Yuga & Cryptopunks: The Filth And The Fury

Saturday 1st June, 2024 - Bruce Sterling

*It’s been a mess for quite a while, and the passage of time isn’t improving it.

Yuga & Cryptopunks: The Filth And The Fury

Sean Bonner
May 31, 2024
[Hi Crowd! This is a blog post I wrote the other day with a couple updates which I thought a few of you might find interesting. I have another update in the works kind of picking up where this leaves off, but more on that later.]

The last few days have been wild and I don’t even know where to start, or where to continue from because every time I start writing something it changes and I have to keep starting over. Some wonderful things happened alongside some terrible things. This is a series of somewhat connected thoughts and observations that I hope leads somewhere helpful.

If you want to skip my recap and jump right to the commentary, click here.

Some Background.

Cryptopunks are art. Culturally important genre defining art. I know it, if you are reading this you probably know it, and others are starting to realize it every day. When Matt & John (collectively Larva Labs) the artists who created Cryptopunks walked away from their creation it was largely because community was attacking them for everything they did, or didn’t do – and demanding they do, or don’t do any number of things. They never signed up to manage community expectations, they just wanted to make art. Honestly, I can’t blame them for that at all. This space can be brutal, and they certainly saw the worst of it. At least up until that point, but we’ll get to that later.

Yuga Labs, who bought the IP, stated from the start that they saw their mission was to provide more for the community, and to work to establish deeper recognition of Cryptopunks in the art world. They said they saw themselves as stewards and wanted to make everyone proud.

Museums, and Prints, and Books, Oh My

Under Yuga’s care, punks have found their way into the permanent collections at major museums like LACMA, ICA Miami and Centre Pompidou in Paris. 24×24 pixel on-screen images were recontextualized with high end limited edition large format art prints that no small amount of collectors have proudly framed and hung on their walls. Phaidon, one of the pre-eminent art book publishers in the world have started taking orders on a massive 800 page slab of a book about Cryptopunks, filled with images, essays and interviews. To say they have been making headway on their goal of art world recognition is an understatement.

In Residence

Another initiative Yuga announced was an Artist In Residence program, playfully titled Punk In Residence. AiR programs are a long standing tradition that often gives an artist a chance to explore something they might not have, and gives an organization or institution a way to support the arts with something tangible to show for it. The work produced by not just an artist, but by all the artists who participate in the program becomes a kind of creative conversation, playing out across various canvases (or proxies) and through many lenses. Importantly, these programs are not just one off – they need many artists in series over a period of time to tell a story. I was an Artist In Residence at the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and have a catalog/book they published at the end of the year showing my work along side the other artists involved and it’s a really cool way to feel like a real part of this thing. They do this every year, and when you look at all the books together it tells a beautiful story about how MQ has helped and furthered all these different kinds of artists experiment with something they might not have otherwise.


To kick off the Punk In Residence program Yuga announced that the inaugural artist would be Nina Chanel Abney, a contemporary American artist known the world over who has works in the collections of museums like MOMA, Whitney, Ruebell, Brooklyn Museum and others. Abney’s work is unapologetically political often touching on topics such as race & gender, but at the same time is colorful, fun and poppy, leading to the apt description that it’s “easy to swallow, hard to digest.”

Why, 2015, Nina Chanel Abney

Some people might argue that picking an artist with a strong political voice to start this program was a mistake, but both art and punk have always been built on political activism and to ignore that is kind of ridiculous and I think illustrates an ignorance about what this is all about to begin with. Matt and John have said from the start that CryptoPunks was inspired in a large part by the London punk scene, which gave birth to classics like God Save The Queen by The Sex Pistols and White Riot by The Clash. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ anyone? So if art makes you uncomfortable, that’s probably the point.

[As an aside I think there is a wide gap between people who think of CryptoPunks as art and people who think of CryptoPunks as financial assets. They can of course be both, and if you think of them as primarily a financial asset you are probably less likely to want to see politics anywhere near them, but both Larva Labs and Yuga Labs have stated plainly they believe CryptoPunks are art, so that’s the argument I’m running with here. The financial asset side doesn’t have to like the art aspect at all, but can’t really expect it to just go away.]

A struggle with how things are communicated and cultural literacy was also revealed during promotion of the Phaidon book. Cryptopunk owners (myself included) like to think of ourselves as having our fingers on the pulse and knowing whats going on at all times. But in talking about some of the contributors to the book it became clear some people didn’t have the same reference points as others. We saw people assume that since they didn’t know who someone was, no one else did either. Or perhaps, because they did know who someone was everyone else must know as well. This led to some confusion and a complicated situation – how to inform people who think they already know it? Don’t give enough information and people get mad that they feel left in the dark, give too much info and people feel like they are being talked down to. Striking a balance there is hard, and usually results in everyone being a little irritated.

