J.J. Weinberg on Art School, His Startup Artunity, and the Nonphysical Wrestling Federation

Since the age of 10, J.J Weinberg knew what he wanted to do. Exactly what he wanted to do. He told his mom that he was going to go to the American Academy of Art. Soon after, he won his first art competition, painting a “Just Say No” poster.

That’s how his journey began.

J.J. always had entrepreneurial aspirations. When he was 13, he bought 20 copies of “Spawn #1” dreaming that someday, he’d open a comic book shop.

He’s still working on it. But he enrolled in the Academy of Art thinking he’d become a comic book artist, studying under the iconic Alex Ross. There, the tutelage of Dr. Trapp helped J.J. develop his own unique style.

J.J. has accomplished a lot since college.

His painting “Midas’ Love – The Gold Kisser” won the Grand Prize award at the 2015 Pop-Up Art Festival, he was nominated for the Kennedy Artist Fellows Award in 2016, and his startup Artunity won the People’s Choice Award for the Startup of the Year in 2019.

What would a 9-year-old J.J. think of himself today?

Man… A 9-year-old J.J. would say, “I told you so!”

Around the age of 10, I told my mom, “I’m going to be an artist.” I already knew that I was going to enroll in the American Academy of Art in Chicago. The great thing about it, she said, “yes, you are!” That was just fantastic.I loved her support.

And yeah, I called it. I felt like Sebastian in The NeverEnding Story. That’s what my life’s been like ever since I was a kid. Serendipitous event, after serendipitous event. 

And you ended up at the American Academy of Arts, right?

Yup. Definitely. It was an interesting experience. The American Academy of Arts is a sort of commercial school. I have a degree in illustration. I wanted to draw comics. When I was around the age of 11, 12, I had plans of opening a comic book store. 

I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, so the school was a great fit for me. When I was 13, I bought 20 copies of Spawn #1. I still have mint condition and all.

The school had a couple of alumni. One of them was Alex Ross. You might be familiar with some of his work. He would come to the school, to show us a few things, and get free models. He took photos of a few of my friends, and they got to be in one of Alex’s books.

Did you learn more about art in school or out of school?

Probably out of school. But I did learn two really important things in art school.

Number one, I learned to trace. Most people think that’s the cardinal sin, but I have never drawn without a reference. Whether you’re doing something realistic or something hyper-stylized, get your lines on  by tracing them first. 

The other thing is a bit more complicated. 

My drawing professor, Dr. Trapp had a saying that stayed with me to this day. First class, Dr. Trapp comes and says, “I’m not going to teach you how to draw. I’m going to ask you to tell me, how do you really see the world?”

And I think that’s such a beautiful thought.  

Can you tell me about the Cubs painting?

Field of Dreams, J.J Weinberg

You’re talking about the “Field of Dreams” painting I did for my dad. Yeah, that’s one of my works that went viral. But that’s not why I really love painting. 

My dad and I never had a Leave It to Beaver relationship. We love each other, of course, but our relationship has had lots of ups and downs over the years. So the painting is a sort of healing totem for me. The idea for the painting was pretty obvious, since my dad is a life-long Cubs fan.

When I was growing up, my dad drank a lot. I think he had aspirations of becoming a professional; ball player. His parents wouldn’t let him chase his dream. He had a pretty toxic relationship with his mom. 

He was an alcoholic and he was violent. I remember being afraid of baseball when I was a kid. When he would drink, he would throw the ball. And he had an arm on him, you know. I really wanted to change our relationship. 

I gave him the painting and recorded it. When you look at the clip, you can see his reaction. 

That piece made it on to ESPN?

Yeah. I shared it to a couple of groups on Facebook. Small Cubs fan groups. But they started sharing it. Bigger groups picked it up. They also shared it, and somehow, it made it to ESPN. It was picked up by a ton of outlets like NBC and Chicago Tribune. It was on SportsCenter top plays. Gary Vaynerchuk saw it back then too. 

How did you meet Gary Vee?

OK, I got in contact with his assistant through LinkedIn. Tyler, great guy, really down to earth. I got his email, and we started talking. At some point, I sent him the painting I did for Gary. After a few days, he hits me up, and asks me if I’m free to come to the office. 

I was like, yeah, I’m free, hell yes. I flew out to New York for a day. I just went to meet Gary. 

He had a meeting when I arrived. Two meetings, actually. I knew how the office looked. I’m a fan. If you watch any of Gary’s stuff, you already know how the office looks. So I’m just standing there, talking to Tyler. Gary walks out the office, to go from one meeting to another.

As he walks by, he smacks me on the ass. Knowing Gary’s energy, I say, “that’s it, I’m filling charges.” It kind of caused a stir, but Gary wasn’t fazed. He just gets in the office, smirks, and winks at me. He does this while he’s in the other meeting. Hilarious. 

I told Tyler that I didn’t want any cameras. I don’t want to show off. I didn’t even take a selfie. But I’m cool with it. I feel it will circle back around at some point. 

How did the idea for Artunity come about?

Liberty or Death, J.J Weinberg

Well, I was broke. Had a $150 bill that was due. And I’m all out of money. I needed to sell something. I had this great 9-by-12-inch illustration. I just needed to sell it for $150. How could I do that? Well, I could crowd-source the money, I thought. 

I came up with the idea of finding 15 people, asking them for $10, and then, randomly, giving the illustration to one of them. And the idea worked perfectly. It allowed people that like art to buy a great piece for a low price. I found 15 buyers, picked one of them, and got my $150.

So I thought, why not create a platform that would allow artists to do this on a regular basis? I got a few angel investors, and raised more than $100,000 for the platform. The hardest part was coming up with the name. I had like 150 different versions. 

But one day, it just came to me. The collectors get the art. Artists get an opportunity to make some money. Artunity. Perfect. 

How does the platform work?

Here’s how Artunity works. If you’re a struggling artist, the platform gives you an entry point into the buyers’ world without any investments, capital, or marketing. The platform exposes you to thousands of potential buyers. Somewhere down the line, you can sell your work to one of them. 

It’s up to the artist to determine the price for their work. Artunity has an algorithm that randomly pulls a user’s number out of a digital hat. Whoever gets selected, they’ll receive the artwork. We take a small percentage of the transaction. It’s a win-win-win situation. 

Can we talk about your wrestling project?

Yeah, my brother and I are creating an NFT wrestling promotion. We’re creating the Nonphysical Wrestling Federation. We have a bunch of different characters ready. And we’re working on more. I have the Million-Dollar Dogecoin Man. We have his entire backstory ready. Another one is Cheeto Santana. And trust me, there’ll be more. 

You can reach out to J.J. via email. Check out his artwork on his website and OpenSea. See his videos on his YouTube channel. Follow him on InstagramTwitter and LinkedIn

If you want to stay in the loop and learn about exciting NFT artists, make sure to follow The Outer Realm on your favorite podcast app. Do you like our talks? Leave a rating and a review!