An artist died. Then thieves made NFTs of her work

Qing Han’s rise to fame was explosive. In April 2018, the digital artist, who was best known as Qinni, had just under 20,000 followers on Twitter. By early 2020, her illustrations – focusing on her obsession with the Japanese anime series Cardcaptor Sakura – has brought in more than 200,000 followers. On Instagram her following climbed to 2.5 million. Her fans admired the colouring work and detail in her vivid illustrations of popular anime characters.

It was around this time when Qing, who was a four-time open heart surgery survivor, received devastating news. “Got diagnosis today,” she tweeted on December 28, 2019. “Cancer, Stage 4, doc says I got about a year or a year and a half left…” She also included an original artwork: a girl being consumed by an inky shadow.

Between the end of 2019 and her death, aged just 29, in February 2020, the adoration of Qing’s fans turned to heartbreak as the art that she began to create near the end of her life revolved around her battle against chronic illness and her cancer relapse. In one piece titled “Flowering Wounds”, Qing said she liked to pretend her purple bruises were “little galaxies”. In her artwork, small flowers sprout out of bandages on a girl’s arms.

Qing’s work now exists as a memory of her life. After she lost her battle with cancer, her brother Ze Han, also an artist, memorialised Qing’s Instagram page and kept her Facebook and Twitter pages running. Her accounts remain popular although their follower counts are slowly declining by around 600 per month.

When I spoke to Ze, the subject of Qing’s art and her legacy was still difficult. He attempts to manage the feelings of her fans as well as his own, saying that it was important to keep her pages running to maintain open channels of communication. “It’s important to [her fans], so you’ve got to give them what they want because it means a lot to them,” Ze says. “It means a lot to me too that people are still enjoying her art.” He currently has plans to make and sell art books with Qing’s work sometime in the future.

But things have taken a dark turn. Riding on a wave of cash and memes, fraudsters started taking an interest in Qing’s artworks. In April 2021, barely a year after her death, Ze’s classmate let him know that someone was stealing his sister’s identity to sell non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of her artwork. NFTs are tokens that are tied to digital assets and show ownership of that individual item – in the last few months, NFTs have been sold for the web’s source code, digital artworks, the first tweet and the Bad Luck Brian meme. The most popular sold for $69 million (£49m).

An account on Twinci, an app that markets itself as the first NFTs social marketplace, listed one of Qing’s more popular pieces, titled “Bird Cage,” which she posted just one month before her death. The artwork depicts a girl’s ribs trapping her heart, which is drawn as a small, fragile bird. At the time Qing published it on social media, she was placed in the cardiac intensive care unit and placed on extra beta blockers.

With relative ease, anyone can start collecting tokens on Twinci. All they need is a pre-existing cryptocurrency wallet – such as Metamask or imToken – that they connect to Twinci. Once connected, a profile is automatically set up and a user can start creating and collecting NFTs. Wallets such as imToken don’t even require an email address to set up. A user just needs to give their wallet a name and a password.