“I was the art kid growing up,” Jeff Cole recalls to me, sitting amidst the arid Arizona desert where he and his business partner Mark Mastrandrea have made their home. The duo, who founded Ikonick back in 2017, has come a long way since “slanging prints” in their early days, now responsible for one of the largest canvas brands in the world. I had the opportunity to spend some time with the founders behind Ikonick as they prepared to launch the web3 arm of their brand, Metarelics. The pass launched last week—to immense success. Today, the team has announced the first physical art partner for the print utility which will be offered to pass holders: VeeFriends.
Metarelics Partners with VeeFriends as First Official Physical Art Partner
A dive into the founders behind Metarelics and how the collab came to be
We'll dive into the VeeFriends partnership shortly, but first we have to take it back to Jeff Cole and Mark Mastrandrea's first venture Ikonick and the genesis of the two founders.
“I started making art when I was six years old,” Jeff tells me, adding: “The story goes, I was in preschool and my grandma picked me up one day, and the teacher took her aside and told her to start saving my artwork.” He jokes to me, “I wasn't going to math class and my teachers were like, ‘Hey, let's have your parents come in and talk about your future in math.’” So early on, he knew he was destined for a career in art.
Jeff’s inspirations growing up were a little unorthodox for a visual artist. “I was never one to resonate with artists. My inspirations were athletes and musicians. Jordan, Kanye, those are the people I grew up with in Chicago,” he elaborates, explaining how these people who strived to be the best became his idols.
The recent emergence of documentaries tracking the trajectory of some of these great minds has been eye-opening for Jeff. "Watching the Last Dance uncovered how much of Jordan was ingrained in my personality," he remarks, before summarizing: "These documentaries are starting to unfold and I'm learning a lot about myself through those."
I use Jordan as a metaphor for me to excel in my own lane, and not look at other artists to try to be them.
- Jeff Cole
Jeff enrolled in art classes throughout a lot of his childhood, learning a vast array of mediums as he grew up. But it wasn’t until after college that he began exploring his current expression of digital art. “I was kind of against digital art,” he chuckles to me. “I’m a very stubborn person. I did it out of almost survival. I was a broke college student, had to sell all of my stuff to buy a computer, then I self taught myself photoshop and illustrator. And then started building a portfolio from scratch and started shopping it out on Craigslist.” Through this practice, he landed some gigs doing mixtape artwork and clothing lines, all the way masquerading as a longtime digital artist.
“I started getting into the culture by creating my portfolio and pretending like I knew what I was doing, but in reality I was only 3-6 months in. And I kind of had to pretend like I was this digital artist—when I had just picked it up,” Jeff smiles to me, reflecting on how far he’s come.
As he’s telling me his story, Mark emphatically interjects, “Young prodigy!” to which Jeff softly responds, “I guess.” In many ways, this little interaction embodies so much of the dynamic that has made the duo successful. Mark is bombastic and an exceptionally good talker; Jeff is soft-spoken, an artist’s artist. They are a yin and yang that has culminated in the secret sauce creating a successful art business.
Mark grew up a competitive soccer player, a passion that fostered an early drive to win that courses through him to this day. He views a moment when he disappointingly wasn’t chosen as a “player to watch” as one of the formative moments of his life, “the moment he became a man.” And afterwards, he was more driven than ever to succeed. Never particularly committed to cardio, the day he didn’t get his desired selection reinvigorated a commitment to exercise, which would eventually help him give his high school soccer team their best season of all time. “My friends, it was 2 o’clock and they'd be drunk at Taco Bell, and I'd be running in the middle of the night,” he recalls.
Once he went to college, entrepreneurship entered his life. He tells me a short story about the moment he “became an entrepreneur,” armed with a fake ID, a roommate with a car and a request for alcohol. “They gave us 40 dollars for a 30 pack. I went to the store, discovered Natty Ice. It was six dollars, I get back $34 in change. I go to give it back to them and they go, ‘keep it.’ That was the day that I became an entrepreneur.” He would go on to create a fake menu with upcharged prices, eventually developing a thriving business purchasing alcohol for his fellow students. “Then, I just had an array of different kinds of hustles,” he tells me.
