CryptoPunks: A Short History

In the midst of cultural watercooler buzz around NFTs, meme stocks, and cryptocurrency, you might have heard the name “CryptoPunk” come to the fore.

Indeed, while the “true value” of assets like Dogecoin or AMC stocks continues to be hotly debated, the CryptoPunks made their claim to fame before hitting the financial markets.

These punks are credited as one of the earliest examples of NFTs on Ethereum, and the inspiration for the ERC-721 standard that powers most digital art and collectibles.

The Art Movement of Our Times

Source: Larva Labs

Every new artistic movement has had its catalyst artist or artists—Claude Monet christened the Impressionist movement; André Breton, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí helped define Surrealism; and Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein popularized Pop art.

For our digital era, we have Larva Labs and the CryptoArt movement. The CryptoPunks are the “alpha and omega” of this movement, as deemed by Christie’s.

Larva Labs was founded in 2005 by programmers John Watkinson and Matt Hall. The two creative technologists launched the CryptoPunks art project in June 2017, posing the conceptual question that everyone is asking now, four years later: What does ownership mean in the digital age? Will people have any interest in paying for the equivalent of a digital certificate of authenticity?

John Watkinson and Matt Hall Larva Labs
Graphic depiction of Matt and John.
Source: Larva Labs

For the uninitiated, CryptoPunks are 10,000 uniquely generated characters (i.e. NFTs created on the Ethereum blockchain), which come in the form of 24-by-24 pixel heads (think: Sex Pistols fans, circa 1977). No two CryptoPunks are exactly alike, and each of them can only be officially owned by a single person on the Ethereum blockchain.

While the most common versions of CryptoPunks take the form of the aforementioned punk rock fan—both men and women, some with mohawks, some smoking ciggies, some bearded, pierced or even wearing PPE!—other rarer types portray non-human entities such as apes, zombies or aliens.

Source: Larva Labs

Each punk has its own profile page that shows his, her, or its attributes and ownership status, and each one also has a distinct number. So, for example, CryptoPunk 1442, a dark-skinned woman wearing a thick black eye mask and earring, who has a shock of dyed-red (“crazy”) hair, is categorized as one of the 3,840 female punks in the series (she was first claimed in June 2017 and has never been listed for sale by her owner, WrappedC…, who also happens to own 245 other CryptoPunks).

Originally, LarvaLabs offered up 9,000 of the CryptoPunks for free to anyone who had an Ethereum wallet (the Ethereum blockchain has its own cryptocurrency called “Ether” or “ETH”), keeping the final 1,000 for themselves (the “Dev punks”). At first, it took some time for their popularity to catch on, but after Mashable published a story explaining the concept and its significance, the 9,000 free punks were snapped up in 24 hours.

Today’s Markets and Significant Sales

Nowadays, CryptoPunks must be purchased from someone via the blockchain’s marketplace, or a broker, like major auction houses Sotheby’s or Christie’s, as they’ve since accrued a tremendous value on the secondary market.

COVID Alien CryptoPunk
Source: Larva Labs

CryptoPunk 7523, for example, dubbed the “COVID Alien” because of its rare mask-wearing “attribute,” sold this past June in a Sotheby’s auction for $11.8 million. Not to be outdone, Larva Labs itself auctioned off nine CryptoPunks in a Christie’s auction the month before for north of $16.9 million—thought to be the second-highest sale of an NFT or group of NFTs, with only Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days,” going for more at $69 million.

In an interesting twist, CryptoPunks’ creator Larva Labs also flipped the script on its most valuable invention. When the company did its initial run of CryptoPunks, it printed out physical lithographs of 24 of them, each of which was signed by co-founder Watkinson. Included with each was a physical envelope was a “wallet” that endowed ownership of said CryptoPunk to the person that possessed it. Nine of these 24 were offered at Sotheby’s in an auction ending on the 1st of July—and five of them went for between $210,000-$315,000 each, a respectable sum to say the least.

CryptoPunks lithographs
Source: Sotheby’s

Want a punk yourself? You’ll need to download and install the Chrome browser plugin MetaMask, which will allow websites access to your Ethereum account (but only ones you authorize). Once you have the plugin installed, Larva Labs’ website recognizes it and adds buttons that allow you to bid on, buy and sell punks directly in the interface (of course, you need Ether to do that). Or you could just go through a major auction house.

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