Is Crypto Miami for Real?

A rapper takes the stage. He raps about crypto: I’m blowing up, like bitcoin; I got it going to the max, I ain’t no shitcoin! The crowd cheers and dances. A giant screen displays a mix of NFTs. It’s loud. It’s weird. It’s fun. And this is when it fully hits you that the Miami Crypto Expo is an actual Expo, filled with people, actual people, people who drink and laugh and hug and flirt. This is not Zoom. This is not a “virtual conference.” This is not an “online meetup.” This is the real deal.

And the NFT-themed expo, held April 21 to 23, seems to have a deeper purpose: to announce that Miami is the real deal. Crypto is everywhere. Mayor Francis Suarez wants to make the city a Crypto Hub, the Miami Heat will soon play in the FTX Arena – an astonishing mainstream-ization of Samuel Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency exchange – and Miami will soon play host to the upcoming Bitcoin 2021 conference, now billed as “The Largest Bitcoin Event in History.” 

But is the hype real? In my first bit of traveling since being fully vaccinated, I wanted to visit Miami in person – not via Zoom – to see if there’s actual, flesh and blood, real-world evidence of Miami’s crypto boom. After all, it’s easy to pump out press releases. It’s easy for a mayor to tweet. And it’s easy to claim you’re a Crypto City. Back in 2018 I visited “Bitcoin City” in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I’ve been to the Crypto City of Zug, Switzerland. Akon is building a Crypto City in Uganda. Wyoming is the Crypto State. Puerto Rico is Crypto Utopia. And so on. It now seems like a proven playbook: If your city needs a rebranding, why not choose crypto?

Related: ‘A Crazy Success Story’: Trevor Jones’ NFT Gamble Pays Off

So it’s time, finally, to get back on the road. 

Booths and Porsches

My guide for the event is Tatiana Moroz, a folk singer/songwriter who mainlines crypto. She once funded an album in cryptocurrency, she launched a “Tatiana Coin,” and her podcast, called “Proof of Love,” explores the place “where sex, love and life meet crypto.” Her libertarian and crypto-inspired songs, such as “Bitcoin Jingle,” include lyrics like:

I didn’t want to give any of my money to a nation based on war

I wanted to be free, nothing holding me back from where I want to go

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I thought about it, I thought about it

What was the choice that I made?

It was to take away the money,

Don’t give up your money,

Use Bitcoin whenever you pay

Use Bitcoin whenever you pay

Moroz spent most of her life in New Jersey and New York City, but in the depths of the pandemic, like so many, she needed a change. She had friends in Miami. She visited, she loved it, she moved. Easy choice. “Miami is all the fire, and then some,” says Moroz. “I don’t think there’s any marketing ploy.” She was drawn to the Art Deco architecture, the strong Latin influence, the art scene, the libertarian vibe, the nightlife (even during COVID), and the pro-crypto mayor. It doesn’t hurt that “everybody’s super hot.” (She’s not wrong.)

On the first day of the Expo, I soak in the familiar beats and rhythms of a crypto conference, which I haven’t felt in years. It’s almost nostalgic: Booths hawking crypto swag; the Fu#k the banks t-shirts; panels and workshops with titles like “Bitcoin mining for NOOBS” and “How to Run a Crypto Business without Going to Jail.” Masks are worn dutifully by some, drooped around the neck by others, and not at all by most. (Full disclosure: I would not have felt comfortable covering the event if not fully vaccinated.)

“Me and my team, we’ve been saying ‘Miami is the Bitcoin capital of America’ for two years,” says the sunny and always-smiling Eryka Gemma, the Expo’s MC. “We just saw it coming.” Gemma started hosting Miami crypto meet-ups back in 2017. She points to Miami’s underrated international banking presence, its longtime crypto roots, and its Latin American influence. “You see a lot of Latin Americans who saw what hyper-inflation did to their home nations,” she says. “So they understand bitcoin.”

