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Real Talk with Artist Grant Riven Yun
Grant Riven Yun opens up about his long term dreams, his anxiety, his art setup, his favorite artists, his workout routine, his mistakes, his go-to Chipotle order, and a whole lot more.
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Now, onto the interview!
A Conversation with Grant Riven Yun
Grant Riven Yun is an artist and medical student based in Wisconsin.
If you spent any serious time in the NFT art world in 2022, you know about Grant Yun. Over the course of the year, Grant’s reputation went from niche to iconic.
Grant’s first sale of 2022 was A Quiet Day In The Neighborhood for 8.88 ETH. Nine months later, Marble Quarry sold for 69.69 ETH. (Those were both primary sales. He also saw a record secondary sale for 136.9 ETH for his iconic piece The Alien.)
Besides working on his ascendant art career, Grant is also a full-time medical student and an impressive recreational breakdancer.
Grant and I got together on Zoom over coffee on a gray December morning. He had gone on a bit of a bender the night before - a late-night, whiskey-fueled art gallery tour (more on that in this interview) - but he was nonetheless focused and gregarious during our time together.
He wore a black tee and a chain around his neck. His Zoom backdrop was curated - I spotted a Fidenza and a Chromie Squiggle, as well as work by other artists and an assortment of Grant’s own art. Grant is clearly a thoughtful man who pays attention to detail and presentation.
I was impressed by Grant’s vulnerability and his openness to honestly discussing difficult or taboo topics like death, anxiety, and money - he is refreshingly straightforward. And while he seems quite serious on the surface, he is also playful and funny.
During our 90 minutes together, we covered a lot of ground. Some of the topics we discussed include:
Grant’s workout routine
What he wants to learn more about in 2023 (it’s BIG)
His relationship with death
His struggles with anxiety
His breakdown of one of his favorite pieces of art (by a traditional artist)
His technical art setup
Early mistakes he made in his NFT journey
What makes someone good at Twitter
What a “rich life” means to him
Whether Bored Apes, Punks, Squiggles, and PBR are overrated or underrated
His Chipotle order
The most underrated city in America
Artists he has his eye on
….and much more!
I hope you enjoy this conversation with Grant Yun as much as I did.
p.s. If you are receiving this post by email, it is likely too long for your email provider. You may read this full post online at themontyreport.com/p/grant
A Conversation with Grant Riven Yun
Monty: I've noticed on Twitter you've been posting some photos at the gym. Can you tell me about your current workout routine?
Grant: I split my days between push and pull. On my pull days, I focus on my back and my biceps. On my push days, I'll work on my triceps and my chest. And then I have a day for cardio, which is the day that I dance [Editor’s Note: Grant is a very accomplished breakdancer].
I've always prioritized cardio over everything because I want to be heart-healthy. So if I have an hour at the gym, I'll try to make sure I always get at least 30 minutes in of running or something.
Besides working out, what does a day in the life of Grant Yun look like these days?
I'm super routine-based, so I need to have at least a solid hour just for myself in the morning.
For med school, you rotate between clinical sites and specialties. So for example, if I was on the surgery rotation, I'd have to wake up at 4:00 AM every day, because I would have to report by 5:00 AM. But on the less intense specialties, like family medicine and psychiatry, I report at 8:00 in the morning.
So right now I wake up at six, I'll have a good coffee, do some studying for a little bit, do my good mornings on Twitter. Then I'll take my shower and head out the door and get to work at eight. Then I just work until they let me go. That's anywhere between 3 and 5 PM.
Then if it's a day that I'm working out, which is five or six days out of the week, I'll go straight to the gym. After my workout, I'll go home, have some dinner, and either illustrate or I catch up on work, and then I'll go to bed.
So most of your art happens at night?
Yeah, I try to front-load all the schoolwork I have in the morning. And in the evening is when I actually illustrate.
“I want each subsequent year of my life to be better than the last one.”
What’s your specialty in med school?
I'm going to go into general practice, like family medicine. It is definitely an easier specialty than surgery or something, so it’s more conducive to having an art career.
