In the life of an artist, there often comes a time when they’re faced with a choice: to continue pursuing a creative career, or opt for a more traditional path. This was a decision 22-year-old photographer and director Aidan Cullen confronted at 18 — but he pressed on to great success, working with artists like A$AP Rocky, Halsey, Trippie Redd and Omar Apollo.

However, Cullen knows not everyone is fortunate enough to find success in the ultra-competitive art world — and even when they do, it’s likely they aren’t being compensated properly.

“I’ve encountered a lot of common issues throughout my career, and one of them is being at the bottom of this chain, where you’re working with these massive companies — whether it’s Nike, Adidas, Warner, whatever,” Cullen tells Variety. “They’re all amazing companies. I look up to all them. But I’m a freelance artist, and every time I do a job, it’s 60 to 90 days to get paid. I was just like, ‘Okay, how do we fix this?’ And I think we completely have to leave the system and do our own thing.”

Enter the Heart Project: Cullen’s brainchild with 29-year-old visual artist Stefan Meier, which aims to make the entertainment industry more accessible and equitable to artists around the world. How? Through the wildly popular world of NFTs.

An NFT, or nonfungible token, is a unique and non-replicable piece of data typically stored on the Ethereum blockchain that can be bought and sold with cryptocurrency. NFTs can be used to represent digital photos, videos, audio and other files that contain an identifier to ensure the content is authentically one-of-a-kind. And, as Cullen explains, NFTs offer a direct opportunity for ownership and monetization in the creative world.

“If you were with Keith Haring and he’s like, ‘I’ll sell this drawing to you for $1,000,’ and then 20 years later you sell that thing for $1 million — he’s obviously dead, but he’ll never know or profit from that,” Cullen says. “The really cool thing about the NFT space is that when you release a project, you decide, ‘Okay, anytime someone resells the NFT, we’re going to get 7.5% royalty on every single sale ever.'”

Aidan Cullen of the Heart Project Finley Jacobson

That concept is at the core of the Heart Project, a “community-driven creative studio” where artists can collaborate on projects, share ownership and, of course, make money. On Sept. 27, Cullen and Meier dropped 10,000 NFTs for 0.08888 ETH (cryptocurrency currently worth roughly $370) each, as the key to become part of the community. The NFT itself is a computer-generated heart cartoon designed by Meier, with each one having randomly assigned attributes. They sold out in less than 30 seconds.

“The heart felt like the perfect fit for the communal vibe, you know? The classic symbol of love,” Meier says of the NFTs. “We’re using this ancient symbol with a little modern twist as a cartoon character, and it’s just the perfect symbol of building this community where people have a voice and feel heard.”

The 4,900 “heart holders,” as Cullen and Meier call them, hail from 50 different countries and are part of a special Discord channel where they are privy to star-studded creative opportunities. Cullen and Meier are also aided by Brockhampton creative director Henock Sileshi (aka HK) and software engineer Luke Davis. Current ventures include producing and writing a song with Benny Blanco and Lil Dicky, creating music videos for Deb Never and Jean Dawson, a community-designed clothing capsule and a collaborative zine. When these projects are complete, they will also have a NFT component to them, allowing contributors to turn the collaboration into cash.

“Say we sell the [Lil Dicky] song for $10 million — 50% of that goes to something called the Heart DAO [decentralized autonomous organization], which is a public wallet that all of the heart holders own together,” Cullen explains. “So all the heart holders just made $5 million, and right now there’s 5,000 heart holders, so they’ll each get $1,000. The people who worked on it most will get potentially $100,000 or even $500,000. And it’s instant — you don’t have to wait on anyone to get it to you.”

Other perks of being a heart holder include a grant program, under which members can pitch their art projects and receive funding from the Heart Project’s wallet based on a community-wide vote, as well as a charity component to ensure the collective is giving back to their physical communities.

NFTs have drawn criticism for the carbon footprint they leave behind that can be detrimental to the environment. However, Cullen and Meier say they have completely offset the carbon footprint of the Heart Project by paying $4,000 to do so through a service provided by Aerial. They also plan to donate to environmental charities through their endowment fund.

“One of the things people are really worried about is like, ‘Oh my god, it’s bad for the environment,'” Cullen says. “But it’s literally five buttons away to erase your entire carbon footprint, and that’s kind of just a myth.”

Although most of the collaboration is happening on Web3 (a decentralized web software used by the crypto community), Meier has already witnessed the Heart Project’s impact in person.

“There’s already been two people from the Discord who have reached out to me in the past couple of months and they’re working for me now. I’m mentoring them,” Meier said. “So it’s worked in the metaverse, and there’s a lot of physical face-to-face benefits as well.” 

Stefan Meier of the Heart Project Taylor Marie Prendergast

Cullen and Meier’s end goal is lofty: to become as big as a company like Warner Bros. But with more and more artists turning to the crypto space to monetize their craft, it may not be as wild of an aspiration as it may seem.

“The Web3 world essentially started this infrastructure where it’s all about transparency. It’s all about shared ownership and I think that’s beautiful,” Cullen says. “I think we can really become the next Warner Bros., one of the biggest companies in the creative world, and millions of people can benefit from that. Instead of like, with Warner Bros. — obviously people benefit from watching their entertainment — but one guy owns everything… He’s probably some white dude who is 80 and has 100 houses. And that’s cool, but we’re trying to do something different.”

For Cullen, it all comes back to making a career in the art field livable for everyone who wishes to pursue it.

“If there’s one thing we can do to inspire people, it’s literally showing them that you don’t need these huge companies to get your ideas in the world and be able to make a living off of art,” he says.

As for Meier, he’s most inspired by the community aspect of the project and its ability to change the competitive nature that is all too pervasive in the industry.

“I’ve had a lot of interactions in the art world that were very isolating and exclusionary and ego-damaging,” Meier says. “I want to give people the opposite feeling — giving people an opportunity, giving people a voice… We’re creating something that really hasn’t been done before.”