If you were passing through Art Basel Miami in December, you might have heard about a Pudgy Penguins club night. The founder Cole Thereum was there, surrounded by penguin artwork on the wall and even etched into ice. The artist behind it all, Antoine Mingo, was there too, sipping a gin and tonic in the back of the venue, but he kept a lower profile. He drew the faces and bodies that made up the penguins, but his connection to the project has 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 upwards of $400,000 even as he remains largely on the sidelines. As far as the NFT world is concerned, the real leaders of Pudgy Penguins are the founders, who coded the variations and marketed the project to prospective buyers. The artists creating the visuals are treated as hired guns — and in Mingo’s case, they benefit from the boom mostly by way of reputation.
Mingo first got serious about art while 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 grew older, he started taking on small commissions — first making album art for local Woodbridge rappers, then making logos for local businesses. Each gig 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. “Work was just sort of falling into my hands.”
After graduation, he started at community college, learning the rules of graphic design and typography. They were crucial skills, but he was frustrated by how slow his freelance career was growing. 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 into the art that much,” he says.
Looking for new challenges, Mingo found his way to Upwork, a gig-work platform for graphic designers. Upwork is controversial with some artists — particularly its 20 percent cut and sometimes abrupt labor policies — but for Mingo, it was perfect. He was able to find gigs from all around the world, often paying much more than his local clients. It also gave him a chance to check out his competitors, drawing guidance from other artists’ portfolios. His first job was designing rugby jerseys for someone in Australia. He started drifting into logo design, learning the tricks that succeed on the platform. He still had 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 that one of his friends had lost a lot of money timing the market wrong. The pay was only $150 at first, more for consulting and batting around ideas than producing a finished product. He wasn’t used to the cartoon style, and the trait system that most NFT collections run on was entirely new to him.
“I’m normally a realism artist but [the founder] really wanted me to draw these simple penguins,” he remembers. “When I was drawing them, in the back of my mind was the penguins from Mario 64.”
The Pudgy Penguins founder, Cole Thereum, showed him how to build separate traits over the same base penguin shape, so the trait can be swapped in and out to create new tokens. Antoine created a series of hats, clothes, glasses, and color schemes — more than 100 unique traits in total. There were also some penguins with unique backgrounds and themes tossed into the mix as an extra-rare find. Once Mingo handed off the traits, 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 reached out two weeks later, raving about the project’s success. With no connection to NFT Twitter, Mingo had no idea Pudgy Penguins had been so successful. Soon, the founders were appearing on CNN and Bloomberg TV — with the community making comparisons to the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Without knowing it, Mingo had become the artist for one of the biggest NFT collections ever made.
“Everything changed,” he says. “I had a crazy viewpoint of it all. I was just the artist watching it all blow up.”
He no longer had to search for commissions on Upwork. Instead, people were approaching him to make NFT collections for them — such as with the Unbanked NFT project. He stayed involved with Pudgy Penguins too, creating a second collection for the group and other content for their site and social media channels. It was good enough to get him invited to the party in Miami — but not enough to make him the center of the action. Pudgy Penguins was his most successful client, but still just one client among many.
When scandal hit, he was as shocked as everyone else. Twitter user @9x9x9eth posted a thread explaining that Cole Thereum, the founder of Pudgy Penguins, had emptied the project’s treasury before looking to sell the company for 888 ETH (over $2 million). Soon, Cole was kicked out of his own company — and Mingo’s work was tied to one of the NFT scene’s greatest betrayals.
“I felt a little betrayed,” Mingo says, “but not to the point where I wanted to say something crazy online.” A few months later, LA-based entrepreneur Luca Netz bought Pudgy Penguins from Cole and started up the project again, launching a new headquarters in Miami and setting plans for a book.
Mingo is planning a move to Miami soon too, following Pudgy Penguins and the broader buzz around crypto art. But until then, he still sits in the same room he did 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 is selling for six figures — but there are other kinds of satisfaction. Mingo still remembers the moment he saw that Steph Curry had bought a Pudgy Penguin. He had to take a step back from his computer, returning to the feeling that had gotten him started drawing 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 going, I’m not sure I’d still be drawing the way I am now.”