You recently wrote, “I see life as an opportunity to learn as much as possible.” What are some things outside of digital art or medicine or breakdancing that you want to learn about in 2023?
I want to get to know myself better in the sense that I’d like to get to the bottom of why I'm here as a human. I know this is probably impossible because this is the bane of human existence. But it's part of the reason why I'm an artist. And it’s part of the reason why I'm in healthcare. And it’s why I studied religious studies in college.
I want to understand our purpose. It's very difficult. I mean, obviously, it's almost an impossible subject to grasp. But I would like to get closer to that, to help me be more satisfied with my life.
That’s a big goal! It reminds me of another thing you once said: That one of the reasons you became a doctor and why you create art is because you're scared to die. Can you tell me more about your current relationship with death?
No one really talks about death until it happens. And then it's a disaster.
And even if you do talk about it, I think it's very difficult to wrap your head around this thought that one day you're just not going to be here no matter who you are, or how healthy you are.
Four or five years ago I told myself that I want each subsequent year of my life to be better than the last one.
That doesn't necessarily mean it has to be a monetary thing or a status thing. Obviously, more money or prestige can improve your life, but I'm hoping as I get older, the main reasons why I think each new year is the best year of my life come from the relationships I make with people and the life experiences that aren't so superficial.
I love that. It reminds me of something I heard once and have never forgotten, which is the idea that every day when you wake up there is a possibility that it could be the best day of your life. But if you're not open to that possibility, then it probably won't be. We have to remember that and be open to it in order for it to manifest.
Besides death, are there other fears that you have that you think about?
I'm never genuinely scared about anything besides death, but I am an anxious person. I’m constantly on edge about a lot of things.
Where do you think that anxiety comes from?
I think it’s just a psychiatric thing. I think I could benefit from taking one of those generalized anxiety medications just to mellow me out, but I haven't gotten around to it.
“If I'm able to just realize in the moment that I'm anxious, then I think that's the biggest step towards controlling my feelings.”
It’s not super debilitating or anything, but I do always have this baseline anxiety. Even as a kid, I was anxious. When I was in college, there would be moments while I was studying when I would have trouble breathing.
I figured out the problem in high school. I was on the Speech and Debate team, and sometimes during the debates, I would get really short of breath.
For the longest time, I thought it was asthma. So I did the tests and went to the doctor. And then one day, I went to urgent care. And the doctor just looked at me for a second and said, “Oh, yeah, you're hyperventilating because you had a panic attack.”
Since then, I've been able to manage my symptoms so much better, because I’ve understood the cause.
How do you do that? When you're feeling anxious what to do you do?
Now if I get anxious, I just try to become aware that I am feeling anxious.
I think sometimes you don't even realize it. But if I'm able to just realize in the moment that I'm anxious, then I think that's the biggest step towards controlling my feelings.
You observe your condition in a more neutral, removed way.
Right. What is the word for? It’s like I become more lucid.
“I genuinely enjoy driving. It literally doesn't matter where I'm driving, even if it's the same route I take every day. There's always something I see on the road that strikes me - maybe it's someone standing there and walking around, or maybe the weather that day is extra foggy or extra bright, or anything really.”
A big theme that is apparent in your art is the idea of finding beauty in everyday things we take for granted. What are a few everyday or mundane things that have brought you beauty or joy into your life recently?
I genuinely enjoy driving. It literally doesn't matter where I'm driving, even if it's the same route I take every day.
There's always something I see on the road that strikes me - maybe it's someone standing there and walking around, or maybe the weather that day is extra foggy or extra bright, or anything really.
I think this is reflected in the art that I create. A lot of it does look like you're looking straight out of the window of a car or out of an airplane. I like to depict snapshots of imaginary slices of life.
I read that when you first saw Grant Wood’s painting, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, you were totally engrossed. Tell me more, what is it about that piece that made you feel so strongly?
When I first looked at this piece, I remember just thinking to myself that the perspective was very unique - this eagle-eye view.