Beyond promotion the book itself was not without controversy, while many people loved the idea and immediately bought several copies, others felt like they should have gotten one free either because they owned a Cryptopunk or because the book says “Free To Claim” (an obvious reference to the fact that Cryptopunks were originally free to claim). Others had strong opinions about who was or wasn’t contributing to the book, which led to some heated debates. This is a perfect example of how no matter what you do, you can’t please everyone, and how no good deed goes unpunished.


Last weekend (May 18) many people, myself included, traveled to see the opening of Nina Chanel Abney’s new exhibition LIE DOGGO at Jack Shainman’s The School museum/gallery space in Kinderhook NY. The exhibition includes some retrospective 2D canvases from the last 4 years, leading into a new series of 3D sculptures she has just produced and finally unveiling the world she did for her Punk In Residence project – a collection of 500 animated 3D generated characters built with Abney’s interpretations of many recognizable traits from the Cryptopunk collection, rendered in her own style as well as a significant amount of her usual character traits to make something that was distinctly her own, but with a knowing inspirational nod to Cryptopunks. She called this new collection Super Punk World, a clear world building expansion of the idea she began with her 2022 digital body of work which is called Super Cool World. There were about 3,000 people at the opening, the vast majority of which had never heard of Cryptopunks before, possibly never heard of generative art or NFTs even and every one of them learned about these things in the end. This was a primarily art world audience, not crypto people – so thinking back to the mandate of building exposure of Cryptopunks into the art world, this was a huge success. Everyone was delighted.

(photos by me)

A few days later the official CryptoPunks social media account announced the launch of Super Punk World, and all hell broke loose. Criticisms of the art and misunderstandings around the project quickly turned into attacks on Yuga, the artist and individual Yuga team members who had worked on it. Things got ugly quick, and open forums like Twitter devolved into a flood of racist, sexist personal attacks with trolls and shitposters trying to out do each other to catch the engagement stream. It was the worst of stereotypical cryptobro-ness on full display. I was disgusted by what I saw, embarrassed for the space, and heartbroken for the artist and people who have spent the last year working on it. Before the end of the day Yuga’s CEO would step in and make an announcement that these pieces would be randomly given away rather than sold, and there would be no future Cryptopunks efforts from them.

It’s especially disappointing to see that in an industry like crypto which celebrates independence and being censorship resistant, many essentially admit through their actions that this only applies to ideas they agree with, and lack the self awareness to see that.

Where this goes from here remains to be seen, but this brought up a bunch of things to consider.

Some Thoughts

Communication Misses

Judging by the number of people complaining about “Super Punks,” talking about diluting the original CryptoPunks collection as if this was Cryptopunks 2.0, suggesting no one has ever heard of Nina or that she was hired to make derivative punks (or any number of other ridiculous claims) it’s pretty clear the communication missed some marks. This is valid criticism, recently understood with the book comms I mentioned earlier and Yuga was most likely not trying to flood people with information and assumed they understood things better than they did. This issue probably would have been helped by much more in depth discussions about what an Artist In Residency program is for, who Nina is, why she was chosen to kick it off, where it’s headed next, etc etc etc. The collection having “punk” in it’s title seems to have confused a lot of people, and posts from the main Cryptopunks account very likely exacerbated that.

It’s important not to be one sided here- lots of people also reacted without reading anything, ignoring published information while imagining their own histories and narratives and then panicking about them. I saw lots of people insisting everything had been wonderful under Larva Labs or even that Cryptopunks had been a decentralized community project until Yuga made it corporate. It’s a disappointing state of the world when anything outside of 10 second tiktoks are basically ignored by everyone. What? 2 paragraphs of text? I’m not reading all that!

Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to sit here today – barely 24 hours after the drama kicked off – and say if the collection was called “Punk In Residence: Nina Chanel Abney” and it was announced from a newly created @punkinresidence social media account after several weeks of posting educational materials this probably would have landed very differently, but here we are.

Trolls Gonna Troll

Another crucially important detail: Yuga is a troll magnet. There are a dedicated group of haters who will criticize anything they do, and will look for any opportunity to go after them. This isn’t unusual, in fact it’s online trolling 101 – target the big accounts and you’ll get some of their attention. We’ve seen this tactic deployed across countless genres for decades, it always works because people always take the bait. But Yuga has been tied up in years of battles, both legal and social, and that’s made them both a big target and hypersensitive to it – which ironically makes all that much more rewarding for the trolls. Which complicates things when you consider the next detail…

Yuga has a Trust Issue

Be it massively hyped NFT drops that feel neglected after launch, mini games missing the mark, surprise acquisitions, layoffs, sales of properties, mea culpas, management changes, mixed messages from various accounts and unclear priorities – Any of these things are easily justified or explained one at a time, but in aggregate and the fact that if it’s not one thing it’s another results in Yuga having a serious trust issue, and as such anything they announce is now taken with skepticism and questions about how long until they change their story or abandon it.

