Collecting the Algorithm: Autoglyphs

As part of our Collecting The Algorithm series, we’re showcasing how we’ve curated notable algorithms at Curated. The first in this series is a primer for on-chain generative art. If you’re new to collecting or generative art, we recommend you start there.

Autoglyphs are the cave paintings of on-chain generative art.

Just as cave paintings are considered the oldest known representational art in the world, Autoglyphs are the first fully on-chain generative art, in which the system that produces the art is entirely on-chainThe comparison of Autoglyphs to cave paintings was first made in “The First Uncertain Step In a Completely New Direction”, a 2022 article from The Monty Report.. That they were created by Larva Labs, the same pioneers that had released CryptoPunks — the iconic 10,000 algorithmically generated collectibles — only adds to the lore of Autoglyphs.

From the Larva Labs website on Autoglyphs

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In this piece, we’ll share a bit of background on Autoglyphs, reflect on what makes them so special, dig into the algorithm, and share how we’ve curated our collection of them.

The Story of Autoglyphs

In the two years following the successful launch of CryptoPunks, Matt Hall and John Watkinson of Larva Labs went back into the lab to tinker. One detail of their last project had been bothering them: amidst all the discussion of permanence and provenance of the blockchain, the actual artwork of CryptoPunks was still stored off-chainThe images for CryptoPunks were initially stored off-chain with a cryptographic hash hardcoded into the original smart contract. Later on, the artwork and associated attributes were moved on-chain.. NFT smart contracts simply referenced the media, usually through a link or, in the case of CryptoPunks, a verification hash of the external image file.

With Autoglyphs, we asked ourselves, “Can we make the entire thing completely self-contained and completely open and operating on the blockchain?”

John Watkinson in a 2019 interview with Artnome

The main obstacle to storing media on-chain is that the Ethereum blockchain was not designed to store large amounts of data. There are major compute and storage constraints, both technically and economically. Jason Bailey aka Artnome likened this to the compute and storage challenges that the earliest generative artists like Michael Noll and Ken Knowlton faced when trying to create art on computers in the early 1960s.

Matt and John worked on many iterations of the algorithm to fit within the on-chain constraints of Ethereum. The final algorithm is an impressively compressed algorithm, fully expressed in Solidity, that was deployed on April 5th, 2019 and generated 512 pieces.

The “Protoglyph”, an output from an early algorithm exploration

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While CryptoPunks were free to claim at launch, Autoglyphs cost 0.2 ETH to mint — about $35 at the time — with all proceeds donated to charity. This divergence in approach was due to Larva Labs’ desire to prevent a few early people from acquiring a large number of them, which they observed during the claiming of CryptoPunks. The solution was to add some small price friction, but then donate the proceeds to charity to maintain the same spirit of CryptoPunks. Larva Labs took ownership of the first 128 Autoglyphs, just as they claimed the first 1,000 punks.

In the years that followed, Autoglyphs have achieved many notable milestones as a work of art and culture:

Appreciating Autoglyphs

As with CryptoPunks, there’s a lot more to Autoglyphs than meets the eye. Autoglyphs are a wholly contained system for the creation, ownership, and display of digital art, completing the creative arc for Larva Labs that CryptoPunks started. They are a nod to the storied past of digital art, while fully embracing the present and future. Additionally, they also helped kick off the on-chain generative art movement, inspiring Art Blocks and an entire wave of generative artists.

Let’s explore each of these facets of fully appreciating Autoglyphs.

Fully On-Chain Generative Art

"The Autoglyphs are a highly optimized generative algorithm capable of creating billions of unique artworks, wrapped inside an ERC-721 interface. While ERC-721 is the standard for “non-fungible tokens” (something that the CryptoPunks helped define), it is generally used to manage ownership of digital items stored elsewhere. The key difference with the Autoglyphs is that the art is inside the contract itself, it is literally “art on the blockchain.”

- Autoglyphs on the Larva Labs website

The challenge that Larva Labs took on with Autoglyphs, both artistically and technically, was to create a generative algorithm that had versatility in output and could run efficiently on Ethereum nodes. There were meaningful technical limitations, including contract size limit (24.6 kb) and gas limit, which set a cap on the computational work that could be done in a single block. Despite all this, the project still had to stay true to the artists’ vision of their art.

The end result is a beautiful generative art algorithm that lives fully on-chain. The NFT doesn’t reference any external media, but rather provides the art in ASCII form in a data URI output. You can place this output directly into a web browser and see the art without any other dependencies. One thing to note is that the Autoglyph image on secondary marketplaces is an SVG that doesn’t exist in the actual NFT. It’s a rendering of the instructions, constructed with the aesthetic characters in the Autoglyphs font — a custom font created by Larva Labs that can be downloaded through their site. The core of Autoglyphs is the drawing instructions, presented in ASCII form, which follow the same spirit as Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings in that the concept of the art comes from the artist, but the execution happens separately from the artist.

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You can play with the smart contract and render a fully on-chain Autoglyph yourself in our mini app below:

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<iframe src="https://curatedglyphs.vercel.app/" name="myIFrame" height="462px" scrolling="auto" style="border: solid #d9d9d9;"></iframe>

A Complete and Immutable System

Larva Labs built Autoglyphs to be a complete system for the creation, ownership, and display of an entire generative art collection. In the self-determining spirit of the cypherpunk, the project has as few dependencies as possible, further extending their experiment of digital assets as decentralized stores of value.

As with CryptoPunks, once deployed, Larva Labs could no longer control the code that generates the art nor the code that manages ownership of the Autoglyphs. This provided collectors with an immutable guarantee of ownership, provenance, and edition size independent of any individual or authority.