It is also unique in its style and to me, it’s very reminiscent of early-2000s and late-90s video games. The houses are very boxy and there are a limited number of shapes and a limited color palette. Grant Wood does a great job of doing a lot with a little.
I think it's unique to see a nighttime piece, and there’s so much interesting contrast in the lighting which helps draw the viewer’s attention to what's going on.
And then there's this whole story to be told. Of course, there is the church and Paul Revere right underneath. And then there's a story to be told in each house. Some of the houses are dark, so maybe they're sleeping, or maybe they're not there. The house on the left bottom corner, there's a person looking out their window, so that person was probably asleep and then heard Paul Revere. And then there are the people towards the middle bottom with their lights on. And so they probably know what's going on. Each house has a story of its own. So I love the big storytelling aspect of this piece.
And I didn’t even mention the background - the rolling hills and the mountain. There's so much depth to the painting.
So I think all of that combined really was what made this piece so engrossing to me.
Walk me through your art setup. What specific software and tools do you use?
I use Adobe Illustrator on my Macbook Pro. The reason I often use my laptop is that most of the time I prefer using my trackpad over a mouse. I think being able to use your finger or multiple fingers is quite helpful.
So iPad, no Apple Pencil, none of that?
No. I don't draw like that. My work is more like collage art, where I take a shape and then I put another shape next to it or stack it on top of it - rather than illustrating the whole piece.
Now let’s step back from the tools, and I want to dig deeper into your success. One of my favorite podcasts is “Conversations with Tyler” by economist Tyler Cowen. During most episodes, he asks his guests to describe their individual “production function.” In other words - what factors drive their success? What’s their secret sauce to accomplishing big things? I love that question and I am going to borrow it - What is the Grant Yun production function? What is special about YOU that makes you successful?
Three or four years ago I wrote a note to myself that said, “Before I retire as a doctor I’m going to be a famous artist.”
That’s what I told myself. This was before NFTs and I had zero idea of how to become a successful digital artist as someone with zero formal art background. But I told myself that I will get to the point where my art is at an auction house. Because at the time I thought that the highest achievement an artist could obtain is being at Sotheby's or Christie's.
“Three or four years ago I wrote a note to myself that said, ‘Before I retire as a doctor I’m going to be a famous artist.’”
So even though I was extremely busy with undergrad and medical school and volunteering and all that, I think because I had this very specific goal of obtaining this particular achievement, I made sure I took as many little steps as I could along the way. So I think it really just comes down to long-term dedication to a goal. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, especially when I started in NFTs, but I just kept going.
What mistakes are you referring to?
A couple of things.
I minted a lot of different styles at the beginning. Someone messaged me one day and was like, "You're minting a lot of different styles. You should just pick one." They didn't say it that bluntly. But they basically said that. So I picked one style and I ran with it, and here I am today.
That said, I think minting a lot of different styles was a personal mistake for me, but I'm not going to put that on other artists. Other artists should feel free to mint whatever they want. But picking one style was helpful for me.
Another early mistake I made is that I had no idea people use Twitter to the extent that they do. So when I first started, all I would do is just post my art and then turn Twitter off, and then I wouldn't come back to it until the next time I needed to post about my art.
But the moment I realized that people actually use Twitter as a tool for business is when I realized how I should be operating as an artist. So that's another mistake that I think other artists could learn from is just being on Twitter.
What makes someone good at Twitter in your opinion?
Long story short: knowing the inside jokes.
First of all, nothing that I'm saying is like, "you have to do this" because there are many good successful artists in the space that don't do exactly what I'm about to say.
But being aware of all the random stuff that's going on in the space, having an opinion about it, and then having a thick skin and being able to take a joke is also really important, as is joking around.
Being aware of what's going on is important. Everything from the high-level stuff like FTX all the way down to the stuff that we talk about in the art space, like the conversation that is happening right now about operator filters.
Just being on top of what other artists are doing - knowing that Art Blocks just did their 24-hour stream, or XCOPYs Grifter party, or Cockpunch and what people were saying about the reveal.
