Inside CryptoPunks’ Early Days: From “Deafening Silence” to Digital Revolution

BY Matt Medved

October 10, 2023

When Larva Labs founders Matt Hall and John Watkinson launched the CryptoPunks project in June 2017, they never expected to spark a digital art movement.

“Two nerds make new website, try to get people to go to website, and accidentally become artists,” Hall sums it up.

In the first episode of “Punks As Told By CryptoPunks,” a revealing new docuseries presented by CryptoPunks and nft now, Hall and Watkinson provide an exclusive look into the early days of the seminal generative art project.

While it may not be the first NFT project on Ethereum, CryptoPunks is widely regarded as the most influential. Featuring 10,000 algorithmically generated pixel art images with 87 unique attributes, the collection inspired the ERC-721 standard and gave birth to the profile picture (“PFP”) movement that defined the last bull run and produced the likes of Bored Ape Yacht Club (“BAYC”).

Early Experiments

More than a decade before the first Bitcoin block, Hall and Watkinson trace the origin of their partnership back to their first collaborations in Toronto during the early 1990s Internet era.

“We like the idea of the computer as a creative tool,” Watkinson recalls. “We just wanted to build things, experiment and try new things.”

Those explorations eventually led them to discover the Ethereum community, whose “cyberpunk vibe” resonated with their counterculture values. Inspired by the crypto space’s ethos of decentralization and their own longtime love for punk rock music, CryptoPunks was born in a two-month sprint.

“It took us twenty years and then two months,” Hall clarifies. “We had to know what to do in those two months.”

While CryptoPunks would go on to do more than $2.6 billion in all-time sales volume, you wouldn’t have known it from the launch. Hall jokingly recalls the “deafening silence” that the free-to-claim project received upon its debut.

“Nobody was really claiming them,” he laughs. “There were maybe 800 or 1,000 claims in the first week.”

“Nobody was really claiming them. There were maybe 800 or 1,000 claims in the first week.”

Matt Hall

After recognizing the flaws in their pitch, Hall and Watkinson secured coverage from Mashable that put wind in the project’s sails.

“From that point on, it felt like something real,” Watkinson says. “This premise that this could work as a collectible, Ethereum and this what-we-now-call-NFT mechanism, that works. We started hearing a bit from the art community that this was important to them as they had this digital editioning problem.”

Punks Rising

As the NFT market began bubbling up in 2020, Hall and Watkinson noticed the CryptoPunks prices rising ahead of a spike in early January 2021. The duo were still working their day jobs and found the burgeoning community “a little distracting,” to say the least.

“Something crazy would happen every day,” Hall says. “Some big sale, some person said that, or this person bought one or said this. This is part of what’s crazy about having something decentralized. It’s just happening out there. It’s not under our control.”

As the project’s community continued to develop, Hall and Watkinson felt “stuck” with the realization that its needs outstripped their skillsets and interests.

“CryptoPunks started to become a brand, effectively,” Watkinson says. “The core technical thing was going on, and that was fine. But beyond that, was this whole brand management thing that Matt and I are not cut out for. We don’t want to run a team and wouldn’t be good at it.”

“[There was] this whole brand management thing that Matt and I are not cut out for. We don’t want to run a team and wouldn’t be good at it.”

John watkinson

According to Watkinson, the conversation with Yuga Labs around acquisition arose organically and made sense for both parties. Announced in March 2022, BAYC’s parent company acquired CryptoPunks and Meebits from Larva Labs in a landmark move that cemented its status as an industry leader.

“We knew that nothing would change with the core of CryptoPunks,” he says. “All that stuff about managing the brand and thinking about the future of it, that can be in good hands and see another chapter.”

Watch the full first episode here. Check back each week for new episodes exploring the project’s evolution and interviewing notable figures across the CryptoPunks community.

Editor’s note: At the time of publication, the author holds one CryptoPunk NFT.

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