Meet The Londoners At The Forefront Of The Crypto Craze

By Kyra Hanson Last edited 69 months ago
Meet The Londoners At The Forefront Of The Crypto Craze
London Block Exchange founder Benjamin Dives.

London has a history of turning away from Sterling. Just look to the successful activist led Brixton Pound or the recent launch of the East London Pound, a hyperlocal currency traded through the Colu app. So perhaps it's not surprising that the capital is ranked sixth in the top ten list of Bitcoin-friendly cities.

With a Hackney mosque the latest to accept donations in cryptocurrency, it's clearly not just tech nerds with a vitamin D deficiency who are cashing in on this alternative currency.

Jacob Papageorgiou, the head of education at the London Block Exchange reckons we'll all be dipping into our digital wallets to pay for groceries in the next five years. From burger joints and east London pubs to a Mayfair art gallery, we speak to London's early crypto adopters to find out why anyone would put their faith in a financial system that's screwed if there's a power cut.

For the uninitiated, a cryptocurrency is a form of digital currency whereby transactions are recorded, authenticated and encrypted by computers via a kind of anonymous filing system known as Blockchain (instead of those traditional harbingers of trust — the banks).

The Queen of Cryptocurrency

Eleesa Dadiani: “I don’t consider myself a woman in Blockchain, I just consider myself a vital counterpart in a great movement”.

As a chilly new year rolled in, we found ourselves sipping a milky White Russian in a compact Mayfair Gallery. What drew us there wasn't so much the art but the currency needed to buy it: Bitcoin.  

The guest list attendees ranged from liberal crypto advocates — one lady enthusiastically equated crypto to anarchy — and besuited financiers there to see who takes it seriously, to the sceptics hovering around the complimentary cocktails. On the night, a Paul Wager sculpture would have set you back a cool 28 BTC (or £300,000) but this show is small fry compared to the auction Eleesa Dadiani is facilitating later in the month.

On 20 June, the minted of the art world will gather for what has been called the "world’s first cryptocurrency art auction".  Up for grabs is Andy Warhol’s 14 Small Electric Chairs. Blockchain has been lauded as a blueprint for future democratic societies and a way to decentralise government and corporate power. Yet anyone after a slice of original Warhol, would need to slap down roughly 765 BTC (nearly £4 million) on the blockchain platform Maecenas.

You have to understand what you’re getting into otherwise it is just stupidity, it is just gambling.

"Warhol symbolised a kind of renaissance in his own time, he was the father of novelty. It’s kind of symbolic, he stood for change and he was at the forefront of it – I think if there was a Warhol coin he would be very happy." Says self-styled crypto queen Eleesa Dadiani.

Dadiani, a gallery owner of Georgian nobility – or "unbackgrounded" as she put it, is the go-to lady if you're a crypto millionaire looking to convert your windfall into luxury assets.

"I like the elitist, enclosed thing that is art, it’s partly romantic and there’s some darkness to it and you want to be initiated precisely because the barriers to entry are so high". She says this pointing to internal sanctions, tariffs and uncertainty over the health of the fiat system as the reason Dadiani Fine Art now trades almost exclusively in cryptocurrencies.

But this auction is the bait to launch a tokenised art fund, which Dadiani says will be used to put private art collections on public display in museums around the world. "We're trying to unprivatise history," she says.  

"If things are left to their own devices and people keep buying, the value will go up.

"You’ve got to believe in the markets and their longevity. And that belief can’t be blind or ill-informed. It has to be based on logic and you have to understand what you’re getting into otherwise it is just stupidity, it is just gambling." Essentially she means only invest as much as you're willing to lose.

The tech influencer

Oliver Isaacs (on the right) with internet sensation Julius Dein in 2017.

While we spent the majority of our teenage years playing Sims, drinking cans in forests and occasionally turning up to college, Oliver Isaacs was busy schmoozing with social influencers and making business plans. During his undergraduate degree at The London School of Economics, he founded, often lauded as the site that propelled the internet meme to the masses.

Now with a one million strong following across his social media channels, a string of successful online businesses behind him and a queue of startups chomping at the bit for his savvy business advice — to date, companies advised by Oliver have raked in a total in excess of $400 million — it's fair to say the 25-year-old is doing alright.

