In the weird wide world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), there’s nothing quite as punk as owning a CryptoPunk. A status symbol, a piece of internet history, and an unspeakably valuable asset, CryptoPunks may be the most important NFT collection there is.
As a project inexplicably intertwined with the growth of the Ethereum blockchain, CryptoPunks is sometimes called the progenitor of NFTs. That’s because nearly every large-scale project that came after it, even multi-billion dollar endeavors like the Bored Ape Yacht Club, can be traced directly back to the CryptoPunk mold.
Yet, the true history and value of the CryptoPunks NFT project can seem a bit hazy — which has led to many (especially average consumers) wondering why someone would ever pay millions of dollars for a pixelated JPEG headshot. So to unravel the mystery, we spoke with prominent NFT collector and unrivaled CryptoPunks maximalist Gmoney to create this ultimate guide to CryptoPunks. Let’s get started.
What are CryptoPunks?
Launched in June of 2017 by product studio Larva Labs and acquired by Yuga Labs in 2022, CryptoPunks is one of the first NFT collections ever on the Ethereum blockchain. It consists of 10,000 unique 24×24 pixel art images that depict mostly humans (6,039 male and 3,840 female). However, there are several other unique types that are considered more valuable because of their rarity. These include zombies (88), apes (24), and aliens (9).
Each CryptoPunk can also exhibit a combination of 87 unique attributes. These are known as “traits” and include hats, cigarettes, necklaces, earrings, eyepatches, and more. The London punk movement of the 1970s inspired the distinctive imagery and traits featured within the CryptoPunks collection.
The maximum number of traits a single CryptoPunk can have is seven. However, only one CryptoPunk (#8348) exists with seven traits. It has a cigarette, earring, mole, buck teeth, classic shades, a top hat, and a big beard. CryptoPunks can also have zero traits, but most tend to have two or three. You can see how the number of traits impacts both the value and scarcity of a CryptoPunk NFT in the image below.
Who created CryptoPunks?
Unlike the recent projects it inspired, CryptoPunks didn’t initially set out to create a community. In fact, the team didn’t even have a roadmap. The project was an experiment in creating generative characters conceived by Canadian software developers and Larva Labs founders Matt Hall and John Watkinson.
At the time, the NFT space was a far cry from the robust market we see today. As a result, CryptoPunks initially started out slow. Going live in June 2017, initially, Punks NFTs were given away for free to whoever wanted them. This was because a user would need an active Ethereum wallet to collect one, so supply was limited to those who were already invested in crypto.
“What makes CryptoPunks important is that a community grew around them organically,” explained Gmoney in an interview with nft now. “There is a provenance around them because they are one of the first NFT projects on Ethereum — and they were free to claim at the start.”
Gmoney says early supporters of CryptoPunks, such as now top-tier NFT influencers Pranksy, 6529, and Seedphrase, “realized earlier than most that digital ownership was going to be spreading more and more on-chain” and that “being able to own and claim stuff on-chain was going to be very valuable.”
Since 2017, CryptoPunks has grown from a simple, niche internet fad into one of the world’s more expansive and well-known NFT projects. Similarly, Meebits, launched by Larva Labs in May 2021 and often referred to early on as “3D CryptoPunks,” has only helped further expand the Punks ecosystem and lore.
And while Punks technically isn’t the first NFT project on Ethereum, it is one of the earliest and undoubtedly the most influential. Many of those patient enough to hold have become multi-millionaires, and those lucky enough to get in before the 2021 craze and subsequently be awarded Meebits for free are regarded as some of the most fortunate people in the NFT space.
How to buy a CryptoPunk NFT
Those new to the NFT space will inevitably come across CryptoPunks sooner than later. And when they do, they’ll immediately understand one thing: Punks are a remarkably valuable asset.
Let’s put the pricing in perspective. On July 6th, 2017, Alien CryptoPunk #3100 sold for 8 ETH. That was roughly about $2,000 at the time. Back then, this would’ve seemed like a ludicrous price for a JPEG. Yet, almost four years later, in March of 2021, that same Punk sold for a staggering 4,200 ETH ($7.58 million).
Although we’re talking about one of the highest Punk sales to date, such sales were far from uncommon during the duration of the 2021 CryptoPunks bull run. Over the course of the year, Punks went from selling for as low as 7 ETH to absolutely exploding towards the fall. During this time, the price of even the cheapest available Punks was around 100 ETH. Today, the most recent Punks sales are priced similarly, at around 50-70 ETH each, with the rarest CryptoPunks selling for as much as 200 ETH. But the prices have more or less stabilized.
If you have enough crypto in your wallet (props to you if so), you can buy one on the CryptoPunks website.
Auction houses have also taken to selling Punks. So if you keep your eye out, you might be able to buy one in a special sale. In fact, Christie’s has to be given a great deal of credit for the development of the Punk marketplace by exposing those in more traditional art spaces to Punks. As a follow-up to the major auction house’s $69 million Beeple sale in March 2021, Christie’s presented a collection of nine CryptoPunks in May that sold for a whopping $16.9 million.
