Micah Johnson joined the Los Angeles Dodgers Major League Baseball club shortly after being invited to discuss his hobbies by the team’s manager, Dave Roberts. Johnson grew up playing piano, but he opted to pretend painting was his pastime instead because he was afraid Roberts “may wheel a piano” into the locker room. Roberts commissioned him to paint a picture of legendary Dodgers pitcher Maury Wills.
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The picture, according to Johnson, was “awful.” “It was terrible. But some of the players in the locker room were legends to me as a kid… They came up to me afterwards and complimented me on how excellent it was.”
That was a watershed moment for Johnson, since the compliments from his heroes convinced him that his painting talents weren’t half terrible. That image, and his colleagues’ responses, unknowingly laid the seed for his second career as a professional artist.
That career didn’t happen by accident. Johnson had a couple art shows while playing for the Dodgers, including one at Dodger Stadium and another in Atlanta. When he resigned from baseball in 2018, he discovered that pursuing a career as an artist would be difficult. “Once I took off the jersey, there wasn’t the same fascination of this baseball player who also happens to be a painter,” he explained. “No one was waiting in line to buy my paintings anymore.”
After a year and a half of “grinding,” Johnson was finally able to get his art back into a gallery in the summer of 2020. Johnson, a renowned workaholic, didn’t let the time difference deter him. He put his heart and soul into painting, just as he had put his heart and soul into baseball when he’d get up at five or six a.m. to “go bat off a tee by myself.”
Johnson’s perseverance paid off, but even before his work was accepted back into galleries, he saw the results of his effort when he dabbled in the non-fungible token (NFT) art market after learning about it on Twitter and Discord. His first NFT, “.15 Seconds,” a looping picture of a baseball hitter receiving a pitch, was acquired in February 2020 for the equivalent of roughly $1,000 at the time. He stated, “That altered my life.”
Today, Johnson is the creator of a project that goes well beyond art and NFTs — with his character Aku, a small child wearing an astronaut’s helmet, he’s created a whole universe. When his nephew questioned if astronauts might be Black, he got the idea for the character. Johnson began painting 6-by-6-foot canvases depicting his nephew wearing an astronaut’s helmet in answer to his query.
“I’d FaceTime him and show him these paintings, and seeing him as this big picture was rewarding in a way that the other work I was making wasn’t,” Johnson said.
That concept became the Aku world, which includes a collectable animated film series, an interactive gallery display at Art Basel Miami, and the Akutars, a 15,000-piece NFT profile picture project. It was also the first NFT, according to Johnson, to be optioned for TV and cinema in April 2021. Trevor Noah, Pusha T, and Tyra Banks are among the celebrities who have invested, resulting in millions of dollars in sales.
Johnson’s triumph, however, has not been without obstacles. Johnson lost $34 million in ETH in April owing to issues with the Akutars’ smart contract. He’s very calm about the situation. “You have to manage problems that are out of your scope as a non-technical entrepreneur,” he remarked.
“I spent $22.5 million of my own money to repay the refunds, put everyone right, and deliver the Akutars.”
And it isn’t obstructing his eyesight. Aku-related productions continued despite the loss. With Aku, Johnson is still trying to “mix the physical and digital worlds.” He still fantasizes of opening an entertainment park based around Aku. More significantly, he doesn’t want Aku to be about NFTs; instead, he wants the technology to serve as the foundation for a larger initiative that encourages individuals of all ages to pursue their ambitions and become who they want to be, not just his nephew.