ManicDistopia: The Gentleman Skeleton of Venice Beach
ManicDistopia's video game glitch NFTs are anything but weapons of procrastination or distraction. In this digital art you will find the culture.
It took a few times to get ManicDistopia, a digital artist from Venice Beach, to agree to an interview. I think he was busy. I think he’s doing a lot of work these days.
This is a man who was shaped by the fusion of street art, grunge, dirty skater chic and “Latchkey” semi-abandonment of 1990s California.
“I had not thought about my childhood in forever,” he tells me when I finally get his attention.
“I got along more with the harder element,” he says. Their influences are now found in his art.
Yet, his art is not just a harkening call back to the nineties. In the edgy, frantic, and glitch-heavy digital graffiti you see all of the anxiety, wear and tear of our modern society. It’s central figure is the skeleton. The skeleton works like a kind of cipher in almost all of the artist’s Venice ‘99 collection. It stands in for whatever we would like it to be, and it is an eery and brusque resemblance to our frenetic internet life.
Different versions of this skeleton look remarkably similar to the one often seen in LA, created by a street artist from the 1990s called Skullphone. But when I show him a photo that I took in NYC in 2012 of one of the Skullphone skeletons in my old neighborhood, he was non-committal. He said he could neither confirm nor deny it was his work. I don’t think it’s him, but I like the mystique.
Whether he is Skullphone or not is irrelevant.
He’s still killing it.
Over the past six months, he’s spun up dozens of generative art series; crashed and burned at least one smart contract; created a shit ton of NFTs (and even offered some of them for free, minus GAS fees); taught himself how to write smart contracts and removed all other dependencies in the system; developed his own community of followers for his art; created a special airdrop token for them to HODL; and done at last count nearly 172 ETH in volume just for one series, Venice ‘99.
Seven weeks ago, he was between a rock and a hard place. He had not sold as much as he had wanted to, and all the problems above were in the back of his mind. But he opened up his old composition notebooks from his time as a 1990s latchkey kid in Venice Beach and discovered that he had the confidence and the artistic chops to be respected and recognized for his work.
He reflected a moment or two on what those early days in the 90s meant.
“If I didn’t change course, I would be dead or in jail,” he says. But the art work was good. It was really good. That art work had earned him a place.
After leaving behind his childhood past over the last couple decades, and turning to the world of sales and consulting (in software, it seems), his recent turn to NFTs has made him emerge as something like an NFT hero crawling out of the cave — in this case his garage — unscarred by a confrontation with memories, ready to embark on a new journey with a set of software and artistic ideas to put him at the front of the NFT 1/1 vanguard.
“I’ll tell you straight up, though, it’s been an insane amount of work,” he says on a Google meet call one weekend in April.
Manic’s approach, at least for the past seven weeks, is to generate handmade retro future pop punk art that relies heavily on his street days in Venice Beach in the 90s. That was a community of low-income housing. It as a mix of all sorts of elements of society. He uses his art as a kind of allegory framework for those days.
The resulting jarring symbols, Max Headroom energy and superclash of colour, software layers, and coding skills does for NFT art what religious artists did for refectory walls in churches in the 15th century. He is juicing up the energy of the NFT scene to show us what great art can achieve — it can provide a reflective talisman for our troubled times.
Manic’s glitch art and experiments with 3-D are a lot like the Wall of Sound concept, in my opinion, but for the visual sense. Manic throws at us a carefully constructed plethora of imagery and byte-dancing; it’s just an onslaught of hypertension text and glitch, and neon and active art.
In his home studio, he’s always tinkering and retooling. He experiments wildly, and, no shit, like Leonardo da Vinci, he’s totally into entelechy — the process by which something with potential becomes something actual.
It’s like a bunch of surrealists kidnapped Max Ernst from the future and convinced him to make art that only aliens from 2085 would recognise. But we get it!
He started out six months ago with only about ten die-hard fans. That number has swelled, partly because when Manic makes art, he tries to turn his pieces and the hunt for his work into a kind of game.
