During Pride Month earlier this year, Seattle artist Rudy Willingham was looking for a way to create something meaningful to celebrate the positivity he saw in the city and around the world. He took inspiration from Lil Nas X and his song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and stitched together 81 photographs of the rapper with his clothing cut out to reveal background imagery like flowers, a rainbow and a sunset.

It was a simple concept that Willingham had been perfecting for some time and the TikTok video turned out to be a stunning example of stop-motion animation, garnering 15 million views and catching the attention of TikTok and Lil Nas X, who will be releasing Willingham’s work Oct. 6 as part of the social media platform’s first nonfungible token offering. NFTs are effectively digital certificates of authenticity that can be attached to digital art or other digital works such as video clips and audio files.

@rudy_willingham

81 frames printed, cut and shot in camera! Happy Pride Month everybody! ##lilnasx ##pridemonth ##foryourpride ##prideanthems

♬ MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) – Lil Nas X

“NFTs are obviously very techie, very digital, very forward thinking, but my art style is very analog, so I think it’s a cool marriage of the two,” Willingham said. “It’s sort of TikTok’s way to reward creators for their content and get people a chance to own a piece of viral history, which I think is super cool. TikTok is very pro-creator and trying to make sure you get paid for all your work and help you reach audiences you never thought you could.”

The NFT collection, called TikTok Top Moments, will feature five other collaborations, including Bella Poarch and Grimes; Curtis Roach and COIN ARTIST; FNMeka and RTFKT; Jess Marciante, Gary Vaynerchuk and x0r; and Brittany Broski and Grimes. Each of the six collaborations will result in a one-of-one NFT, meaning only one of that digital creation will be sold, as well as limited-edition NFTs. The one-of-one NFT will be auctioned, while the limited-edition NFTs will be dropped weekly in October, both on tiktok.immutable.com.

The limited edition NFTs will feature the TikTok video itself, while the one-of-one will have an additional portion created by Lil Nas X’s team that is a “digital world” based on his album’s cover art and some of Willingham’s work. 

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“It’s kind of similar to his album cover, it’s this very trippy and beautiful and colorful Lil Nas X world, and parts of the world are inspired by the video I shot,” Willingham said. “You can loan it to a museum, you can have friends over to see it. There’s kind of scarcity involved in it, which is cool. It’s not just my video, they created something new and fresh, which is really exciting.”

Seattle artist Rudy Willingham photographs one of his cutout art of Lil Nas X. (Reagan Willingham)

This is a huge and largely unexpected career moment for Willingham, 36, who just a year and a half ago was facing the tough realities of the pandemic. With his small social media agency suddenly reeling, Willingham was forced to apply for entry-level corporate jobs and could not get a call back.

With his first child due soon, it was a dire time, leading him to turn to TikTok for a creative outlet. Soon, his videos featuring everyone from Donald Trump to sports stars like Russell Wilson started to go viral, attracting millions of views.

“Things just sort of blew up really quickly,” Willingham said. “Their algorithm is really good at helping you reach an audience that is hungry for it. It’s just been insane.”

Now that he has a level of fame and eyes on his work that would have been a fantasy a short time ago, Willingham isn’t taking anything for granted and said he wants to keep pushing himself to make art that connects with people.

“I definitely want to keep evolving,” Willingham said, adding he hopes to make a proper music video with someone soon. “My career has been very spontaneous. My main goal with my art is to just create a little pop of positivity on the internet. The world feels very negative sometimes and very scary sometimes, and I feel like my stuff can kind of break through and make people smile.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.