In August 2014, following his 2013 arrest, Ross Ulbricht, founder of the dark web website Silk Road (est. 2011), was indicted on conspiracy to commit and aid and abet computer hacking, money laundering conspiracy, and a number of drug-related charges. The Silk Road, as Ulbricht envisioned, was to be the anonymous, online marketplace of the future operating with Bitcoin as its currency. With anonymity and the freedom of consensual trade as the pillars of this novel marketplace, Ulbricht was, in hindsight, on a collision-course with the U.S. federal government. By the winter of 2015, he was found guilty on all counts and in the following spring was sentenced to two life sentences plus forty years (without possibility of parole). Prosecutors furthermore alleged assassination conspiracies on Ross’ would-be informers, and though this affected the court’s sentencing, he was never initially charged and a later, similar allegation was dismissed.
Before turning to Ulbricht’s recent foray into the world of NFTs, let us plainly state one essential fact that will help make better sense of what follows: barring an unlikely presidential pardon, Ross Ulbricht will die in prison. It is difficult for most to comprehend death behind bars. Yet it is a fact of contemporary American society that tens of thousands will die in prison for non-violent crimes. Many more will have their lives irreparably damaged. A great number of these offenses are drug-related and thus only ‘criminal’ by legal fiat. Loose appeals to the ‘justice’ of such legislation cannot hide this fact: Ross Ulbricht and many like him will die in prison.
But Ulbricht is still 37 years old. Before he dies, he will necessarily live in prison for some time, as he has done since his sentencing in 2015. In a recent blog post announcing the release of his first NFT collection, Ulbricht shares some heartfelt reflections on his time in prison and how he has mediated the tragedy of his situation through artistic production. As readers will likely know, the world of crypto and NFTs are intimately linked. And as someone whose most notorious project (i.e., Silk Road) was built upon cryptocurrency transactions, entering the NFT space seems like a natural step (though see one article on the clash between Bitcoin ‘maximalists’, proponents of NFTs, and the consequent fallout from Ulbricht’s collection). As Ulbricht himself candidly admits, though, NFTs are apparently just as new to him as they are for most of the wider public.
His reaction to the suggestion that he should sell his art as an NFT is charmingly relatable: “Umm… What’s an NFT?”.
The auction for Ulbricht’s NFT drop, called the ‘Genesis Collection’, launches at Art Basel Miami and is hosted on SuperRare from December 2–8. In addition to the 10 artworks by Ulbricht, the collection, curated by Entoptic, includes a 2m40s animation by the artist Levitate. With the highest bid currently sitting at 666 ETH at the time of publication, the Genesis Collection is slated to be among the largest initial drop sales in NFT history.
Not only did his prison experience and the knowledge that he will live and die as a prisoner motivate his art, but these facts also inform its content and goal. The auction is therefore promoted as “A fundraiser for prisoner support & Ross Ulbricht’s freedom effort”. As Ulbricht explains, the effects of mass incarceration do not stop with non-violent offenders themselves but extend to their families and wider communities. That’s why at least part of the auction’s proceeds will help families travel to visit loved ones in prison. Ulbricht’s own mother, Lyn, who has taken an active role in advocating for Ross, has herself stayed close by through his prison relocations. In Ross’ own words, “With this NFT, I see a chance to make a difference where it really counts: in the lives of kids who did not ask for any of this. There is a lot we can do with the proceeds of this auction, but one idea I am committed to is to help kids travel to visit their moms and dads in prison.” He elsewhere states that, “With proceeds from this NFT, we are starting a donor-advised fund called Art4Giving, dedicated to relieving the suffering of the incarcerated and their families.”
As a statement on his prospects of life and, in all likelihood, death in prison, each piece of the collection represents or reflects on a specific age in Ross’ life. Some of these are accompanied by essays, such as the work entitled ‘Death (Age 37)’.
Ulbricht ruminates on death—actually, his self-described multiple deaths—throughout. But if he justifiably appears in low spirits, there is a promise of hope at the end: “Being dead, there is nothing to lose. Being dead, there is nothing to fear. Even (perhaps especially) for a man condemned to die in a cage, that feels a bit like freedom.” And with flowers sprouting from the eye sockets—a fine representation of the circle of life—we the audience have a clearer picture of the hope Ross maintains.
The proceeds from the auction will certainly justify Ross’ optimism. You can also donate directly to the FreeRoss Freedom Fund.