He met Jeff through a mutual friend who recommended he check out the young artist’s work. "Me, being the psycho that I am, I called him right away. We hit it off. And that was the start of me and Jeff's relationship, that was probably 10+ years ago,” he recalls. He became the CMO of a now immensely successful hat brand called Melin. “'I had no business being the CMO of that company, they basically just hired me because I was a scrappy hustler,” he grins to me. He eventually discovered a tattoo artist looking to start selling his work, and through relationships he had built as a “connector in NYC/LA” was able to get the piece in the hands of a Kardashian. "I became a quote, unquote, art dealer.”
In 2015, Jeff had started working with Mark at Melin, and they were broke living in Carlsbad CA. “I realized with my other artist that nobody could afford the art. So I dropped a limited time print. It did very well. And I realized hey, there's a hole in the affordable art market," Mark tells me.
"Jeff's always been brilliant on seeing where the puck is going, and he realized that on IG everyone was posting motivational quotes, pop culture, memes, photography," Marks explains, adding: "And I don't remember whose idea it was, mine or his, but we were like, ‘Hey, let's just start selling some of these canvases through my Instagram.'”
The name of the brand came about as the result of a two part process, browsing through fun and interesting names on GoDaddy while simultaneously reflecting on Jeff's work and what ethos coursed through the majority of his production. “We wanted to kind of redo historic moments through iconic figures,” Jeff explains, elaborating: “Let's create iconic imagery on social media. Memes weren't iconic then, they're just memes. If we recreate them and make them tangible where you can put them on your wall, then they'll become iconic in like twenty years or so."
"And it was available on GoDaddy.com," Mark chuckles.
The Development of Ikonick
"I think we always knew we were going to have success somewhere in life, but I'd be lying if I said that I knew that this was going to be the vehicle to propel both of our careers," Mark remarks to me. Throughout our conversation, Mark often expresses gratitude for Jeff’s development as a business man throughout their careers. His art process pivoted when they started developing artwork to be displayed tangibly in people’s homes, and Jeff is cognizant of that distinction.
"It's all contextual to where it is being displayed. The user behavior is completely different from scrolling on Instagram to looking at it every day on your wall," Jeff explains. When they began creating artwork meant to be displayed, the process was different from just creating digital artwork to distribute online.
That's something that I pride myself on, the psychology of consuming art. That's something I look for first: the intent.
- Jeff Cole
For a little more background on how they built the brand, check out this web series the Ikonick fellas produced back in 2018; and stay tuned for the impending return of "Behind the Hustle: Unlocked."
As numerous brands look toward a future imbibed in the metaverse, concocting a web3-centric arm of Ikonick is a natural next step for Jeff and Mark. “In Web2, it was all about rented distribution, capitalizing off the rise of social platforms like Instagram. We utilized paid marketing to target and convert customers. As we entered into Web3, there is a maniacal focus on community building," Mark tells me as they begin to explain their newest venture, Metarelics. “We view community building as the transfer of knowledge and values between us and our community members,” Mark explains.
Since the boom of NFTs began at the beginning of 2021, Jeff and Mark have felt a lot of pressure to dive in. "Having a large platform in the Web2 space as a digital artist, not jumping in for the last year and a half has been one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," Jeff notes. Wisely, the duo has spent the last year and change sitting back and learning instead of diving in too quickly.
"We’ve been learning for probably thirteen, fourteen months," Mark explains, adding: "The last four or five months, it's been a hyper focus where we've been just really studying, educating ourselves, surrounding ourselves with people that are good in the space. Every single day, making it a focus to allocate time to get smarter." After months of hard work and research, they’re finally ready to allocate the right time and resources to make a real push into the space.
