Off a busy highway in a blue-collar neighborhood just outside San Francisco, a billboard emblazoned with a giant $1 bill overlooks the city’s cracked asphalt. But as you notice from the hooded George Washington on the bill, the billboard houses no ordinary dollar. In fact, this altered dollar is the start of a $10,000 treasure hunt.
The billboard is one of a series of 12 and is the latest artwork from pseudonymous Bitcoin artist Cryptograffiti.
Part visual, part performance art, the exhibition takes place in each of the 12 Federal Reserve branch cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, San Francisco and St. Louis. Every billboard, a variation of Cryptograffiti’s “United Nodes of Bitcoin” piece, bears its own unique statement.
Each epigraph is an aphorism, shibboleth or call to action that will be familiar to most bitcoiners. The artist told CoinDesk the work is meant to draw attention to bitcoin in areas where he believes it’s needed most: low-income neighborhoods.
Hosting it in Federal Reserve branch cities is part of the message. And given bitcoin’s current bull market, he wants to make sure this message is conveyed before bitcoin’s price runs aways from his target audience.
“We’re seeing the price go up a bunch and I don’t want to see the everyday citizen get left behind. We need to teach as many people as possible about what this is about,” Cryptograffiti told CoinDesk..
“Try and do something that brings attention to it by making a statement with magnitude in the Fed’s backyards and redirect the viewers back to bitcoin and educate them that they may be held back by the Fed’s policies. It’s more than just the billboard.”
And behind this “more” – the message of the artwork – is something more still: a 0.21 BTC prize.
Bitcoin treasure hunt
The last billboard’s opening kicked off the treasure hunt.
Cryptograffiti scrawled the first clue to a private key for 0.21 BTC on the billboard, and he’s been posting clues under the tweet thread to the rest of the private key every day since. He told CoinDesk he thinks the key will finally be swept sometime this week (there’s already an active Discord server on the case).
The part-puzzle, part-artwork is part and parcel for Cryptograffiti, a pseudonymous bitcoin artist whose projects typically infuse bitcoin’s cryptographic themes and symbolism with charity and activism.
His past artworks include a live charity auction for Venezuelan orphans whereby bids triggered the physical dismantling of a Nicolas Maduro portrait made of bolivars, and a tiny black swan piece made of U.S. dollars that sold for less than a penny using the Lightning Network.
For his largest project yet, he chose his United Nodes of Bitcoin dollar art for this because of the effect the same artwork had in 2016 at an art exhibit in the Digital Garage co-working space in San Francisco, he told CoinDesk.
“Everyone would just gravitate toward the dollar. It’s a familiarity thing and people like money and want money. So I would use it to teach them about bitcoin,” he said, adding that bitcoin keywords like “nodes” and “public address” on the art are good educational jumping-off points.
Cryptograffiti recently finished the artwork for the backside of the piece in anticipation of the 12-city exhibit. Prints for this artwork completely financed the rent space for the billboards, which ranges in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a month, depending on the city.
A ‘Trojan horse’ for bitcoin
By couching the bitcoin message in something so familiar and desirable, he said, the art is something of a Trojan horse for inspiring interest in bitcoin to the uninitiated.
“It tends to be a curious introduction. The reactions very much mirror the people who saw the original in 2016 in Digital Garage. Very Uncle Ned saying, ‘What is THIS all about?’
“I wanted to take what I learned about inflation and the wealth gap and try to put it in a project that would grab attention, not just in real life but online too.”
An augmented-reality portion of the artwork brings these inflationary themes to life. Co-developed with fellow crypto artist Josie Bellini, this AR component presents the billboard’s dollar bill as a graph that illustrates the erosion of the dollar’s purchasing power over time.
More bitcoin art, less bitcoin jargon
This animation is the billboard’s most dynamic feature, and it lays out the art’s message clearly.
Cryptograffiti told CoinDesk that, as much as the dollar is a Trojan horse for bitcoin, so bitcoin art exhibitions are something like a symposium. The art may make bitcoin more palatable to outsiders, who otherwise would find nothing emotionally resonant to connect to the otherwise-perceived cold, technical world of bitcoin.
“Since it’s artistic, it makes people more open to asking questions. They can have more real conversations than if it’s a more jargon focused approach,” Crypografitti said. As such, he believes that artists and the like are “a sign of health for the community.”
As bitcoin and other coins have seen increased valuations over the past year, crypto-related art has been selling red-hot alongside them. Ethereum-based non-fungible tokens are posting auction prices north of $1 million and bitcoin artists have been using new platforms like Scarce.city to auction their art for bitcoin.
Cryptograffiti’s art puzzle draws on a long tradition of bitcoin giveaways embedded in art as a way to drum up enthusiasm for the now trillion dollar asset. It’s easier to draw eyeballs these days, Cryptograffiti said, and his latest work has already raised questions about if he’d extend it to other parts of the country, like rural America.
The artist didn’t want to reveal too many additional details, but he did say that there’s enough momentum behind the project at this point that it’s “a possibility.”
“This could turn into something bigger.”