You don't have to share explicitly your opinion on each of those things, but even having the knowledge to make your own opinion and then comment if it comes up is very important.
Finally - I would also say that you should make a GM post every day. I actually do think is really important.
I don't know my GM streak, but I think it's at least since the beginning of this year. I don't think I've missed a single day. Like when I was on my surgery rotation and I had to wake up at four in the morning and start operating at six, I just scheduled my Good Morning post for the next day like at seven or 8 AM when most people on web3 wake up. I don't do this, but you could technically schedule an entire year's worth of good mornings. Tiny little things like that actually go a really long way.
This question came from someone on Twitter. Do you have any future plans to do any more open editions or larger editions to onboard more collectors who can't afford your smaller editions or 1-of-1s?
I’ve learned that you can't please everyone. A lot of people asked me about doing an open edition, and I just say “I had an open edition this year.” It was open. It was $300. And it was open to the public. So will I have one in 2023? I’m not sure yet. I might. Or I might do other kinds of editions. We’ll see.
I was talking to a collector the other day who came over to my house. He told me, “People should still work hard and have to put in effort to get a piece from you.”
I can’t satisfy everyone. If you want a piece from me, just like I've put a lot of work into doing the things that I do, as a collector you should put in some work as well.
So - no promises for next year is all I'm saying.
“I can’t satisfy everyone. If you want a piece from me, just like I've put a lot of work into doing the things that I do, as a collector you should put in some work as well.”
Zooming out 10, 20 years - in your dream world, what does your career look like?
In terms of medicine, I'll be a doctor and hopefully, my practice will be in California. I haven't really thought too far ahead on that side of things. Mostly because medicine is a pretty standardized career with a clear formula and trajectory.
For art, on the other hand, my career could disappear much more easily. Or I could become one of the top artists. I'm really goal-oriented, and in 10 or 20 years my ultimate dream would be to be exhibited at some of the bigger museums in the world. There's going to be a lot of work to get to that point. Not only from me, but also from a museum standpoint, and from a web3 standpoint.
But my ultimate goal is to be in the same conversation as Warhol or other super-famous artists that have become a staple in our society.
You are making a lot more money now than you were before. How has this fairly sudden change in your financial status affected your life and psyche? Has it been a smooth transition or have there been difficult parts of your financial transition - personally, psychologically, in your relationships, or any other way?
I'm anxious about my taxes, just because everything is so up in the air and new, even if you do everything correctly. I'm just gearing up to get audited.
But besides that, not a lot has changed.
I mean my financial situation has definitely been life-changing. But also, I don't view myself any differently. I make 1000% sure that I don't treat anyone else differently than before. Obviously, I can’t talk to or respond to everyone, due to the sheer number of people that want to talk to me now. But if I do end up talking to someone, I make sure I give them my full attention.
My car is the same. I still fucking have duct tape on my car because of a dent on my door. I'm not going to ever fix it. I'm just gonna drive that until it goes to the ground. It's a Mazda CX5. I really like that car.
I live in the same apartment, and I think all my other expenditures haven’t changed much, besides buying more art. I live pretty frugally. Hopefully, I can buy a house one day, but that’s my only real big financial goal.
I will never downplay the money I've made because I know a lot of people want to get to this point as an artist. But as I said before, my ultimate goal is not to make a bunch of money, but to be recognized alongside other great artists.
“My ultimate goal is to be in the same conversation as Warhol or other super-famous artists that have become a staple in our society.”
Besides saving for taxes, what are you doing with your money? Buying more ETH? Investing it in the stock market? Or just sitting on cash? How are you managing that right now?
I take a lot out for my taxes and for my savings account. Then, because I get paid in crypto, I keep some ETH and I don’t really look at it. I don't really care about the ups and downs, because I try to take out enough cash where I'm comfortable.
I don't invest in the stock market. I might eventually, but I really just invest in a lot of art, as you can see behind me. I got that Fidenza, and I got a squiggle, and I'm trying to buy some more physical art. I don't think I'll resell any of that stuff anytime soon.
