Collecting the CUlture: CryptoPunks

As the original set of 10,000 algorithmically generated digital collectibles on the blockchain, CryptoPunks have become iconic symbols of digital ownership.

They epitomize the ethos of the decentralized web and mark a pivotal moment in the intertwining of crypto, art, and digital identity. They’ve inspired everything from the on-chain generative art movement to digital artworks that are now in major museums and galleries, as well as the massive wave of profile picture (PFP) collectibles in 2021-2022.

If Bitcoin is the currency of the cypherpunks, then CryptoPunks represents its culture. The cypherpunk movement began in the early ‘90s with a simple mailing list of likeminded individuals discussing the use of encryption to protect individual freedoms. Cypherpunks not only laid the philosophical groundwork for Bitcoin, but they also explored the concept of digital collectibles in the form of cryptographic trading cards. Decades later, this movement would lead to the creation of the blockchain and inspire two developers to create the first truly iconic — and revolutionary — digital collectibles project.

Email from early Bitcoin contributor Hal Finney on crypto trading cards

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In this primer, we’ll cover a brief history of CryptoPunks, deep dive into appreciating them, and share how we’ve crafted our CryptoPunks collection at Curated.

Larva Labs and CryptoPunks

CryptoPunks were created in 2017 by Matt Hall and John Watkinson through their studio Larva Labs. The duo had previously built fun projects at the intersection of art and tech. Elements from those projects later made their way into CryptoPunks: the pixel art in Gurk (an 8-bit RPG) and the memetic virality of profile pictures in Androidify, an app for creating a customizable PFP based on the Google Android mascot. For Larva Labs, CryptoPunks was an opportunity to explore the dimensions of digital ownership on the blockchain.

There's like a weird intersection here between these virtual, digital things and an artificial rarity, but a rarity that is real and valuable in some sense.

Matt Hall in a 2017 Mashable interview

2017 was still an early time for crypto adoption. It was just three years after Ethereum's launch and coincided with the initial surge of the ICO bubble around fungible ERC-20 tokens. The user experience of Ethereum was critically lacking, there weren’t great wallet interfaces, and the world of NFTs did not exist.

In order to create CryptoPunks, Larva Labs created a modified version of the ERC-20 fungible token contract, which would later serve as inspiration for the ERC-721 standard for NFTs. And since no marketplaces existed at the time, they built in a decentralized marketplace directly into the CryptoPunks smart contract exclusively for buying and selling punks.

Matt Hall and John Watkinson of Larva Labs

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When CryptoPunks launched, it took eight days for the collection to be fully claimed even though they were free. Thousands of CryptoPunks sat unclaimed until a Mashable article drove interest to the site. Fast forward to today, the lowest priced CryptoPunk is ~$114k USD (~57ETH).

In the six years since launch, CryptoPunks has outdone even the wildest imaginations of their creators:

CryptoPunks selling at Sotheby’s

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In March 2022, Larva Labs announced the sale of CryptoPunks and Meebits to Yuga Labs, the team behind Bored Ape Yacht Club. While Matt and John would no longer be the stewards of CryptoPunks, they made a lasting impact on the future of crypto and digital art. Their creation inspired CryptoKitties and the ERC-721 standard, Chromie Squiggles and the founding of Art Blocks, and Bored Apes and the explosion of collectibles/PFP projects. The massive wave of interest in NFTs from 2020 to today stems from what Matt and John created:

“When I started writing the standard for non-fungible tokens that would become ERC-721 and introduced the term “NFT”, I drew on other projects that explored similar ideas. Cryptopunks was the strongest inspiration because it followed the structure of ERC-20 as closely as possible while allowing for individual ownership of distinct tokens. Ultimately, I think ERC-721 succeeded because we followed the example of Cryptopunks and kept the interface simple and parallel to ERC-20.”

- Dieter Shirley, Co-Creator of CryptoKitties, Co-Founder of Dapper Labs, and author of ERC-721 standard

“Larva Labs connected the dots for me on two fronts with the launch of the CryptoPunks project. #1 they opened my eyes to the concept of ownership of a digital object and #2 they demonstrated the potential for blockchain technology to facilitate distribution of content through a "self service" claim. My mind was blown, and as I was claiming my CryptoPunks in June of 2017 I realized there was an opportunity to take things one step further letting the blockchain decide what the generative algorithm was going to produce in a single transaction by the collector. This concept was eventually refined into what Art Blocks is today.”

- Erick Calderon, Founder of Art Blocks and Creator of the Chromie Squiggle

"When we created Bored Ape Yacht Club, there was no project we looked to for inspiration more than Punks. It's a flawless collection. Aside from just being very cool, so much of what we all have grown to love about NFTs sprouted up from CryptoPunks and the community that formed around them. It's impossible to tell the history of NFTs without putting Matt and John's creation near the center of it all. That's why when we inherited the legacy of CryptoPunks as a company, our goal was to be good stewards, to preserve and honor it.”

