created the first piece to garner serious attention: ‘Genesis’.
“I’ve always been a visual person and I love art, so it was the perfect thing to make a crypto art piece.”
‘Genesis’ is a work that portrays a girl with a partial mask consisting of a bear’s head and bull horns, referring to bear and bull market cycles, she explains. The crypto market was enjoying an enormously bullish cycle at the time, but from Bellini’s finance experience, she knew it wouldn’t stay bullish forever. The figure looks upwards; myriad crypto coins fill the background. That representation of the era’s top coins “acted as a timestamp” Bellini explains.
Even BitConnect, a notorious pyramid scam, was among the top coins at the time, so it was represented in the image. “It’s cool to look back at that piece and see what’s still here.”
Bellini posted the image on the cryptocurrency subreddit, where it promptly went viral. Instant fans were asking for prints and furiously upvoting the image. “That was my validation of — Whoa! — art can be a career! Even though this was just one piece so far, maybe I could make a living doing this. I continued to do art after that. It was a great investment in myself.”
She soon went all-in on the art business, committing a significant sum of money to the most expensive thing she ever bought: an archival printer. “It was massive, five hundred pounds, bigger than your couch, prints museum-grade inks and papers and all that crazy stuff.” She thought to herself, “I’m gonna become my own print shop…” With this huge financial commitment, Bellini knew there was no turning back. “That was my ‘I’m gonna make this work’ moment.”
The ethos behind crypto
Bellini never finds herself short on inspiration. “The ethos behind crypto drove me, the transparency, that it was a more just system than what I was working in previously. I could see that. I could participate in the system myself, which was a huge game-changer for me.”
“The personal responsibility of holding your own assets, taking them offline, all of that — I connected with that so much — having financial freedom and independence.”
Her best-known piece, ‘Filter’ was created during the 2018 crypto market dip. Bellini explains that she continued creating art, not necessarily for the high earnings any more, but for the ideologies behind it. “‘Filter’ became my brand.” The art work emerged from the frustrations she experienced during her time in finance, when she could not enjoy the same financial freedom as her accredited investor clients, despite having the right knowledge and expertise.
“People really liked that one, but it didn’t seem like it was going to be my most popular piece until I started making the AR (augmented reality) for it. The AR is really what people got excited about.” Bellini explored augmented reality tools, creating animations that brought the ability to tell more complex stories to her pieces. The subsequent eruption of popularity in her AR animated works was her second “a-ha” moment, she says, “after the Reddit thing.”
“This blew up. It ended up going viral on Twitter. I was getting DMs from people I’ve looked up to for so long — Bitcoin original people who have been in the space from the very beginning messaging me and saying ‘Hey that piece moved me.’ My jaw dropped. For them to say that was the biggest compliment I’d ever had.”
“I knew I was on to something with this, the extra layer of experience and story with the AR. As an artist, you hope to evoke emotion and tell a story through your pieces, with AR you can literally tell the viewer what story you’re trying to tell.”
The augmented reality animations changed the meaning of the piece for some people, she says. While it initially may have seemed dark and dystopian with cut-up money, the message was more positive. The Bitcoin whitepaper is the filter of a gas mask, filtering out fiat and “breathing in the truth,” she explains. The work is about controlling one’s own financial future by rejecting corruption and owning Bitcoin. At the end of the AR animation, the figure’s mask is removed, once the dollars have fallen away.
We have a duty to educate…
Bellini explains that all those with knowledge and experience in the crypto industry have an important role to play: “We have a duty to do it justice and to educate people.” While Bitcoin was initially associated with drugs, scams, money laundering, she says, it’s important for people to understand its value. Bellini feels her art is a tool for education.
Bellini-designed t-shirts are AR compatible and tend to draw a lot of attention, she enthuses. “It’s a great conversation-starter. The impact is so freakin’ cool.”
Bellini shares her concerns regarding the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve as the powers-that-be struggle to keep things afloat during the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s super important for people to be diligent and educate themselves about what’s going on at this time.”
“For the Fed to come out and say ‘we will bail out companies, do whatever we need to do, print as much as we need to print’ — you can’t just stimulate the economy by encouraging people to go out and spend money, because we can’t go out and spend. Our job right now is to stay home.”
“It’s crazy, but also it tells us so much about our system, how they are saying, we will just continue to print more until it’s fixed, which obviously is not a solution. It gives us so much meaning to what Bitcoin is.”
The ‘Fed Monkey’
Bellini’s “Fed Monkey” series hones in on this issue. The works focus on the problems of bailouts, quantitative easing, and the reality, Bellini says, that “our dollar doesn’t really have value.”
In the first piece of the series, the iconic Bitcoin gas mask girl stands next to the words “Bitcoin” and a plexiglass shielded “21 million” — the fixed amount of Bitcoin’s total supply — which stands in stark contrast to the ever-increasing millions, billions, and trillions of dollars spray-painted by the Fed Monkey. “It’s important for us to tell those stories,” Bellini says.
“Printing more money makes me start to think of those times like 2008: the bailouts, banks going under, all this crazy stuff going on. I know for me personally a way to hedge against those circumstances is investing in Bitcoin. I truly believe that.”
Now Bellini is fully focused on crypto art. She explains that she has been working on a new series for over a year that visualizes the history of Bitcoin. The series looks at the stories of people who have been in the crypto space since the beginning. “It’s my most ambitious project to date… Whether it gets traction or not, it’s gonna be a defining point in my career.”
As people face economic uncertainty around the world, Bellini feels she has a role to play. Her art can educate and contribute to equipping people for the challenging times ahead.
“It’s the perfect time to be making art that means something.”
(un)limited Fed Monkey by Josie Bellini