Inside the “Gold Ball,” the exhibition space is a small but intimate geodesic room, a stark contrast to the colossal size of K11 MUSEA, the culture and retail complex that houses it. The walls are lined with a sundry of flora with a number of encircling rock pillars – each enshrined with their own unique emblems, totems dedicated to animal spirits of a fantasy universe. In the center, a ring of lights dance off the surface of a 24K gold-plated skateboard – the crown jewel of the Azuki’s “Proof of Skate” auction, which hangs suspended mid-air.
While the production crew is completing their finishing touches, an anonymous duo comprising a man and woman, both dressed in black, arrives. The woman pulls down her mask and introduces herself as Whizwang, head of growth for Chiru Labs – the parent company behind the flagship Azuki NFT project. The man is an Asian thirty-something, fairly tall with his hair slicked back in a side part, sporting a pair of round teashades and a plain tee with the phrase “Yo” written across it three times.
He pulls his mask down, “I’m Z…” he says, as we shake hands.
Z, or Zagabond, as he’s known to the wider NFT community, is the key founder behind Azuki, an anime-inspired Web3 brand built in Los Angeles – whose aim is to bridge the gap between physical and digital worlds.
Azuki’s original PFP collection captured the hearts of enthusiasts when it launched in January 2022, selling out in just 3 minutes. Since then, the brand has grown to encompass two other projects: BEANZ – an adorable sidekick collection which is advised by former Sanrio CEO Rehito Hatoyama; as well as Bobu, the Bean Farmer – a character fractionalized for collective governance that was recently sent into space.
For all of Azuki’s achievements as well as the recent controversies he has faced, Zagabond did not exude the bravado and elitism one might anticipate from his infamy nor renown. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, he did not attend parties or visit lavish restaurants. Instead, he spent the little free time he had wandering the various streets of Hong Kong — “getting inspired by the environment,” he describes with a chuckle.
As we sit underneath the golden skateboard, his hands are clasped tensely while still maintaining the nonchalance of his online persona. His moniker’s namesake is inspired by Musashi Miyamoto, the Japanese samurai protagonist from the manga, Vagabond. “The story of Musashi really resonated with me because he became a Vagabond, traveling from place to place, always seeking out new challenges,” he says.
Growing up, Z never stayed in the same place for a long time. He was born in China, moved to Germany when he was six, New York at seven, then moved to New Jersey in middle school. By the time he was 18, he had attended seven different schools. “In each place I moved to, I've always wanted to seek out challenges and push myself – to become the best person I can be.”
In the manga Vagabond, the disenfranchised Musashi came up from nothing – something Zagabond shared while growing up when his family was living in a then-developing China. “It’s crazy… I was thinking the other day, I grew up without [even a running] toilet in our house.".
In the early days of Azuki, his Twitter handle was actually “ZZZagabond” with three Z's. “The vibe of the project in the early days was chill, lo-fi, relaxed. And that's the vibe that I wanted the project to have in the beginning before we turned it up a notch,” he explains. “Once we grew to a good spot, that's when I got rid of a couple of Z's. And now I'm just Zagabond with one Z, that's the origin story.”
As an adult, Zagabond joined tech conglomerates like Amazon and Google, working in their vendor management and advertising departments respectively. “And at both companies I quickly realized that I'm a small piece of this huge machine and even if I did a great job – in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter,” he says. “It didn't sit right that I was spending my day-to-day helping a monolithic business become even bigger.”
Zagabond moved on from Big Tech in 2017 to foray into a grassroots path with 0xProject, one of the first decentralized finance protocols. “Our vision at that time was to democratize access to financial systems in the same way the Internet democratized access to information,” he says.
The appeal of building out a decentralized exchange was clear: the ability to facilitate P2P transactions without the bloat and inefficiencies of middlemen.
Nonetheless, after working on the 0xProject for over four years, Zagabond felt the need to fulfill a creative yearning – a passion stoked by the popularity of NFTs during the era of Dapper Lab’s NBA Top Shot in early 2021. He likens the collecting experience to the childhood memory of opening a pack of Pokémon cards when he was little. But it was Yuga Labs’ Bored Ape Yacht Club that illuminated how the NFTs could enable people to build their own digital personas. The puzzle pieces were slowly coming together. It was then, “for the first time,” he says, “NFTs showed me there's an intersection between digital identity and decentralized brands that could be really powerful if you really use this technology in a cool way.”
That same focus on decentralization is now heavily ingrained in Azuki’s ethos.
“The vision is for Azuki to be a blueprint for what a decentralized brand looks like, where the community has ownership in the brand and can actively participate in the success of it,” he says. “But I think there's still a lot of experimentation we have to go through.”
He recalls the importance of being good shepherds for the brand during the early days.