- Gordon Goner, Co-Founder of Yuga Labs

As the saying goes, all roads lead back to CryptoPunks.

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Appreciating CryptoPunks

There’s a lot more to a CryptoPunk than 24x24 pixel art. They are the artistic embodiment of self-sovereignty and mark a defining moment in the history of digital ownership. In 250 lines of code, Larva Labs created a self-contained system encompassing a verifiable record of ownership, a decentralized marketplace, and full reproducibility, all constructed in an immutable way. Beyond the technical feats, owning a CryptoPunk signals an understanding of the significance of blockchain-based digital assets and inclusion in the cryptonative community around it. Let’s dive into the components of appreciating CryptoPunks.

CryptoPunk art alongside its underlying smart contract

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Record of Ownership

CryptoPunks were created before there was an ERC-721 standard, which is what we now largely identify with as NFTs on Ethereum. Larva Labs had to modify the existing ERC-20 token standard to forge a unique, non-fungible kind of digital asset. This would create a trustless and verifiable record of ownership that didn't rely on any central record keeper. Later, CryptoPunks would serve as inspiration towards the creation of the ERC-721 standard and is cited multiple times in the original Ethereum Improvement Proposal (EIP).

Ownership and sales history for CryptoPunk #3489 as shown on the Larva Labs site

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CryptoPunks broke new ground not just in the concept of digital ownership, but also in the way these digital assets could be traded. At the time, generalized NFT marketplaces such as OpenSea did not exist. An underappreciated feature of CryptoPunks is that the marketplace functionality is encoded right into the smart contract. This means the art being collected isn’t just the pixel art; it’s also the smart contract mechanisms behind it. Its very existence includes the mechanics to facilitate its own trade with no middleman necessary. It's a self-contained economy that survives irrespective of external marketplaces.

The CryptoPunk marketplace alongside code for buying a Punk in the smart contract

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This feature is often overshadowed by discussions of price and rarity, but is essential for understanding and fully appreciating the significance of CryptoPunks. Today, even amidst the discussions around royalties and secondary marketplaces taking power away from artists and collectors, CryptoPunks are still predominantly traded through their own smart contract, the same one that the CryptoPunks tokens live on. With the marketplace built in, the self-sovereign spirit of the cypherpunk forever lives on.


In 2017, CryptoPunks launched with their artwork contained in a large composite image that was stored off-chain. The on-chain data consisted only of a cryptographic hash of this image, and the token IDs of each punk were coordinates to find the punk in the large image (e.g. Punk #4519 is found 45 rows down, 19 columns over).

The original composite image that contains all 10,000 CryptoPunks

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In April of 2021, four years after its launch, CryptoPunks were brought on-chain with the help of Snowfro, the founder of Art Blocks, and audiovisual generative artist Deafbeef. Deafbeef created a proof-of-concept contract that proved it was possible. This elevated CryptoPunks from a referenced object to a complete, self-contained decentralized asset. Today, the SVGs and attributes of all 10,000 CryptoPunks live on-chain, forever part of the permanent record on the Ethereum blockchain.

To highlight this, we created the below demo to let you see the art and attributes for any CryptoPunk directly from the smart contract:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0, maximum-scale=1.0, user-scalable=no" />
<iframe src="https://curatedpunks.vercel.app/" name="myIFrame" height="400px" scrolling="auto" style="border: solid #d9d9d9;"></iframe>


The original CryptoPunks smart contract was designed to be immutable. There were no backdoors, no special privileges for the creators, and no way to alter what had been set in motion. Furthermore, the cryptographic hash of the composite image of all CryptoPunks was hard coded into the smart contract.

The subsequent contract that brought the Punks on-chain respected this ethos and was likewise sealed, rendering CryptoPunks an immutable digital artifact resistant to the whims of its creators or anyone else.

Self-Sovereign Creatorship

The overarching theme in the design of CryptoPunks is one of self-sovereign creatorship. It’s a story of creators taking back control from traditional intermediaries and having autonomy over how their work is owned, distributed, and monetized.

Beyond ownership, trading, and distribution, Larva Labs designed their economic incentives from CryptoPunks to be aligned with their community. Matt and John made CryptoPunks free to claim and trade, opting instead to claim the first 1,000 for themselves. In doing so, they could capture value as the project grew, without depending on additional primary sales or secondary marketplace royalties. Reducing external dependencies is core to the DNA of CryptoPunks.

