The tech behind NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, hasn’t changed all that much since the development of the ERC-721 standard – the coding framework on which most popular crypto collectibles are built.
That’s because until 2021, NFTs were mostly a niche curiosity for crypto enthusiasts. Even with the rise of CryptoKitties in 2017, NFTs didn’t immediately conjure up any cultural or aesthetic reference points beyond the broader crypto ecosystem – despite becoming a media hang-up.
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With the success of Bored Ape Yacht Club – the collection of crude, cartoonish, monkey-themed images that’s birthed a rising media empire over the past year – those dynamics have started to shift.
When the digital artist Beeple helped kick off the current mania around NFTs last winter, most of the popular NFTs on marketplaces like Nifty Gateway and SuperRare nodded to the standard crypto meme lexicon: bitcoins, rocket ships, “bulls” and Pepe the Frog. Things started to shift when CryptoPunks started popping up on physical billboards across America, and at Christie’s.
Now we’re in what you might call the “Bored Ape Yacht Club Era” of NFT art history. The success of BAYC gave rise to other animal-themed “10k” NFT collections (so named for their limited supply of 10,000 procedurally generated images), which took the formula and ran with it; Lazy Lions, Cool Cats, Pudgy Penguins and the Doge Pound are some of the pricier projects in this vein.
Visually, they’re all strikingly similar: portraits at a three-quarter angle, from the shoulders up. They often double as headshot-style profile pictures on social media sites.
Post Malone, Jimmy Fallon, Lil Bab and Steph Curry are among today’s most prominent ape owners, thanks to clever celebrity outreach programs from crypto platforms like MoonPay.
This past weekend, the rapper Future picked up a Bored Ape (also through MoonPay) and was gifted a “Doodle” NFT by one of the collection’s founders. He even dropped a tweet to go along with it: “WAGMI,” or we’re all gonna make it, a common crypto rallying cry.
For now, this is what NFTs are, culturally. Mainstream consumers with a peripheral knowledge of NFTs aren’t thinking about Folia’s generative art experiments, or Hic et Nunc’s relatively diverse digital art collection, or even Meebits, the 3D NFT project from the creators of CryptoPunks that riffs on digital minimalism. Bored Apes, with their overwhelming aesthetic sameness and their all-important community aspect, are the blueprint, as they have been for the better part of this year.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to doubt whether BAYC will remain on top. The crypto market tends to move in cycles; if everything suddenly crashes, new NFT paradigms may emerge.
There’s also the fact that Bored Ape-style NFTs are almost universally unappealing to look at (Lazy Lions, especially – Cool Cats get a pass, I think they’re kind of sweet). A Bored Ape spin-off collection called Mutant Ape Yacht Club takes those uncanny visuals to a grotesque extreme. It’s as if they’re daring you to mock them, to question how anyone could spend so much on these images.
That the BAYC template has created real cultural impact beyond crypto is why it remains immensely successful, and it will always have a place in the canon for that reason. But there’s no reason it needs to continue to dominate to the exclusion of everything else.
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