Then there’s the NFT scene. At night, the posh lobby of the InterContinental Hotel is transformed into a crypto art gallery, or “NFT Gala,” courtesy of a Miami-based group called Bit Basel. The bitcoin logo is everywhere – in the NFT paintings, on t-shirts, even on some of the masks. It feels like a proper art gala, spiked with a shot of crypto hope. Many of the artists are present, like Ali Spagnola, who live-paints the image of a rocket going “to the moon.” 

Miami is all the fire, and then some

Lambos? Maybe not, but you can’t miss the Crypto Porsche. Earlier in the week, at a party that featured a Rick Ross performance (held on April 20, and called “The 420 Party”), the artist Rich B Caliente unveiled a Porsche he had painted a striking mix of teal and pink, emblazoned with streaks of yellows and reds and purples. It’s not subtle. The tricked-out ride was signed by Ross, and auctioned off as an NFT for over $900k, perhaps the perfect symbol of newfound NFT wealth. 

Some of the artwork incorporates augmented reality, like a series from Lucho Poletti called “Novus Moneta Seclorum,” which is Latin for “New Currency for the Ages.” I was mesmerized by the Art Deco-inspired piece “Citadel Paradiso.” In what appears to be a stylized painting of a 1920s-era cinema, a well-heeled couple enters BTC Theater to watch the film “Better Money for All Mankind.” This is just the static image. When you point your phone at the painting and use an app called Artivive, suddenly the theater springs to life. Cars from the 1920s zoom into frame, and as the theater’s curtains dramatically move to the side, dollar bills come flying towards your face. It’s cool. 

The only problem with the tech is that once you get used to this augmented reality artwork, you then expect it elsewhere and you start holding your phone up to non-AR paintings, which are just regular paintings, and you feel like an old man who’s asking a printer to send his email. 

Some of the tech is less successful. Next to one drawing is a hand-written note saying “Scan NFC Tag,” which requires you to first download an app called NFC Reader. Along with a few other baffled art-viewers, I downloaded the app, scanned the code, and nothing happened. We clicked and clicked and kept staring at a black screen. “I don’t want to do 18 steps to see the art,” said the woman next to me, and turned away in frustration. The future of art might enthrall, but the future still has some work to do. 

The Crypto mayor

It’s tough to overstate the role of art in Miami’s crypto scene. For obvious pandemic-related reasons, in December of 2020, the flagship Art Basel was canceled. Crypto filled the void. “We decided that in lieu of Art Basel, we’d have a ‘BitBasel,’” says Scott Spiegel, Miami Community Lead of Florida Blockchain Business Association, and a co-founder of BitBasel. “And this was before NFTs really went vertical and mainstream.”

You could even argue that BitBasel helped fuel the NFT craze. BitBasel’s inaugural event, held in early December, included heavy-hitters in the space like Devin Finzer from OpenSea, Alexander Salnikov from Rarible, and Roham Gharegozlou from Dapper Labs (developer of NBA Top Shot). “Then we just continued the meet-ups, educating artists here locally,” says Spiegel. The focus is on helping artists monetize their work.

Take Wynwood, the bright, color-splattered, artsy neighborhood that’s lined with bold graffiti. Artists often do this work for free. “We’re working with local graffiti artists in Wynwood to tokenize those walls, whether we slap a QR code on the wall, or add an augmented VR or AR element,” says Spiegel. They’re working with local schools in Miami to integrate VR into art classes. And they’re tokenizing a giant, 120 foot graffiti mural, “Bitcoin in Miami,” that will be featured at Bitcoin 2021.  

The crypto community has flocked to Florida despite its current regulatory framework, not because of it.

The locals say they’ve been doing this kind of stuff for years. “A lot of [crypto] stuff happens in Florida, it has just never been publicized before,” says Sam Armes, Director and President of the Florida Blockchain Business Association. He attributes part of Florida’s crypto boom to the “network effect,” in the sense that there was already a quietly humming core community, and this has enticed others to join. Now the media is playing catch-up. 