Originally from north-west London, Isaacs splits his time between London, Europe and San Francisco. Speaking on the phone he sounds self-assured but without the super-sized ego you'd expect from someone whose Instagram page is an enviable mixture of infinity pools, gym shots and quickfire motivational clips shared with his 300,000 followers. "I actually used to play chess for England so I’m good at thinking ahead. I would read about all different sorts of technology, AI, Virtual Reality etc but the Blockchain definitely stood out."

Isaacs entered the world of blockchain and crypto in 2014 after making early investments in Ethereum, Ripple and Bitcoin Cash. If you feel like you missed the Bitcoin boat, Isaacs reassures us you haven't: "It's exciting to see interest in crypto and blockchain grow hugely in the last 18 months, it’s only going to get bigger in the next three to five years. We’re only in early stages so there is still time for companies to grow, and become dominant in the space.

"I don’t think it will replace paper currencies, but it’s going to live in harmony with traditional currencies," he adds.

Bitcoin burgers and craft beer  

The Old Shoreditch Station. Photo: Kyra Hanson (2018)

Wander into trendy bar The Old Shoreditch Station and you'll notice a sign which reads 'accepting bitcoins since 2013'. On our visit, the tattooed girl behind the bar was none the wiser as to how she would process the payment. But in its heyday Shoreditch was a hotbed of WiFi charged experimentation and Silicon Roundabout a magnet for tech startups, as Ben Page-Phillips, co-founder of subterranean soup cafe Nincomsoup recalls:

"18 years ago Shoreditch was pretty much a food desert, it was dodgy as hell, at night. But what it had going for it was a lot of empty buildings and cheap rent. After a few brave souls opened their doors, the flock wallpaper and raw light bulb scene emerged and the area began to attract young entrepreneurs."

Page-Phillips introduced its ATM machine back in 2014 out of a desire to collaborate with this influx of forward-thinking businesses — Satoshi Point now operates the largest network of crypto ATMs in the UK. Similarly, Nick Jaguar, co-founder of the Jaguar Collective, who runs a number of edgy east London venues says accepting cryptocurrencies felt like "becoming part of a community" rather just offering a payment method. But is it really such a great idea to invest in something so volatile?

Mike Chisvo, a 26-year-old technical operations engineer and crypto enthusiast living in Hackney prefers to sit on rather than spend his cryptocurrencies: "It wouldn't make sense to buy a car using £600 worth of Ethereum on the off chance the price of Ethereum skyrockets and that £600 increases in value to say, £10,000." No-one wants to be stuck with a used Fiat Punto when with a little patience they could have been driving a convertible.

Jaguar converts any crypto sales into sterling straight away so isn't affected by the fluctuations in value.

You wouldn't tell your granddad to put his life savings in Bitcoin – that would be insane. But as a retailer, I'd say why not? Otherwise, you're narrowing your demographic of customer.

Jaguar says his crypto customers range from dabblers to traders. While you'll still find a regularly used ATM at Nincomsoup, the UK's first ATM at The Old Shoreditch Station was a short-lived project. "That was a mistake," says Jaguar. "In central London, the majority of Bitcoin investors believe in it as a technology and asset, but there is a small percentage of people who are using Bitcoin illicitly and on the dark web. Once you move into ATM territory you start to deal with that percentage." According to the Met, these kind of ATMs are used as a less conspicuous way for drug dealers to stash their criminal earnings.

However, his experience with the shady side of the tech hasn't dampened Jaguar's enthusiasm for it. "Ultimately, a lot of these burgeoning technologies are embraced by a darker side of society before they become mainstream — look at what the internet has done for pornography.

"How about we talk about how many pounds or dollars are used to fund crime? Money funds crime, period. When it comes to the technology we need to look at the positive, how can it grow? What can we take from it and how is it going to better us as a society?"

In fact, if you lose out on part-owning a Warhol, there are more philanthropic ways to part with your Bitcoin. Foundations such as BitGive and BitHope carry out charitable work with your digital assets, while Greenpeace has been accepting the currency since 2014.

Last Updated 02 July 2018