Three years ago, two software developers launched CryptoPunks, a quirky art project that asked a serious and provocative question: Could a few lines of code translate to a sense of meaningful ownership? It was a ridiculous idea that would necessitate a “conceptual leap,” as they put it. That initiative is rightfully considered as the start of today’s CryptoArt trend, three years later.
For the first time, a unique example of that pioneering work will be auctioned off at a typical auction house. On May 11, Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale in New York will include a single lot of nine Punks, courtesy of Larva Labs, the project’s founders and pioneers.
‘The CryptoPunks are the beginning and end of the CyptoArt movement,’ says Noah Davis of Christie’s in New York, who specialises in Post-War and Contemporary Art. ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’
1- CryptoPunks started out as a test.
Matt Hall and John Watkinson, the creators of the New York-based software startup Larva Labs, built a software application in 2017 that could generate thousands of strange-looking characters.
They felt they had the makings of a smartphone app or game at first. They came up with a paradigm-shifting strategy for the digital art market, as well as a challenge to the very concept of “ownership.”
2- On June 23, 2017, 2Larva Labs debuted CryptoPunks.
The CryptoPunks are a collection of 24×24 pixel art images featuring misfits and eccentrics in an 8-bit aesthetic. There are exactly 10,000 of them, each with their own seeming personality and distinct set of randomly produced characteristics.
Punks are divided into 6,039 males and 3,840 females. Six hundred and ninety-six people wear hot lipstick, and 303 have muttonchops. There are 286 3-D glasses-wearing Punks, 128 rosy-cheeked Punks, 94 pigtail-wearing Punks, 78 buck-toothed Punks, and 44 beanie-wearing Punks.
There are additionally eight Punks who have no distinguishing traits at all, referred to as Genesis Punks, and just one with seven: CryptoPunk 8348 is a large bearded, bucktoothed, cigarette-smoking Punk with a mole and an earring who wears classic shades and a top hat.
3- They were influenced by the punk culture in London.
The early days of the blockchain movement, according to Hall and Watkinson, had a loud, anti-establishment tone. It was a vibe they sought to convey through their Punks’ appearance. They say, ‘They needed to be a bunch of misfits and non-conformists.’ ‘The punk movement in London in the 1970s seemed like the proper aesthetic.’ Cyberpunk’s dystopian harshness, as exemplified by the film Blade Runner and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, was also a source of inspiration.
4- Any of the CryptoPunks can be viewed by anyone.
On Larva Labs’ website, there’s a composite image of all 10,000 CryptoPunks. Anyone with a memory stick or hard drive can save a copy of the image file. Each Punk gets its own website with information on its unique qualities and transaction history.
5- However, a CryptoPunk can only be owned by one person.
Official ownership of each piece is stated in a contract on the publicly visible Ethereum blockchain, in code praised by one fan as “elegant and elegantly crafted.” ‘The record is incorruptible and promises to be incredibly long-lived,’ Larva Labs told Christie’s. Every artwork’s ownership history is also monitored and archived in the blockchain.
The arrangement Hall and Watkinson devised has been compared to owning a piece of real art that is on loan to a public museum indefinitely. It also paved the way for today’s NFT market by inspiring the now widely adopted ERC-721 standard for NFTs.
6- Some CryptoPunks are more difficult to find than others.
In addition to the human CryptoPunks, Hall and Watkinson altered their software algorithms to produce a smaller number of fanciful, non-human works, adding 88 green-skinned zombie Punks, 24 hirsute ape Punks, and nine light-blue-skinned extraterrestrial Punks to the series. The non-human Punks, like their human counterparts, have a variety of accessories: one extraterrestrial, for example, is known as the ‘wise alien’ because he smokes a pipe.
‘At the heart of the concept was the idea that each character should be distinct,’ explains Larva Labs. ‘One of the benefits of generative art is that, once started, it can yield results that are even surprising to us.’ We ran the generator hundreds of times, looked at the results, and tweaked it. Then, quietly, we ran it one last time, linking it to the Ethereum smart contract we’d published, and the CryptoPunks were officially established.’
7- The 10,000 Cryptopunks collection is final and irreversible.
Because to the nature of blockchain, even if Larva Labs wanted to, they couldn’t change the existing series after the project went live. ‘It’s strange to consider what would have happened if we had only run the generator one more time, or used the output from the penultimate run.’
The makers regard each work as a unique piece of generative art, while acknowledging that the project as a whole can be viewed as a bigger conceptual work. ‘It’s likely the first work of art with a self-contained mechanism for registering and trading ownership,’ says the artist.
8- CryptoPunks sparked a burgeoning subculture of collectors and enthusiasts.
Once the coins were made, Hall and Watkinson gave them to the CryptoPunks for free, while keeping 1,000 for themselves, ‘just in case it becomes a thing,’ as Hall put it.
There was initially little enthusiasm. Watkinson observed, ‘We were starting to think, ah yeah, this doesn’t really have it.’ Punks, on the other hand, were quickly selling for thousands of dollars.
9- CryptoPunks is a very active market.
Over 8,000 sales had been registered in the previous 12 months as of early April 2021, with an average sale price of 15.45 ether ($30,412.40). The total value of all sales is 127,360 ether ($251,620,000), and it’s increasing every day.
CryptoPunk 6965, a fedora-wearing ape Punk, sold for 800 ether ($1.5 million) in February. CryptoPunk 7804, the pipe-smoking ‘wise alien,’ was sold for the equivalent of $7.5 million on March 11, 2021, the largest amount ever paid for a Punk at the time. The next day, the record was broken.
10- Now, Hall and Watkinson are auctioning off a set of their own CryptoPunks.
The set from Larva Labs includes nine CryptoPunks, all from their original collection, in a single lot that displays the series’ greatest elements, including muttonchops, earrings, large shades, crazy hair, a hoodie, a mohawk, and more.
CryptoPunk 2, a female Punk with wild hair, and an extremely low edition number for a set of 10,000, are among the punks with sub-1,000 series numbers. CryptoPunk 635, who wears a bandana and shades and is one of only nine aliens in the entire batch of 10,000, is also the only one with a sub-1,000 series number.
The set’represents both the rarest possible CryptoPunks and highlights from the multitude of traits that are the project’s signature,’ according to the authors.
Christie’s will accept payment in USD or ether cryptocurrency, as it did with its recent Beeple sale.
‘With this particular lot in the 21st Century Evening Sale, CryptoArt is truly, unmistakably upon us,’ Davis adds. ‘Welcome to the future,’ says the narrator.