After all, as Armes proudly reminds me, Florida is where Laszlo Hanyecz spent 10,000 BTC on two Papa Johns pizzas, for what is widely acknowledged as the first real-world transaction in bitcoin – or over $400 million in today’s prices. Many claim Miami as the birthplace of Ethereum. And Armes adds, only partly joking, “For all we know, Satoshi could have been a Floridian.”  

As for Miami’s “crypto-friendly regulations”? This is a bit more nuanced, and misunderstood by many. Armes is working with the mayor’s office to push a crypto-friendly piece of legislation to fix what he calls the “Espinoza Problem,” most famously summed up in a 2019 CoinDesk column “Bitcoin has a Florida Problem,” by Justin S. Wales, where the state defined peer-to-peer bitcoin transactions as money transmissions.

“It makes zero sense,” says Armes, adding that the crypto community has flocked to Florida despite its current regulatory framework, not because of it. He says it’s an exaggeration to put Florida’s crypto laws in the same league as Wyoming’s. “But no one really wants to live in Wyoming,” says Armes, laughing a bit. He describes Florida’s regulatory environment as not the best, not terrible, but just “middle of the pack.”

What Miami lacks in crypto laws, it makes up for in its crypto-touting mayor. Some trace Miami’s recent tech boom to December 4, 2020, when a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Delian Asparouhov joked on Twitter, “ok guys here me out, what if we move silicon valley to miami?” Mayor Suarez instantly responded: “How can I help?” The tweet went viral, and launched “Miami Viral.” 

Mayor Francis Suarez is so bullish on bitcoin, he makes Michael Saylor look like a skeptic. Suarez endorsed the idea of Miami using its city coffers to invest in Bitcoin, he wants to accept tax payments in bitcoin, he bought Bitcoin and Ethereum, and he tweets out a constant stream of positive Bitcoin news, celebrating headlines like “Bitcoin is coming to hundreds of U.S. banks this year.” And of course he’s rocking the laser eyes. 

Or as Anthony “Pomp” Pompliano, another prominent crypto Florida resident, tweeted in early May, “The Miami mayor is talking about mining bitcoin with nuclear energy and you still live in a city or state that hates bitcoin and the crypto industry. Open your eyes. Leadership matters. Come to Miami :).”

And now the evidence is in. A study from Axios found that in the midst of COVID, tech workers fled the higher-priced cities of San Francisco, New York and Seattle. There was one clear winner, a city that saw a 15.4% year-over-year growth in tech workers: Miami. 

Crypto unmasked

Back at the Expo, I meet case after case of people who came to Miami – from across the country – to dive more deeply into crypto. And they’re not all traders or bros. Take Tayga Nicole Albert, a dancer and model, who has performed for NBA teams, Vegas clubs and burlesque shows. During the pandemic, she ditched her normal life and bought a van to roam the country, allowing her to focus more on her personal dancing. So why is she strolling through the halls of the Expo, peeking at the crypto booths? “I wanted to see if there’s a way to monetize my dancing with NFTs,” she says. 

Then there’s Rachel Steplo, a creative consultant and real-estate appraiser who lives in Chicago. Her introduction to crypto came years ago, when she was a bartender, and kept serving beer to a few 21-year-olds who always tipped her an absurd amount. “We’re bitcoin rich,” the kids explained, and she’s been intrigued ever since. “I know this is the future,” says Steplo, who flew to the Expo to make connections in the space, with an eye towards getting a job in crypto and moving to Miami. (She’s already pocketed one offer.)

Tatiana Moroz never feels far away, flitting through the crowd and hugging and greeting, laughing, and low-key filming footage for her upcoming reality show, “Bitcoin City.” This newly arrived Floridian is somehow one of the belles of the balls, introducing me to the scene’s notables like Aaron Koenig, a blockchain entrepreneur who is organizing an upcoming Crypto Art Fair, in Tulum, Mexico. Koenig has created a Crypto Hall of Fame, with artwork devoted to the likes of Vitalik Buterin, Hal Finney and Nick Szabo. Koenig splits his time between Playa del Carmen and Miami, drawn, like many, to both the crypto scene and the high quality of life. 