My financial advisor looked at my portfolio, and she was like, “You need to get out of all this crypto stuff.” [Laughs]
They’re basically obligated to say that, even if they have no understanding of the space.
Besides money, what does a rich life mean to you?
For me, a rich life is staying busy.
I think there have been moments in my life when I didn't have very much to do. For example, when I used to work freelance while I was applying to medical school.
I had over nine months to do literally nothing. I worked freelance, and I did some illustrating during the day and I took some photographs, but that can only take up so much of the day. Then the rest of the day I wasn’t doing anything. And I think that's the most unhappy I've ever been in my life.
I don't want to put my parents on blast here, but my dad definitely is a workaholic. My mom is a workaholic, my whole family is a workaholic family honestly.
Seeing the work they put in, I finally understand why they do it. I also find enjoyment in having a goal. I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with my life if I achieve everything there is to achieve.
For me, happiness comes from being motivated. Whether it's raising a kid, having an art career, or going through medical school.
Staying busy with all of these goals I have is the richest life I can imagine.
Are there any traditional, non-digital artists whose physical artwork you would love to own at some point?
Yeah. First and foremost, Edward Ruscha’s Standard Station. It is a mass-produced signed and printed set of his work. It is the ultimate gold standard for printmaking, I think the last one sold for 500k. The prints are signed, and they're “mass-produced,” [emphasizing quotes with his fingers] but they're all individually very unique and different. Owning one of those would be amazing.
I'm a huge Josef Albers fan, and I actually bought one of his prints - a signed print and I'm getting it framed. But having an original Josef Albers would be really cool. I'm very much a fan of minimal abstract artists from the 1900s who really explore colors.
It may take a really long time to acquire any of these. But they are on my list.
Have you had any tension or conflicts with friends or family over your decision to go big into the NFTs/crypto?
No, because I don't ever really tell anyone about it. I mean, my parents know, and my fiancee and her parents know, and my very close friends now.
But besides that, I try not to tell anyone - like people in my medical school for example don’t really know, and I don’t really bring it up.
You recently got engaged - what are your top tips for a happy relationship?
I know everyone says this, but communication. I've been with Dana for almost seven years now. So it's been a while. And we're really young, which can be a hard time to be together since we're both trying to figure out what our lives are about.
It’s important to be really open to talking about things, even when you're uncomfortable. I really appreciate it when people are open and willing to be vulnerable. I just personally feel like if you're not totally vulnerable with the person you plan on living with for the rest of your life, then who are you going to be vulnerable with?
Let's play a quick game called overrated/underrated. I'll just say something and you tell me if you think it's overrated or underrated:
Underrated because he has a painting of a Dachshund and Dachshunds are the best breed.
I actually have a cookie cutter that Eric [Calderon] gave me. I plan on making some cookies later tonight. Hopefully I can make the best fucking Chromie Squiggle cookie out there.
Wow, that’s amazing. So you’re going to glaze them?
I've been thinking about it all night. I might buy a rainbow sprinkle pack and sort every individual sprinkle to its individual colors.
Well if you do a hyper squiggle, that'll be a lot of work!
OK, back to the game: The Midwest.
Underrated for me. Probably overrated for the vast majority of people.
Overrated - I mean I like it, it’s fine.
Are you a beer drinker?
I do like my beer. Yeah.
What's your shitty cheap beer of choice?
[Laughs] Well, it is PBR.
What's your PFP of choice?
A Punk, for sure.
Alright, well thank you for indulging me with that game. Now let’s wrap up with a few rapid-fire questions.
What's your favorite Neil Young song?
Probably Old Man. But really that whole album - Harvest. My family lives in California, on the edge of farmland. When I was younger I would listen to a lot of Neil Young and drive around the area. That's where I gathered a ton of inspiration for my art - and you can see it in my series on California. It's hard for me to put into words but Neil Young has honestly had a huge influence on the way I illustrate.
What other music that you're loving right now?
Pink Floyd. Their album Wish You Were Here is definitely one of my favorite albums of all time. And The Dark Side of the Moon paired with the Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest things I've ever seen in my life.