Social Signal and the Community

In the early days of NFTs, owning a CryptoPunk was a symbol of inclusion within a small “OG” group of crypto enthusiasts that were excited about a future where digital collectibles on the blockchain are valued. Today, with the price of CryptoPunks and their collectability by museums, celebrities, and institutions, owning a CryptoPunk means a desire to be part of the global community of like-minded individuals building the future of crypto and digital assets. The community includes notable founders, creators, and even some celebrities, including Robert Leshner, Hayden Adams, Snowfro, Beeple, and Jay-Z.

Punks brunch at the Beeple Studios CryptoPunks meetup in 2023

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In the spirit of their creation, the community itself is decentralized and self-organizes events around the world, from Punk brunches at every major conference to the most recent meetup at Beeple Studios in Charleston. The CryptoPunks community, largely without involvement from Yuga Labs or Larva Labs, maintains one of the most active NFT communities through a community-run Telegram group.

The CryptoPunks community has also played a crucial role in bringing to life major cultural projects, including billboard campaigns, Tiffany & Co. jewelry, luxury sneakers, and physical art. The fact that the founders have been able to fully step away and still have the community thrive speaks volumes to the impact and legacy of CryptoPunks, which is second to none.

A Cultural Store of Value

While CryptoPunks weren’t the first digital collectible on the blockchain, they were the earliest collection to become culturally significant. We believe CryptoPunks are the defining on-chain cultural asset, which makes them an ideal store of value for multiple reasons. As Derek Edwards of Collab+Currency cites in his piece "Storing value in Digital Objects”:

A store of value object is something that is stored or saved as means to retain purchasing power. These objects often enjoy a large attention network, are provably scarce, highly durable, and have few external dependencies to maintain value over long periods.

To put that in the context of CryptoPunks:

There are also a few external factors that continue to make Punks uniquely appealing as a store of value:

We view CryptoPunks as a network of 10,000 assets. Today, the network’s market cap is ~$1.14Bn. When compared to the market cap of the top fungible cryptocurrencies, it would roughly rank as the 55th most valuable network. This could increase over time as demand for these hyper-scarce cultural assets goes up.

Collecting CryptoPunks

In Collecting The Algorithm, we wrote that collecting any piece of art should start with a visceral connection. In the case of CryptoPunks, it’s even more personal. For most collectors, choosing their punk goes beyond collecting a piece of art; it’s a search for digital identity. Collectors tend to seek punks that represent themselves, whether that’s in directly mirroring traits (e.g. beards, glasses, hair) or aspirational values (e.g. VR, 3D glasses).

Similar to on-chain generative art, there are several factors to consider before collecting, beyond a personal appreciation for the visual art. Our curation focuses on clean aesthetics, unique characteristics that tell a story, and covering a range of explicit and implicit traits.

Curated’s CryptoPunk collection

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Explicit and Implicit Traits

Covered more extensively in our primer on on-chain generative art, explicit traits are characteristics that the creator defines on-chain and is included in the token metadata. Explicit traits are often appreciated by collectors as they provide a clear indicator of rarity and opportunities to collect trait defined sets. Implicit traits are not clearly defined on-chain and often times come from lore or the community.

One of the earliest parts of CryptoPunk lore is the addition of types, attributes, and attribute counts to the website. Early members of the community, in the words of Hal Finney, aimed to “collect a whole set” by acquiring one of each attribute. Collecting traits is part of the DNA of collectors and is an important part of early CryptoPunks history. Just as with on-chain generative art, there are explicit traits, which are now on-chain, and implicit traits:

Explicit Trait: Type

The most visually noticeable trait is Type. While most CryptoPunks are human, either male or female, there are only 121 punks that are of other Types, including Zombies (88 total), Apes (24 total), and Aliens (9 total). While collecting non-human CryptoPunks is very difficult, their extreme visual distinctiveness makes them highly desirable to collectors.

The five Types of CryptoPunks

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Within the Curated collection, we have two Zombie CryptoPunks. As with our other CryptoPunks, we strive for visual cohesion and character. #3489 is a Zombie pirate lost at sea and #8472 is a clean 2-attribute Zombie.

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Explicit Trait: Attribute

Attributes are where CryptoPunks get most of their identity and personality. There are 87 different attributes that span hats, hair, glasses, beards, and accessories.

A subset of the 87 Attributes available

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While some attributes are coveted for their rarity, including Beanie and Tiara, many have grown from community love and have their own culture and market. These include:

Hoodies: Hoodie punks are particularly desirable, especially for an attribute that has mid-range rarity. The ethos of being comfortable in a hoodie (vs. wearing formal or uncomfortable clothing simply due to social convention) aligns well with crypto culture. Notable Hoodie punks include Punk 6529 and DCInvestor. Within our collection, we’ve curated two very clean Hoodie punks, #7641 and #512.

