Etoile & Natalie Minyu Li's Mission to Protect Artists from AI

Written by T.K. Mills

This January with a mix of aggravation, disdain, and indignation artists posted the dreaded list – a compilation of the ~16,000 artists whose work had been fed into the AI system ‘Midjourney,’ which creates images based off of text prompts. Screenshots of the list circulated around social media, with many prominent street artists, such as UP alumni Logan Hicks, dismayed to see their work, in essence their intellectual property, had been effectively stolen without consent or notice, to create AI imagery. The database was released in conjunction with a class-action copyright complaint filed against Midjourney, as well as Stability AI and DeviantArt.

UP has weighed into the debate on AI before, and as the mechanisms of capitalism look to circumvent the art market and proper payment to make a high profit, issues such as these will continue to arise, with artists at a disadvantage to defend themselves and their work. However, there are those who foresee problems such as these and are working to combat it.

Enter Natalie Minyu Li, the founder of Etoile, a company whose software is designed to protect artists against data-scraping of their work. An artist herself with an interest in technology, she was both wary and intrigued by the ways in which tech could supplement her creative practice.

While not necessarily following the traditional artistic path, her journey has had many lessons she’s come to apply in her practice. Li grew up near Hong Kong before moving to Tennessee at the age of 10. As a child, she would sing around the house, before taking a greater interest in visual arts around the time she came to America.

“When I was a kid, it was just something that I loved doing. And then later on, as I transitioned into adult life, [art] turned into my little sanctuary. Art kind of became my own little secret thing. Many of my friends never even knew I did art. And by the time I moved to New York, it became a coping mechanism to deal with the hectic city life.”

Like many artists, Li felt compelled to pursue a conventional career. Attending school in New York, she studied Economics with a minor in French. “I never took an art class or anything, I was just doing it on the side… there were a lot of societal, familial, and cultural pressures.”

Post-college, Li got a job in financial services, where she worked for four years. In her position, her focus was advising investors and companies working through financial distress. Among her accomplishments include brokering agreements between hedge funds and the Puerto Rican government to negotiate the latter’s bankruptcy. “I was 24 at the time… and I helped my clients reach a pretty historic deal. But it was such a big part of my life, and art was the only way I had to cope with the stress.”

Eventually the stress was too much, and Li knew she needed out. So she left to chase her dreams, March 2020 – right before the pandemic. The timing was fortuitous in more ways than one – she had been back to China to visit family around that time, but left when she saw the situation was starting to get out of hand. She made it back to the States right before China locked down its borders.

With nothing but time, she dedicated herself to her art. Much of her work is inspired by children’s stories, something she is drawn to for their simple designs and wholesome messages. In particular, Le Petit Prince. “It’s a story that I grew up with, and it’s something that lifted me, as I went through all these changes from China to Tennessee to New York.” She also has a love for cartoons like The Fairly Odd Parents & SpongeBob (as most millennials can relate.) Describing her work, Li explained, “it went from colorful, cutesy cartoons to more realistic characters infused with a bit of street art elements.”

She also took inspiration from the creative community in New York, especially the street art scene. Motivated by the community’s ethos, she put herself out there painting for Curbside Canvas during the pandemic and participating in art fairs like Comic-Con and START Shows.

“It was really fulfilling. I mean, obviously, it was great that people got to see my art being in a public space, but I think it was just the purpose and intent of the Curbside project that like made me feel really warm and fuzzy.”

In 2021, a new opportunity arose, and she moved to California to begin working for Lionsgate Motion Pictures. In Los Angeles, despite a new job she continued to blend her creative lifestyle into her day to day. She networked with the entertainment tech community, exploring some hacker houses, while also co-mingling with the local art community. It was through the entertainment tech world she took a renewed interest in the startup community.

“At the beginning of 2022, I realized that this was something that I was really good at and passionate about, merging the emerging tech space with the art space… And then in late 2022, Lensa blew up.” Lensa is a generative AI app that went viral for allowing users to create their own avatars off of a picture.  “The technology had been around for a while, but this was the first time it was really coming into widespread consumer use. I saw a huge implication for human artists. Because I’d seen what happened with certain emerging tech scenes, where it blew up very suddenly. This was going to fundamentally change the way companies and consumers do things.”