Why are CryptoPunks so expensive?
Over time CryptoPunks have come to be seen as not only a potentially lucrative investment but as a status symbol. Gmoney says that he purchased his CryptoPunk because he wanted the status that came with it. “With an NFT, by posting it as my avatar on Twitter and Discord, I can quickly ‘flex’ with a picture[…] It has the same effect as wearing that Rolex in real life, but digitally,” he said.
People in the NFT community tend to see CryptoPunk owners as builders and visionaries. Rightly or wrongly, they are viewed as people who foresaw where NFTs were going and got in ahead of the curve. As a result, they are given the presumption of trust and status. In fact, a number of collectors have created entire personas, projects, communities, and brands around a single CryptoPunk NFT.
Additionally, considering their history and how they grew and developed from the early days alongside the Ethereum blockchain, some argue that owning a Punk is like placing a bet on the importance of NFTs and the Ethereum blockchain itself. For the most part, the early supporters of Punks didn’t just chance upon the project. As Gmoney put it, “You had to be around in crypto early on to get involved with CryptoPunks.”
In short, the project is valued so highly because of its historical significance and how it represents a belief in Ethereum. But whatever the ratio of social to financial value may be, celebrities, venture capitalists, and even hedge funds have continued to join the CryptoPunks bandwagon in droves. And when all is said and done, it’s hard to discount a project that turned collectors into millionaires nearly overnight. To this end, the collection continues to be valuable partially because of the success early collectors secured, and everyone is hoping for a repeat.
While Punks may be one of the top NFT projects of all time, the team behind the endeavor isn’t immune to controversy. In February 2022, Larva Labs faced backlash when Watkinson sold off his stock of V1 Punks — the original CryptoPunks contract written by Larva Labs, which due to a bug could not be sold until the release of a new wrapper.
Days after the sale, Larva Labs attempted to blacklist the collection, sending a DMCA letter to OpenSea which resulted in a temporary delisting. This denouncement caused the price of V1 Punks to plummet, creating a financial loss for everyone who bought the NFTs from Watkinson.
The community was split on whether or not what Larva Labs did was wrong. Some argued that the company wasn’t worthy of criticism, as the team clearly stated that they didn’t approve of the project and intended to sell. Others found fault with the company because the team only condemned the project and stated that they were selling two days after the cofounder had already sold…which isn’t exactly forthright.
And that wasn’t the only time the company received criticism from the NFT community. Larva Labs also faced backlash for allegedly attacking trusted Punks derivative projects and for failing to clarify what Intellectual Property (IP) rights users have in relation to the CryptoPunk NFT they own.
Yuga Labs buys CryptoPunks
In March of 2022, Yuga Labs — the aforementioned creator of Bored Ape Yacht Club — acquired both CryptoPunks and Meebits. With this acquisition, Yuga said they would aim to foster a “community of builders” creating derivative works around the two projects. To accomplish this, as they’ve done with their own BAYC collection, Yuga stated that they would transfer IP, commercial, and exclusive licensing rights to the individual NFT holders.
In effect, this acquisition addressed one of the major controversies surrounding CryptoPunks — as users were finally given a clear framework of what rights they would have in relation to their CryptoPunks. Now, owners of CryptoPunks and Meebits are empowered to create artwork and products based on their NFTs in the same way BAYC owners can. This has led to numerous successful derivatives, such as Seize The Meebs.
In a statement, Larva Labs said they moved forward with the acquisition deal because they felt Yuga would be better stewards of their projects. “Yuga Labs are the best in the world at what they do and are the ideal stewards of the CryptoPunks and Meebits. In their hands, we are confident that they will continue to be vital, thriving projects in the emerging decentralized web,” they said.
As part of the deal, Yuga Labs received 423 CryptoPunks and 1,711 Meebits. When asked what they plan to do with them, Yuga Labs said, “We’re not in a rush to do anything but give people their IP, see what they build, and listen.”
The future of CryptoPunks
At only a few years old, CryptoPunks has already been established as a legacy project in the NFT space. Gmoney notes that, even with the NFT space growing as fast as it is, Punks won’t get lost in the surge or be forgotten. Why? Because they are still considered the starting point for NFTs and the event from which everything began.
“CryptoPunks will continue to be a very big pillar of the NFT community. They don’t need to evolve and nothing needs to happen for them to cement their place in history,” said Gmoney.
Still, with Yuga at the helm, Punks will likely continue to change and evolve. Although Yuga gets a cut every time a Bored Ape is resold, Larva Labs didn’t implement a similar royalties system for CryptoPunks and Meebits. Yuga says they don’t plan to change that, but they didn’t offer any statement indicating what they do plan to do with the collections going forward.
While the world waits to see what might become of CryptoPunks, prices continue to fluctuate wildly in the wake of the NFT bear market. Yet, regardless of what happens, considering NFTs are so often looked down upon as a niche and temporary fad, it seems very fitting that the mascot of the space is a Punk.
Additional reporting by Alex Yates.