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Cowboy Hats: Cowboy punks are another notable subculture within CryptoPunks, complete with their own Discord community. Notable Cowboy punks include AC Collector, Balon, and 0xDeafbeef. In the Curated collection, we’ve got a complimentary pair (#8253 and #8188), which is a similar looking punk with and without sunglasses.

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Top Hats, 3D, and VR: While there are many other notable attributes, these three attributes are particularly loved in the CryptoPunks community. 3D and VR punks represent the futurist part of the culture, while Top Hats show the influence of the London punk scene on CryptoPunks. Our collection includes a very clean Top Hat (#1630), 3D Glasses (#2869), and VR (#2227).

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Implicit Trait: Attribute Count

Attribute Count was the last ‘trait’ added to the original CryptoPunks website. There are eight CryptoPunks that have 0 Attributes, one with 7 Attributes, and the rest are in between. While for most CryptoPunks attribute count doesn’t matter, the rarity of 0 and 7-attribute punks makes them highly coveted amongst collectors.

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Our collection is mainly focused on visual coherence and finding “clean” punks. While we admire the statistical rarity of 0-attribute CryptoPunks, the visual similarity of quite a few 1-attribute CryptoPunks (e.g. #1883 in our collection) make the often 8-10x price premium of 0-attribute CryptoPunks difficult to consider.

CryptoPunk #1883, 1-attribute CryptoPunk

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Visual Coherence

Visual coherence is the overall aesthetic consistency and harmony of different attributes of a CryptoPunk. It means that the overall combination of explicit and implicit traits that make up a punk should create a visually pleasing and well-balanced appearance. The term “clean” is often used to describe CryptoPunks with visual coherence.

Many things can contribute to a clean punk:

Clean attributes: Some attributes come off cleaner than others. We are partial to Shadow Beards, Smiles, and various bright hairstyles. On the flip side, some attributes, such as spots and stringy hair, add more visual disarray. These are loved by some and can lead to punks with more personality, but they don’t add to visual coherence.

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Fewer attributes: Often times the fewer attributes on a punk, the cleaner it’ll be. Said differently, it’s harder for many attributes to work together in harmony. The fact that the 7 attributes of CryptoPunk #8348, which is the only 7-attribute in existence, work so well together simply adds to its lore.

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Coherent attribute combinations: It’s a stroke of serendipity to find attributes that work well in tandem. One example of this is CryptoPunk #9926, a Tiara with Hot Lipstick. The jewel in the tiara roughly matches the lipstick color, which adds an extra layer of visual coherence to the punk. Another example is #2540, an excellent Pilot Helmet Punk whose black lipstick matches the color of her pilot goggles.

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Beyond any other factor, we aim to collect aesthetically clean punks that we love, regardless of attribute rarities.

Tells a Unique Story

The most interesting punks in the world have an “it” factor. They tell a story and have a distinct personality that matches. Often this works well with attributes that won’t catch the eye immediately, but with some unique combination of attributes that tell a fun story of why that punk is special.

For example:

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At the core of CryptoPunks is the creators’ intent to build a self-contained system that records ownership of a non-fungible digital asset. The nature of the blockchain’s decentralized ledger means that provenance is a first class feature. We also strongly believe that provenance matters when collecting cultural digital assets.

While most of our CryptoPunks have traveled a long distance, with multiple owners along the way, the provenance of a few pieces in particular stand out:

Larva Labs: The creators’ provenance is certainly special. Two punks in our collection come from Larva Labs. Hoodie punk #512 is a “Dev Punk”, one of the first 1,000 CryptoPunks kept by Larva Labs. 3D punk #2869 was a gift from Larva Labs to Backseats.eth as they worked out of the same co-working space together. According to Backseats, Matt and John offered it for free to everyone, but very few took them up on the offer.

Snowfro: As one of the earliest claimers, Erick Calderon aka Snowfro claimed many of the Zombie punks. Our two Zombies (#8472 and #3489) were both owned by Snowfro and sold off in early 2021 to pay for his membership into The LAO.

Final Word

There is no other project that captures the ethos of the cypherpunk quite like CryptoPunks. Like Bitcoin, they were free to acquire initially and required some technical knowhow in an early time when tooling was primitive. The intentional effort by their creators to remove dependencies, from building in the marketplace to putting the art on-chain to even stepping away entirely and still having the community thrive, all add to the resiliency of CryptoPunks as a store of value asset. The small but passionate early community stayed active even through deafeningly quiet times. CryptoPunks will forever stand as a cultural icon within the growing world of digital art and collectibles on the blockchain.

Thanks to Matt Hall, John Watkinson, Erick Calderon, Natalie Stone, Gordon Goner, Dieter Shirley, Noah Davis, Nat Emodi, Derek Edwards, Jean-Michel Pailhon, VonMises, Proper, and PlutoniumF for reading drafts and shaping our thinking on this piece.