Pavel Skazkin, a Russian prisoner is making a living out of selling his artworks as NFTs under the name Papasweed to support his family and his fellow inmates.
Every morning, Pavel Skazkin wakes up at the behest of law enforcement officials while the Russian national anthem plays in the background. The guards check on him four times a day. The prison he lives in is not as strict as the colony he was sent to at the age of 27 after being caught with a pack of marijuana and ecstasy. Inmates at their current residence can leave the guarded area to visit their workplace in a nearby city and use internet-connected devices. In the latter case, he has found a creative outlet, a sense of purpose - and, thanks to the fast-growing NFT market, additional income to supplement the prisoner's salary of $140 per month.
Skazkin, now 31, creates surreal digital art on the iPad and sells the work of irreplaceable tokens (NFT) under papasweed - a game about criminal charges, family history and self-reflection after four years in prison. His artistic NFT is also a reflection of his life and the essence of the Russian penal system. To help others experiencing similar difficulties, Skazkin pledged to donate a third of the proceeds from the sale of the NFT to Russia Behind Bars, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping prisoners and their families.
“I know how hard it is to be in prison and waiting for a family member to come out,” the artist said in an interview. "I want to help." Skazkin's story is a wonderfully dramatic example of how the current wave of noise and speculation surrounding the NFT sometimes offers new avenues for supporting causes such as human rights, victims of domestic violence and independent journalism.
Skazkin began painting sketches of his future for the NFT while in a penal colony in Russia's Bryansk region - 200 miles from his home in the Moscow region - where he was originally stationed in 2017 after serving six years in prison. All communications and electronic devices are prohibited at the facility.
Three years after his tenure, Skazkin successfully appealed the lighter sentence and was transferred to his current whereabouts, also in Bryansk. And he immediately started turning his drawings into digital art, he says. He sold his first prison-inspired NFT at an affordable price to Hic et Nunc, a lesser-known NFT marketplace that runs the Tezos blockchain and has lower transaction fees than the dominant NFT platform, Ethereum.
So Skazkin joined the Russian-speaking NFT community and joined the Telegram group NFT Bastards, a free artist group that this year sold NFT to help Russian online media Meduza. Then NFT dealer Ilya Orlov noticed the unusual artist in the chat and thought he would be happy to help. “The first thing we have to change [in Russia] is prisons,” Orlov said in a joint interview with Skazkin.
“As long as we torture our own people in this way, nothing can change for the better. We need to make people aware of this, especially now that information [about torture in the Russian colonies] has become public,” added Orlov, citing a recently released video of blood clots of tortured prisoners in one of Russia's prison colonies.
Orlov Helps Skazkin Fund His NFT Cuts; With his prisoner salary of around $140 per month, the artist can barely afford the network transaction fees (called gas fees) to create these tokens on the Ethereum blockchain. Therefore, the smart contract is programmed to automatically divide the proceeds from each NFT sale in three ways: 33% goes to Papasweeds himself to help support his wife and three children, 33% to Orlov for his help and 33% to Russia behind the bar.
Orlov said he thought the prospects for papasweed were great. "In the West, people value and respect the suffering and suffering of Russia, because that is the popularity of Dostoevsky," he said. "I said [Skazkin] you get it for free, we get a US visa, and we're going to have an exhibition for you in New York.
After being released two years later, Skazkin plans to cut 72 or 66 + 6 NFT as it says on its Foundation page, a prestigious platform to invite only NFT artists. While 666 is the biblical number of the beast, for Skazkin 66 + 6 is just a good number, the artist said. He originally planned to do 666 NFT by the time he was arrested, but later realized that there wasn't enough time before his planned release in 2023. So, 666 became 66 + 6.
Skazkin, a not-so-successful web designer by profession, was already working in 2017 at an illegal online shop operated by RAMP, a previously popular black network marketplace that was shut down by Russian authorities that same year. One day he was hired to pick up a packet of drugs and deliver it to a seller, who would then break the batch into smaller pieces and ship them to online shoppers.
Skazkin was arrested with this marijuana by the police and sentenced to six years in prison for drug trafficking. Prosecutors asked for a 10-year prison term, but Skazkin, a father of three, received six years. After serving part of his sentence, Skazkin was able to file a lawsuit and win a lighter sentence, even though there was no lawyer to help him draft court documents, he said. (The report is supported by Olga Romanova of Russia Behind Bars.) "I studied in the prison library, I read the laws," he said.
When asked about his nickname, Skazkin said it was a combination of several things. The nickname "father" stuck to him after he became a father of three children. "Weed" is ambiguous: refers to Skazkin's drug-related crimes; Kosyak, Russian slang for error or worse error, is also the same word for compound. Skazkin spoke openly about the allegations and his experiences in prison. He must have been arrested for the right reasons, he said. However, he considered the punishment too severe. His first NFT paper at the Foundation, Hall of Shame, featured a judge and a child crying in a courtroom - a metaphor for how he remembers his own trial.
"I felt like a child being punished for the candy he stole and there was nothing I could do. Anything I said would sound like baby talk," she recalls. Spending several years in a Russian prison was a difficult experience, but things have changed for the better, says Skazkin: "I understand my brain is in the right place. I got rid of a lot of complex, useless thoughts, I became more aware. "
However, college fees are expensive. The prison colony near the city of Bryansk, where he spent three years, is considered one of the most brutal penitentiaries in Russia, notorious for beating and torturing prisoners (link to article in Russian). "That's, you know, the real school of humiliation," Skazkin said.
Dark network education
Working on the dark network helped Skazkin get used to the concept of crypto early on - he already owned Bitcoin in 2017, he said. In prison, he can only get news about cryptocurrencies from newspapers and magazines, or from the rare mention on Russian state television that prisoners are allowed to watch, or from visits by family members.
“In 2017, I saw Bitcoin grow and bite my elbow for being in this place,” he said. In February of that year, Skazkin read Popular Mechanics magazine and saw a story about the famous meme-based NFT Nyan Cat, which retails for 300 ETH and is worth about $590,000 at the last level. “I wonder what kind of NFT is it? Well, I know what cryptocurrency is, I have a bitcoin wallet, but it's also about withdrawals,” said Skazkin. He decided to create his own NFT as soon as he got online.
Olga Romanova, head of Russia Behind Bars, a non-profit organization, said the organization has been raising money with crypto donations for five years, and no less than 30% of all donations now go into crypto business. Russia Behind Bars accepts Bitcoin, Ether, Lightcoin and XRP, according to its website. However, NFT is something new in advocacy. "I can't say I understand digital art. But I understand people who are in trouble but not broken, continue to grow and try to support their families and other prisoners," Romanova said. "It doesn't happen often and that's the only thing that deserves attention and support."