We really do believe that there's going to be a bridge with physical and digital.
- Mark Mastrandrea
For Jeff, Web3 has been different from Web2 partially because of the differences in time constraints. With Ikonick, all rollouts have 60-90 days of preparation, but web3 moves lightning fast. "This space kind of threw a curveball where it's like, every day, the landscape changes," he adds.
"We have to build a car as we're driving it," Mark observes. With all of their swirling knowledge and influence established, they’re ready to dive in.
"Every spectrum of artist has come in, and here I am kind of just sitting and waiting my turn. So now I'm just fired up. We think the stars have aligned for us. The projects we're going to put out are conceptually thought out and we're finally ready. The team is fully built out, and all the missing parts are finally there,” Jeff tells me.
In its most basic form, Mark summarizes Metarelics:
It's an artist collective of different products and experiences that really marry the physical with the digital world.
- Mark Mastrandrea
“It’s just the paths to all things Ikonick and Jeff Cole and any partnerships under our ecosystem," Mark goes on to elaborate.
The Relics Pass
The first drop from the brand was the Relics Pass, which is essentially a membership pass in perpetuity to the future projects minted under the Metarelics umbrella—whether that’s a project from Jeff or a partnership with another bluechip collection.
There are a few things that set Metarelics apart from the flock of other emerging web3 brands. First of all, they already have an unbelievably engaged and hungry community—owed largely to Jeff’s expansive career in digital art.
"One reason our community is so engaged is that my artwork has been so time sensitive. Pop culture, timing is everything for me. Whatever the audience is resonating with in the culture, I usually try and elaborate on,” Jeff explains, reflecting on the symbiotic relationship he has with his community.
Above all, their position at the helm of an already established brand means they have more experience and competency in running a ship of this magnitude.
"Everything that we're doing is taking a lot of formulas, systems and ideas that we've seen from web2 and then just ideating together on how can we tweak these to web3,” Mark elaborates. “I would say that the projects that are going to win are going to have a healthy balance between decentralization and centralization,” Mark notes, explaining the method with which they’ll balance community participation and internal ideation.
The pass launched a few weeks ago and sold out quickly, and is already seeing some insane movement on the secondary market.
The Physical Art Partners and VeeFriends
"Given the fact that we own a canvas company and our business partner is one of the largest printers in the whole world, it was a natural extension for us to add in some ancillary different value, from a canvas perspective,” Mark explains.
Mark goes on to explain one of the first offerings of utility from Metarelics: “Our community's going to get unprecedented access to Ikonick, whether it be discounts, whether it be first looks, whether it be pieces that are unreleased. And then we also just launched a new utility tool where people can connect their wallet and upload and print their canvas." Immediately, they are giving all Relics Pass holders a free canvas of their choice. The brand also plans to offer specific projects and brands that they want to partner with special discounted pricing: "We're going to be very, very curated and selective there."
Today, they formally announced the first partner: VeeFriends.
Anyone who holds a VeeFriend will hear the special offer from the man himself, Gary Vaynerchuk.
To connect your wallet and print your NFT, head to Metarelics.co.
Jeff has already started minting pieces of digital art based on big cultural moments in web3, entitling them “Relic Moments.” Up until the pass released, they were available to anyone, but they sell so fast that you needed to be an unbelievably active member of the community to get the drop in time. Going forward, moments will only be available for Relics Pass holders to mint.
Tying It Up
"We're a real company with real experience in building projects in the art world,” Jeff summarizes. All these projects, from Jeff’s NFT collection to the Relic Moments to the Canvas Utility, are all catered towards creating a long lasting community.
We’re just trying to create all different types of levers that we can pull.
- Jeff Cole
This isn’t a singular drop or a singular project. Metarelics is a burgeoning metaverse brand, drawing in numerous aspects of the rapidly growing community. “We wanted to have all these different curveballs, all these fun, exciting surprises that are relevant and piggy backed on what people know me for,” Jeff wraps up.