Koenig is also drawn, like many, to the looser COVID restrictions. “The best thing politicians can do is not to be in the way of entrepreneurs,” Koenig tells me. “Luckily authorities in Florida have not been infected by the ‘Coronoia’ virus that endangers our freedom, so the crypto scene here could develop naturally.”

Many here feel the same way, including – and perhaps especially – Tatiana Moroz, who literally sings songs about her freedoms. “I’m actually pretty mad at New York,” she says, citing what she feels to be excessive restrictions, like compulsory mask wearing when outdoors by yourself. “I’m like, you guys suck now, you ruined it.” (Ed note: This was before the CDC eased its guidelines in May.)

COVID politics loom over the Expo, just as they loom over so much of life. The Left has widely criticized Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, for his laissez-faire approach to COVID – less restrictions to indoor dining, opening up schools sooner, and suspending all restrictions on May 3, declaring “We are no longer in a state of emergency.” Critics call this reckless, but others point out that Florida is doing no worse than the nation as a whole. “Florida is 28th in the U.S. in COVID deaths per capita and 22nd in the U.S. in COVID cases per capita. In other words, pretty much right at the average,” observes the data guru Nate Silver. “There are a lot of bad takes about Florida.” 

And it’s tough to untwine the looser restrictions from the lure of the Miami nightlife. “Should we take my car and get drinks?” Moroz asks a few of her friends, and it seems like everyone at the Expo is her friend. We quickly agree. We pile into her car and head to a bar called The Anderson, where a faux beach bungalow gives some retro 80s Miami vibes.

The bar feels like a parallel universe without COVID. In most of the bars in Denver, where I live, every other table is blocked off, with a strict policy of No Mingling. (Disclosure: Especially when the cases were high and vaccinations are low, I agree with this policy.) Here in Miami? People mingle. People smile. They talk to strangers. It’s a glimpse of the past and the future. The air is warm, the mood is festive, and I can easily see the appeal.

The Bitcoin bull run dominates the conversation. (Only weeks later, in the wake of the Bitcoin Price Musk Meltdown, this conversation…reads differently.) “You know the super-cycle theory, right?” says one crypto-rich investor, referring to the Uber-bullish theory that bitcoin will crack $1 million before most think possible. Another flush crypto investor muses about renouncing his U.S. citizenship, to leave the country before his crypto-millions become crypto-billions. “You pay an ‘Exit Tax’ when you renounce,” he explains, and worries that if he doesn’t make the move soon, then the U.S. will just “take more money that can be used to wage a war.”

In the end, and in what is likely a preview of Bitcoin 2021, the conference feels like not just a return to a pre-COVID world, but also crypto’s return to the frothy and glory days of 2017 and early 2018 – for better or worse. (We know how that ended.)

There will be more drinking, celebrating, even partying. On one night, a bus whisks people to a secret location for a warehouse party. On another, back at the InterContinental, Moroz helps close out the Expo with a performance of songs from her new album, “Love Songs for Idiots.” 

By then, my initial questions have mostly been answered. The crypto enthusiasm is real, as are all the accompanying pros and cons. All of the campaigns to bring people to Miami – the tweets, the grassroots billboards in Times Square, the word of mouth – are working. But will Miami pass what I call the “Uber test”? This is a highly scientific gauge of a city’s blockchain sentiment, where I ask my Uber drivers if they’re familiar with crypto. 

“Am I into crypto?” The Uber driver says, as if I asked him something as basic as “Are you into food?” Through the mirror, he looks at me and says, “I used my stimulus check to buy some. Most of my friends did the same.” 

He asks me if I’ll come back to Miami anytime soon.

“Yeah. I’m guessing I will.”

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