For example, holders of any El Fuego token, an image of a flamethrower (above), are given the ability to burn certain NFTs to receive their phoenix-like reincarnations or new forms as free air drops. Just the other day, he rallied his fanbase to burn at least 30 NFTs as part of this process, he says.
They were totally into it. It’s a vibe.
He also has a Venice 99 air drop token, currently going for nearly 4 ETH, which entitles the holder to free air drops of new art for however long they hold the token.
Manic seems to take a great sense of pride in this sense of community connection through his NFT art. But there’s also a great sense of physicality in the creation of the art, which he seems to dive into shoulder first, like a nose tackle carrying the entire museum on his back through the defensive line.
He doesn’t just use a single software program to make his art. He uses a lot of different tools all at once.
Like a piece called “WAR HOLE” in the Venice ‘99 collection.
“I use a regular PC and the normal editing programs / Illustration / photoshop/ aftereffects/ and blender for 3d -” he says. He also relies a bit on hardware, but he won’t tell anyone what he uses. Too much competition out there.
“It’s also a secret sauce / the hardware / a vintage Japanese processor - and how competitive the scene is I cant expose [what it is.]”
“I don’t even fucking know how I did it, either,” he says.
The resulting tone and chaotic order that WAR HOLE presents is paradoxical retro future-shock punk; it seems both an exacting representation of a dystopian dreamscape, and a fantasia-satanist allegory for the present, fuelled by Manic’s visitation with that street art past I mentioned earlier.
The grittiness and the deconstructed nature of the visual surface doesn’t distract from the narrative construction going on. It’s a hell-scape of maybe the aftermath of a battle, told through pop culture symbols, like the Andy Warhol soup cans stacked up, gathered for some last minute attempt a defending the last bridge to their redoubt(?).
It’s vibe is in step with what is happening in the world today — a war in Ukraine; the street preacher pop pathos of today’s semi-depressed and OCD Andy Warhols in the NFT space; the hang by the threads of your skeleton cartilage graffiti tagging honesty of Manic himself, as referenced in the neon green skeleton spray-painting MANIC on the overpass street sign.
It takes us back to what really started the most popular NFTs of his style and ethos. Manic was drawn to NFTs initially and started playing around. He made nearly a dozen generative art series using AI. Two of them, “Where’s Kevin” and “Alpha Pals,” were drawn by hand, though.
All of these can still be found on his site, Manic.art.
He says of the site: “This is basically a record of what I have done.”
Some of these series kind of worked. Some did not.
One of the mint launches, 7DS, completely crashed and burned, he says, because the developer who helped him do the smart contract had made it so that buyers had to manually change the GAS settings to mint. A lot of people didn’t know how to do that. But everything eventually sold out.
“I have nothing on primary,” he says. “It’s all secondary market stuff.” Seven or eight weeks ago, it wasn’t looking like he had it figured out. But a visit to the composition books changed that.
In those he saw old sketches from when he was doing street art among the skaters and bikers and freaks of Venice Beach.
“I was just kind of doodling and I just fell into just drawing something I would draw as a kid,” he says. “It dawned on me that I was going to create some of these characters, and I decided to call it Venice ‘99.”
“I was really good back then,” he says. It clicked for him. “I put my time in, I ate a lot of shit. Now I am going to say my art’s good, because it is,” he says.
Like the hero in the labyrinth, or in the dark of the cave, who finally accepts his heroic nature, Manic had flipped a switch. He would relive those latchkey times in his art, really live in it. Enjoy it.
“As soon as that confidence switched, it was on. The universe pivoted,” he says.
The plan is to keep dropping art for the Venice collection. To gamify things. To keep building it as a kind of puzzle. He wants the people who buy his art to have fun. He feels the radical enjoyment that comes from discovery, trial and error and taking risks. He’s gotten the bug.
He’s visionary now.
“I know how important the community is,” he says. “I am going to make that investment work.”