Aku, the crypto-native NFT character created by artist Micah Johnson, this month launches 15,000 unique 3D avatars named Akutars with designs by Puma, Billionaire Boys Club, IceCream, Paper Planes, Upscale Vandal and Who Decides War.
Each collaborator will create unique one-of-one Akutar designs within the collection launching on the Ethereum blockchain on April 22 and elements from the designs will appear throughout the collection on other Akutars. In addition, Akutars will give owners entry into the Akuverse and access to experiences, products and collaborations.
Johnson said the Akutars team consists of 40 people who create each 3D model in the Unreal engine, which will allow for the characters to go into a virtual world or a potential game in the future.
The Aku founder is a former MLB player from Indiana who played for the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves. He began painting in 2016 and turned more to his art after retiring in 2018, which he described as “therapeutic.”
He learned about NFTs “when it was known as crypto art,” Johnson said, and turned to the art form in addition to painting. “I was able to turn those results into being represented,” he said, and his work had been featured at Art Angels Gallery in Los Angeles.
Johnson said he wanted to reach a broader audience, which inspired Aku, a boy in an oversize astronaut helmet that the artist describes as “childlike” compared to his realistic paintings. While his paintings emphasize the eyes, he created Aku to be faceless and anonymous with a reflective face covering.
“I treat Aku like a diary where I can take some of the things over the years and channel that through Aku,” Johnson explained, confirming that his paintings emphasizing the eyes hearken to his experience being watched on the baseball field in stadiums and on television, and that Aku’s astronaut helmet plays on his being the anonymous creator behind this character.
“I don’t like the limelight and attention so this is a way to get my message out there,” Johnson said. “I had to leverage some of my name and last experiences to get in. I wasn’t selling any art so I had to say, ‘Here’s this former baseball player who is a painter.’ It’s important right now for people to know there’s a Black creator in the space working with Black creatives on this side, because this space is predominantly white.”
Aku has a creative council comprised of two people: Upscale Vandal, who partnered on his own Akutar design, and rapper Pusha T. Summer Watson, Johnson’s partner and president of U.K.-based media company WYE, presented Aku to the two creatives, who have supported the project from its inception.
Johnson introduced Aku with a 10-part series released as chapters from February 2021 to February 2022. The series also allowed Johnson to read wallets and reward users who collected each chapter. Akutars will be given free to chapter holders as well.
As for Aku’s collaborators, Johnson explained that the brands were interested in the character and not about the business. “They saw something in Aku and they felt it represented them and it was about supporting this character with what we’re doing,” he said. “It was organic alignment.”
Aku aligns with Pharrell Williams’ IceCream and Billionaire Boys Club, in particular for their astronaut motifs, as well as Paper Planes for their branding rooted in flight, which now includes space travel with this partnership. Aku closed the Who Decides War Fall/Winter 2022 show in a digital version of the brand’s latest collection.
One benefit the brands have in partnering with Aku is seeing who acquires their Akutar designs, which allows for direct brand communication and giving incentives to holders.