It was a warm and sunny day in Los Angeles, California when the police approached Alex Schaefer, who was minding his own business, painting on the sidewalk. As he worked some passersby stopped to look at the painter’s easel, their faces scrunching in confusion as they glanced from subject to the canvass. Others, smiled, chuckled and snapped a picture before moving on.
Fatefully, one of those curious onlookers actually tipped police off that they might want to have a look at what Schaefer was painting. And as officers approached the artist, they bristled and their eyebrows raised. Indeed, it was curious, verging on alarming.
Schaefer was painting the bank across the street — a Chase Bank — except in Schaefer’s version, the bank was exploding; erupting in flames, smoke billowing into the sky above.
“The police questioned me on the spot,” he recalls. They let him go, but, he says, they were interested enough to send two plainclothes detectives to his home a few weeks later.
“They’d obviously been looking into me,” he says with a shrug. “They were concerned enough that they wanted to meet me and talk more.”
Namely, they just wanted to know: Did he really hate these banks that much?
“Yes,” Schaefer answered simply. He really, honestly does.
“I always look at systems and problems. And all the problems in America — all the disconnected problems — to me, seem to point to the same root problem,” Schaefer says, pausing for effect. “Which is: the money is bullshit.”
Preach it, brother.
Anyway, not long after his visit from the plainclothes detectives, Schaefer’s story erupted online. The tale of this anti-establishment, anti-financial-system, plein-air painter spread like a structure-fire across the internet. And much to Schafer’s surprise, he found himself blowing up on the internet — gaining fame (or infamy?) — slowly building a reputation as the guy who sets banks one fire… with his paint brushes. So he continued, torching one bank after the next, much to the delight of the internet.
“I just think there's so much distortion in markets and what money is and the value of money is so far from its purpose that it's distorting everything. It's distorting culture… It's just bizarre.”
Naturally, Schaefer’s “Burning Bank series” quickly endeared him to one particular community of financial pirate investors: the Bitcoin community. What could possibly represent their libertarian financial movement better than images of long-standing financial institutions like Citibank and Chase erupting in flames and chaos?
It’s the fight-club mentality of the cryptocurrency movement Bitcoin was built on: burn the system down and start a new one.
“The Bitcoin community loves the imagery of banks exploding,” he says. It’s right up their alley — which is why, Schaefer’s burning bank paintings are selling for thousands upon thousands of dollars. “There's just a lot of money [in the Bitcoin community], and people that are interested in collecting art.”
Schaefer recently created his first NFT series as well, he says. Any erudite cryptocurrency traders/collectors out there can now own original digital copies of Schaefer’s artwork — if they can purchase one of these extremely limited versions.
“There's a series of seven of my NFTs out there,” he says. Adding that, they’re extremely affordable right now — he didn’t hype the drop of his crypto art enough, he says. “Because I’m not a good ‘dropper,’ people got a great deal.”
Schaefer also says that he’s happy to trade any of his original artwork for Bitcoin. And it doesn’t just have to be for one of his burning bank paintings, either — Schaefer also paints regular, normal paintings of scenes from around LA, around California and his imagination. When you see past the fire and flames of America’s never-ending money problems, the paintings that lie beneath are serene and reminiscent of Monet or Renoir: impressionistic, vague and dream-like, painted with thick brushstrokes.