Guns and Roses. When I was in middle school, I found my dad's iPod and playlists and CDs. A lot of stuff I like is just from him. Pink Floyd and Guns and Roses and the Eagles.
I really like Tyler the Creator. He’s a musical genius. I really like Stevie Wonder. I'm a huge funk jazz person. In recent years, my tastes have evolved from just classic rock to more funk.
If you had to articulate a mantra for 2023, what would it be?
Be cautious of the opportunities I'm offered.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
[Laughs] Well, I was super hungover and I puked all night. Last night I drank a bunch of whiskey and went out to art galleries.
I started drinking some whiskey and my plan was just to illustrate a little and then call it a night. But then some people that I know called and invited me to go out. I had rain checked on them for like three months straight, so I felt so bad and I just said alright, I'll go out. I'm already like half a bottle of whiskey down at this point. I take my Uber to meet them, and then we just do shots and then I swing by galleries, and when I get home I puke nonstop.
So for breakfast today I just had a banana and some Pepto Bismol.
This one comes from someone on Twitter: What's your Chipotle order?
I have IBS. It's not terrible. It's not like I have diarrhea every day or something but I do have quite a sensitive stomach, and the amount of fiber I can have is a delicate balance - like I know the amount of fiber I need to eat every day now.
Whenever I eat Chipotle, I order black beans, and then I split my rice - half brown rice, half white rice, and typically it's chicken, and sometimes steak. It's always a bowl, with a tortilla on the side. Then I'll have all the salsas, but a little bit less of the hot one because that one kills me. I do all the toppings - cheese, sour cream, lettuce, and guac. And then chips - if I made a sale that day.
That reminds me of the story of how Warren buffet splurges for the slightly nicer breakfast option at McDonalds on mornings when the market is up, and gets the more basic option on mornings when the market is down.
Are there one or two pieces of your work that you are particularly proud of? Or that you think are underrated?
I have a piece titled Midwest on SuperRare was the genesis of my entire style. It was the first piece I created after I saw The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere that we discussed.
This was way before NFTs, and I created that piece and I really liked it, so I posted it on Reddit, and it made it to the front page of Reddit, which is when I knew I created something very special. So it is very personal to me because I think it's what started all of this.
It’s owned by Artifaction, and I know he has his own reasons why he owns the piece as well. I think he is very emotionally connected with it also.
If I had more money to spend, I would probably curate a really good set of Art Blocks around my Fidenza - pieces that look good with it. I might hack away at that goal slowly.
What are 1 to 3 NFTs in your wallet that you're planning to hold on to for the very, very long run? Or maybe forever?
Definitely my Squiggle. I don’t think I’ll ever sell that.
I will try my best never to sell the Fidenza. On the other hand, it is a lot of money, so just being realistic, I might sell it someday.
I own a Jeff Davis one-of-one on SuperRare that I don't think I'll ever sell.
I have a one-of-one painting from an artist called Almendra that's on the wall here behind me. I bought it for like 1.5 ETH or something and it came with the physical painting. I don't ever plan on selling that.
What are one to three NFTs or artists or collections that are on your 2023 wishlist?
Definitely a Punk. If I didn't have such a definitive profile picture, I would totally get a Punk immediately, but it's a little bit difficult when my personal identity is around the profile picture I have.
So I don't have the desire to switch my profile picture to a Punk. But I definitely think Punks are a good long-term play. Not financial advice by the way, but I think that they will outperform most projects over the long run.
Is there any style of punk that particularly resonates with you?
Yeah, I would want one that looks like me. So one with black hair. I like the ones with messy black hair. Maybe glasses too, it'd be cool to have the glasses.
What's an underrated city in America?
Minneapolis. It's probably one of the most beautiful cities I've ever been to. Some people on the coasts don’t realize this, but it’s very much a big city with a lot going on.
Besides your Twitter, how can people best keep up with you and your work?
But if you want to reach to out to me, do that on Twitter (@GrantYun2).
Thank you for reading!
Please note that this conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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