With a population of 1,300 people, cutoff from the influx of tourism money, Akumal is a small coastal town located in the Yucatan Peninsula that has often been plagued by government under-funding.
Due to Akumal’s location, its spot on the local government and municipality priority list has continued to be pushed down over the years.
Artistic Masterpieces Lighting Up an Under-Funded Community
At a time where social and environmental degradation has created a multi-divided, broken community, Akumal needed its community to heal.
“Akumal has always been this abandoned pueblo,” said Jennifer Smith, owner of Turtle Bay Bakery and Cafe and founder of the Akumal Arts Festival.
“We were living in this ‘no man’s land’ where we weren’t getting any services and weren’t being treated as we should be. And that’s when I came along. Due to my restaurant and its location, I was very social and acquainted with all the tourists and everyone in trouble. I was really tired of telling people that everything’s okay with our town, when it wasn’t okay.”
Smith, who has lived in Akumal for over 20 years, sat down with us for an exclusive interview to discuss how and why she expanded her focus from running the restaurant into a municipality-driven initiative, working with the town’s succession of mayors to help brighten up Akumal, which has been left unaddressed by the municipality for far too long.
Over the last six years, Smith has been developing the necessary partnerships between Akumal and its delgados, or mayors changing out lightbulbs at the entrance of Akumal and its bridge due to the increasing safety concerns for her staff and employees.
These ‘delgados’, according to Smith act as a liaison between Akumal and its municipality, who have the ability to work with public services to facilitate the changing out of lightbulbs. The problem, however, was that it could often take months for these changes to be made.
As for providing public lighting, safety has continued to be a motivating issue when it comes to helping individuals get from one side of the bridge to the other, as it was dangerous for employees returning home at night without streetlights.
Using NFTs to Immortalize Ephemeral Street Art
Eventually turning her attention to bringing a more consistent and effective cash flow into Akumal, Smith launched the Akumal Arts Festival in 2018, an annual initiative that uses art to help bring awareness of the environment and sustainability into Akumal Pueblo, by bringing together hundreds of artists from around the world and Mexico.
The ultimate vision of the Festival, according to its website, is to help make the Akumal Pueblo a safer, brighter, and more beautiful place for its residents and tourists.
This year’s festival, however, changed the landscape for how Akumal intends to position itself moving forward. For Smith, it was time to change the conversation for Akumal, and focus on how to use art to further conversations on addressing the ongoing socio-political issues the Mexican village has faced for decades.
And the answer to that question rested with non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. As of 2022, the NFT market surpassed $40 billion in 2021, compared to $50 billion in conventional art sales in 2020.
“We can be political with art. We can change the conversation with art. I love color,” Smith told us.
‘NFTs 4 Good’ Helps Fuel Social Change
This year’s festival, which concluded on January 30, brought over 100 artists from Mexico and around the world into its tiny town for three days worth of mural painting, workshops, performances, and local community engagement.
However, it differed from the last three years, thanks to the event’s returning sponsor, Third Rail Art, a hub for street art and digital art lovers that has devoted its time to helping bridge the gap between underrepresented artists and underrepresented communities like Akumal.
The growing landscape for NFTs, or non-fungible tokens has taken our creator economy into an entirely new direction, with centuries-old auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s selling millions of dollars worth of limited edition digital artwork, affording individuals with an opportunity to be recognized for their creativity as well as make some pretty decent money auctioning off limited editions of their work.
For many of these artists, this year’s 2022 Festival was their first time where they were afforded an opportunity to get onboarded and involved in the NFT space. For some artists, the NFT-4-GOOD will be their first NFT. At the end of February, the general public will have the ability to purchase an animated NFT with unlockable hidden content of selected murals painted during the January festival on Third Rail Art’s newly launched NFT platform. The platform, powered by the Hedera blockchain technology, will be making its debut in the next few weeks.
The proceeds from these NFT sales will be donated towards the Akumal Art Festival’s vision of “…beautifying the town for locals and visitors” serving as a new stream of revenue to continue fixing up public services that are still going on unaddressed.
Back in 2019, Third Rail Art launched its “Walls 4 Good” project, whereby each time an artist painted a mural in New York, the company would make a real-time donation to Akumal’s children’s library, which according to Smith, needed serious hygienic work.
“That money was used to focus on actually repairing the septic system and added additional toilets for the kids library. The bathrooms were pretty much non-functional. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and then we were shut down and closed down. We turned the library into a food bank, asking Third Rail Art if we could redirect the funds we had and apply it towards the food bank. They said yes, and we started getting other donations, supplying about 500 families a month food from the food bank.”
At the end of the day, our world is starting to come together to have discussions about how art and technology can truly make an impact in our communities and everyday life. Unfortunately, with any new industry, comes many projects hoping to make it, capitalizing off hype, popularity, and overall ignorance.
The difference between those projects such as Third Rail Art and the Akumal Art Festival that specifically incorporate the blockchain and NFTs into their communities and those projects that are looking to sell out immediately based on powerful social media campaigns and press coverage is the actual utility of what it is bringing to its respective communities.
What Mexico is witnessing is how blockchain technology and digital art, specifically NFTs, can help address the lack of attention under-funded communities like Akumal have unfortunately had to endure through over many years, despite the influx of tourists and cash flow coming into its wealthier areas just across the bridge.