To date the Cryptopunks team has largely been exempt from that. Preferring a low key hands off position, under the guidance of Natalie Stone the steps taken from Cryptopunks have widely been seen as thoughtful and considered. The Cryptopunks community has enjoyed a a kind of siloed relationship with Yuga, ups and downs at “corporate” have rarely impacted Cryptopunks initiatives. While there are lingering promises from the early days of the acquisition that are still uncompleted (*cough* revamped marketplace cough) most of what Stone has put into motion has been delivered, or is obviously in progress. She’s also been there for the community, listening to concerns, requests, and trying to help people understand where things are at and why. Even over the last 24 hours when the timeline has been full of hate directed towards Yuga, much (not all) of that seems to come with a caveat that people still trust and appreciate her. This is difficult to pull off, and to me least, reads like all is not lost.

The wild card here is yesterday’s post from Yuga’s CEO. To begin with it’s vague as to what next steps, if any, there are. It also brought up a lot of questions, which at least as I’m writing this are not yet being responded to. Announcing something and then changing course less than 8 hours later feels reactionary. No matter how they decided to proceed, I think it would have been better to take a week – hell a day or two at least – to think about it, let the dust settle and give cooler heads a chance to prevail. If you launch a big long term project, work on it for a year, and the first release lands poorly the thing to do is iterate, learn from what happened and apply that to the next round. This is a public show of a desire to improve things, and makes good on your promise to do them. If you cancel it and walk away at the first (and entirely predictable) backlash then that puts every future promise you make into question. Why would punks (or anyone) take Yuga at their word going forward if it seems they will pull a 180 if the road seems bumpier than expected. Why would a world class artist like Abney even consider working with Yuga again if it seems they will just give up if faced with any pushback?

In the last few weeks leading up to this launch several people have asked me for predictions, and in every single case I’ve said the worst thing that could possibly happen would be Yuga panicking and canceling the whole program. I deeply hope that’s not where this is headed. The “in Residence” program is important and valuable, things don’t always work perfectly the first time but efforts should be made to keep it going and try again.

Perceptions by Others

Another very serious problem is that the reaction to Super Punk World was filled with really hateful, xenophobic shit, and even though this mostly wasn’t coming from CryptoPunks, the association is there and sulking away leaves that lingering taste. As an example I’ve mentioned that people still blame the V1 Cryptopunk community for the actions of random trolls because lots of drama happened at the same time and there was no one to come forward and say “this isn’t us, we don’t condone this.” The official Cryptopunks account should post a strong condemnation of the attacks on Nina and others, and Yuga should stand behind her and this project they did together. Abandoning her at this point makes everything I’ve just talked about worse. Standing up and defending an artist would score a lot of points.

Update: Several people within the punks community put together a statement to make clear that the hateful attacks were not from punks and that kind of approach is not welcome in the community.

Way Forward

I’ve had many conversations with many people about what Yuga should do in relation to Cryptopunks. In February when co-founder Greg Solano returned at CEO, one of the announcements was the creation of a new company, BAYC LLC, to house all of the Bored Ape projects. This made a lot of sense to everyone, Yuga shifts to more of a quiet parent/umbrella role and individual properties get siloed teams, budgets and focus. I said at the time that a follow up announcement of a “CryptoPunks LLC” or similar would be welcome and calm fears that the rug might be pulled out from the Cryptopunks team at any moment, or that they would be sucked back into other parts of the company.

That could take a number of shapes, but I’ve iterated on the idea a bit and now think a sort of non-profit foundation or trust might make more sense. Yuga Labs owns a lot of CryptoPunks and is legally obligated to protect that investment. I think if they set up a foundation to house and protect the Cryptopunks IP, similar to to the Warhol Foundation, while keeping their punks as assets, then actions of the foundation would in turn protect their investment.

There’s a huge fear in the Cryptopunks community that Yuga, hard up for cash, will try to commercialize Cryptopunks. Transferring the IP to a foundation resolves that fear instantly. This also allows the foundation to launch initiatives (like In Residence or licensing) without the fear of “cashing in” as they would be under a legal mandate to protect the IP. This could be funded by Yuga, or by other foundations, or even in part by the community which has already had many discussions about what it would take to buy the IP back from Yuga and self manage it. Yuga matching an investment from the community would be a very powerful statement here.

As it stands right now we’ve seen several statements from Yuga about wanting to protect Cryptopunks, but in light of the aforementioned trust issues and potentially backpedaling on the Punks In Residence program, anything they say is being taken with several grains of salt. Taking a step like this I think would be welcomed by almost everyone.

Update: This suggestion has led to several conversations which have come together and a number of people are now working on setting up a foundation independently, if you are interested in joining the discussions please let me know. More on this in the near future.
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