Zero Royalties

One of the major differences between CryptoPunks and Autoglyphs is the removal of the built-in smart contract marketplace. In the years between the projects, the ERC-721 standard had been developed and a number of external marketplaces, including OpenSea, came into existence. Not only did it become unnecessary to build marketplace functionality into the smart contract, but it was better to leverage external marketplaces and the growing ecosystem of functionality being built around the ERC-721 standard.

What remained the same was the zero secondary sale royalty approach that Larva Labs took with CryptoPunks. Zero royalties encouraged active trading, while also removing Larva Labs' dependency on external marketplaces to enforce royalties on sales. The creators instead relied on their personal claim of the first 128 Autoglyphs, which aligned their interests with collectors. The self-deterministic spirit is a common theme in Larva Labs’ work and would prove prescient in the years that followed as secondary marketplaces struggled with royalty enforcement.

Connecting Past and Future

The creation of the Autoglyph pulled elements of both the historical past of digital art and what Larva Labs believed to be the future. The work is a homage to early computer artists, with both aesthetic and implementation inspiration from Noll, Knowlton, and Sol LeWitt.

Original image from Artnome.com, with Autoglyph #14 from the Curated collection appended

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Inspired by Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, Larva Labs designed Autoglyphs with the idea that anyone could follow the instructions and create the visual, whether on a big wall, a computer, or in a plotter. In fact, Autoglyphs were designed with plotting in mind. Autoglyph owners can generate SVGs designed specifically for CNC plotters on the Larva Labs website.

<iframe src="https://larvalabs.com/public/images/autoglyphs/autoglyph_plotter.mp4" height="400px" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture; web-share" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Collecting Autoglyphs

Perhaps more than any other generative art algorithm, it’s challenging in practice to do much curation when collecting Autoglyphs. Putting aside the price considerations (which at time of publishing sits at a 179 ETH or $394k floor), there are simply very few Autoglyphs listed at any given time. The number of Autoglyphs available in the secondary market sits regularly in the low single digits. With 87 of Larva Labs’ original 128 pieces still in their wallet and a number of original collectors who simply refuse to sell, Autoglyphs remain one of the most supply constrained collections in existence.

Still, there are important factors to understand when collecting Autoglyphs. To the extent it is within our ability to choose, our curation focuses on clean aesthetics, coverage of symbol sets, and provenance.

Some of the Autoglyphs in the Curated Collection

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Aesthetics and Symmetry

As should be evident from our collecting primers on Chromie Squiggles and CryptoPunks, we greatly value clean aesthetics. While we enjoy every piece in the collection, we’re particularly drawn to works with symmetry and unique patterns.

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Beyond any other factor, we believe in having a visceral connection to each art piece, and clean aesthetics play a major role in that.

Explicit Trait: Symbol Sets

Each Autoglyph is created by using characters or “glyphs” from a set of symbols. Across the collection, there are 10 Symbol Sets. Symbol Set 1 is the most common with Symbol Set 10 being the rarest.

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Each of these glyphs are represented by ASCII characters (e.g. #, |, -, +), which are assigned to each Symbol Set in byte form in the smart contract.

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Larva Labs encoded a rudimentary form of probabilistic assignment, taking an input generated by hashing a user defined seedIn theory, anyone could game the minting to generate the rare Symbol Sets, but the resulting collection minted with an expected distribution.. The most common is Symbol Set 1 with 121 pieces and the rarest is Symbol Set 10, with only 8 pieces.

We’ve worked to curate across as many Symbol Sets as possible, with a number of pieces within Symbol Sets #1-5. We also acquired a single Symbol Set 9, Autoglyph #14, which we’ll dive into shortly.

Autoglyph #132, Symbol Set #1

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Autoglyph #248, Symbol Set #2

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Autoglyph #154, Symbol Set #3

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Autoglyph #294, Symbol Set #4

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Autoglyph #409, Symbol Set #5

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Autoglyph #14, Symbol Set #9

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To collect a “full set” is to collect an Autoglyph of each Symbol Set. Only seven collectors have full sets, which is one of the most difficult tasks within on-chain generative art collecting.


Across both CryptoPunks and Autoglyphs, Larva Labs’ exploration of digital art on the blockchain has centered around building self-contained systems that record ownership of non-fungible digital assets. In their work, Larva Labs has centered provenance as a first class feature, with the immutable provenance of digital art on the blockchain being a significant improvement over provenance for physical art.

We believe that provenance matters and will matter a lot more decades from now. While most pieces in our collection come from wonderful stewards - many original minters from 2019 - we are especially honored to have Autoglyph #14 in the Curated collection, which was acquired directly from Matt and John of Larva Labs.

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Not only is Autoglyph #14 one of just ten Symbol Set #9 Autoglyphs, it was the first piece to leave the Larva Labs vault in the time after Yuga Labs acquired CryptoPunks and Meebits in early 2022. This particular Autoglyph remains one of the most significant artworks across our entire collection.

Final Word

We believe that on-chain generative art is the purest art form native to the blockchain. At the genesis of this movement, before anything else, there were Autoglyphs.

The significance of Autoglyphs is not just about being early or “first”. It’s about embodying the ethos of the cypherpunk and turning it into art. It’s about honoring the digital artists that have come before, as we step into the future. Most importantly for creators, it’s about taking back control from platforms and intermediaries and being self-sovereign in the era of digital art on the blockchain.

Thanks to Matt Hall, John Watkinson, DCinvestor, Luiz Ramalho, Nat Emodi, Monty, Arad, Proper, and PlutoniumF for reading drafts and shaping our thinking on this piece.