“I saw a huge implication for human artists. Because I’d seen what happened with certain emerging tech scenes, where it blew up very suddenly. This was going to fundamentally change the way companies and consumers do things.”

“Human artists are exposed at this point. And from my previous entertainment tech work and my interactions with the startup community, I also realized that artists and the arts generally [aren’t huge focuses] for people [who work in] tech,” Li explained, lamenting her recognition that art wouldn’t be a priority for tech companies.

“Because the unfortunate fact of society is just that wherever there’s money, that’s where the attention’s going to go. That’s where the influence is going to go. So people are going to be making a lot of money on generative AI apps, but they’re not going to be thinking about the human artists [who] are going to be impacted. Not intentionally hurting them, but it’s not on the top of their mind.”

“Human artists are exposed at this point. And from my previous entertainment tech work and my interactions with the startup community, I also realized that artists and the arts generally [aren’t huge focuses] for people [who work in] tech,”

This was where the idea of Etoile began to percolate, as a software that could protect artists. Leaning into her entrepreneurial side, she applied the hustle lessons she learned from art toward this nascent business, building a community around the idea and prospecting business partners and investors.

“I’m doing what it takes to fundraise [and] recruit engineers whose values mirror my own because that’s one thing I realized I can’t compromise on. If this is what I’m set out to do – to protect human artists – then that’s something that they have to value as well. The business [of Etoile] and the product itself, is going to evolve depending on how the users, the customers — in this case digital artists but later on, hopefully artists of all disciplines —it’s going to evolve based on their needs. But the fundamental values and the mission of why they want to partner with me are key. That can’t be compromised.” Li said with firm determination.

“I’m doing what it takes to fundraise [and] recruit engineers whose values mirror my own because that’s one thing I realized I can’t compromise on. If this is what I’m set out to do – to protect human artists – then that’s something that they have to value as well.”

Li admitted this line has made it difficult at times, due to others seeking to influence her ideals. As such, at the moment the project is entirely self-funded. However, the initial cohort had 50 “high-intent digital artists” interested in the concept. “They’re all very excited about it that ever since the rollout, there’s been a lot more signups too,” Li told me. “I’m learning with each iteration. It’s all organic. I haven’t done any paid advertising, but it’s been positive responses, which is very encouraging.”

The way the product works, essentially, is twofold, the AI-protective tech and the vessel in which it resides. Etoile is developing an invisible watermark on the user’s art, which disrupts AI’s capacity to absorb it into the hivemind. The vessel element is the web app that allows users to manage, showcase, and protect their work. At present, the watermark used is cloaked against selected training sets, but Li is working to expand the protective shield.

Li noted the help of others with similar missions, whose work has helped inform Etoile’s growth. “Special thanks to ArtShield, the digital artist team behind the first AI-protective algorithm in the current generative AI wave – their courage and humility despite a lack of institutional resources is an inspiration to us.”

While the project is still in its beta phase, it has undergone two major software updates since its launch in November 2023. They’ve also been recruiting more staff for their research and development team to improve Etoile’s capabilities.

Though growth hasn’t been without setbacks – in January Li had her personal information doxed via X (Twitter) by a university research team with a similar product. This caused an onslaught of digital harassment, as well as leading Li to revert sign-ups to a waitlist basis. However, she remains undaunted. “I’m on a mission to protect artists no matter how hard it gets.”

Looking to the future, Li noted what they need more than anything at the moment is moral support. She noted that artists tend to be hesitant about new technology, especially those who’ve been burned by AI and tech in the past.

Through the ups and downs though, she remains resolute in her mission. “It sounds cheesy, but everyone has their North Star – the thing that guides them – my North Star is definitely to live my life in service of artists, whether it’s the artists that I already know or my 2-year-old niece. I’m trying to train her to be an artist too. I mean, we’re all artists in some way, right? [Whether] we have the privilege of being able to pursue it professionally. Everyone’s an artist. And I want to protect that.”

T.K. Mills is the Editor-in-Chief of UP Magazine, a street art publication based in New York City. After receiving a Master’s Degree in Global Affairs, he discovered a love for graffiti while backpacking through Cuba and pursued life as a writer. Outside of UP,  T.K. enjoys writing poetry, personal travel essays, and occasionally short stories. His work has been published in The Smart SetThe Vignette ReviewGenre Urban Arts, and Eternal Remedy among others. Beyond art, T.K. loves reading and traveling.

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