The brand’s meteoric rise to fame was something that Zagabond never expected. “I think we all knew that eventually, if we kept building towards our vision, we would have a successful brand that's built alongside the community,” he says.
“But we didn't know it would happen this quickly.” With Azuki-centric memes, artists commissions, and social engagement dominating the feeds of many on NFT Twitter– Azuki fans are undoubtedly amongst the most galvanized – and among the most vocal across the Web3 space.
And that participation has started to spill over into the real world as grassroots communities have begun to sprout around the world – from massive North American gatherings at conferences like NFT NYC, to pockets in Southeast Asia like Indonesia and Singapore.
A wonderful night worth memorizing.— Azuki华语花园 (@AzukiCN_garden) October 9, 2022
Azuki shanghai party hosted by:@0xDanielzzz @0xTingt @AzukiCN_garden pic.twitter.com/1jxJP37l91
In Z’s eyes, this merge between digital and physical participation was all but inevitable. It’s his firm belief that in order to stay true to their vision of building a decentralized brand, Azuki couldn’t only provide digital products. “It's kind of a cliché thing to say now, bridging physical and digital, but there hasn't been a good way to do it,” he explains. Inspiration only struck after he began to see the community’s passion in person – once in March for the Garden Party event in Los Angeles, then again at the Enter the Alley exhibition during NFT NYC. “We wanted to make something that could really amplify the physical experience; and so that's when we started working on PBT.”
He’s referring to Chiru Labs’ newly unveiled technology – the Physical Backed Token – a special type of NFT that cannot be digitally transferred unless the user possesses the physical item fitted with a BEAN Chip contained in each of the aforementioned IRL 24K gold skateboards. Using a phone to scan said chip results in minting a PBT, thereby proving ownership and enabling a concept called “scan-to-own”. It’s Azuki’s first foray into material goods, and to overwhelming success – having sold for US $2.5 million in ETH on October 23rd.
Introducing the Physical Backed Token (PBT): an open source token standard tying a physical item to a digital token on the Ethereum blockchain. pic.twitter.com/iXavmJR5xv— Azuki (@AzukiOfficial) October 17, 2022
But for Zagabond and the rest of Chiru Labs, PBT is just the tip of the iceberg for new types of experiences and storytelling. It allows for decentralized authentication and the tracking of the full ownership lineage of physical items – all completely on-chain without centralized servers, of course. He insisted on making it an open source standard, so other teams could actually build their own implementations on top of it.
And since the announcement of the PBT, there has already been a lot of inbound interest from developers. “It just shows that there's still a lot of appetite, even in a bear market, for new technology, for new experiences,” he says. “And that's what Azuki is all about, enabling creators and artists and developers to experiment, to innovate; that part's really exciting.”
He’s proud of what the team has accomplished so far, and regards PBT as a huge step in exploring what NFTs are capable of, but is cautious of not becoming complacent. “What we build on top will show the rest of the world the experiences that are possible, and that's what will help get mainstream adoption,” he says. “Execution is more important than ideas.”
In the wake of recent events including Yuga Labs raising $450 million dollars to build its metaverse; or Nike’s acquisition of RTFKT – pushing it towards the collectible side of things; questions on whether the introduction of venture capital will shift a company’s obligations towards prioritizing a return for their investors and leaving NFT holders holding the bag are arising. Azuki was rumored to be seeking a $30M fundraise, but this still remains unconfirmed.
“Our core value, our first core value is community first,” says Zagabond, “If you look at everything that we've done since inception, we do as much as we can to give value to our holders.” In fact, he adds, everything so far has been free. “We have a good-sized treasury and we want to give back to the community to show them that we care about them,” he continues, citing his promise to stay true to this ethos.
When asked about how Azuki differentiates itself from its behemothic peers, he confidently states that it is the intentionality behind building their IP. It’s the reason why there was so much effort in bringing in talented artists like Steamboy, also known as Arnold Tsang, the former character art director for Activision Blizzard’s game Overwatch.
“It's why we spent so much time on the tech, why we spend a lot of time on the brand and how everything has to be cohesive because we want to deliver something where you see the art, you join the community,” he says.
When I ask Zagabond on his vision for how Web3 will be five years from now. He pauses, then gestures at the golden skateboard between us.
“With PBT technology, we have to put the tech front and center because we're trying to incentivize developers who understand the technology, to implement it, to build on it.” But he doesn’t think that will last. Eventually, the reverse will be true – experiences will be put in the spotlight and the novelty of the blockchain will eventually become invisible.
For the brands that you like, he explains, it won’t be “I like this because it’s a Web3 brand,” he confides with an optimistic smile. “It’ll be because they provide experiences that make you feel a certain type of way – and they’ll use Web3 technology in the background, but you won't even know it.”