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CryptoPunks is an NFT collection of 10,000 Ethereum-based tokens that each represents a unique, 24x24-pixel character with unique traits.
What are CryptoPunks?

CryptoPunks was one of the earliest examples of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on Ethereum. Each punk’s 8-bit portrait-like appearance is well-suited for representing identity, they are often referred to as profile picture(PFP)-type NFTs. Thanks to their (comparatively) long history, rarity, and role in crypto history, they remain some of the most valuable NFTs on the market today—trading like fine art in the physical world.

Each punk in the collection was generated by an algorithm that picked attributes from a pre-specified pool. This pseudo-random system of digital image creation has come to be called generative art, and it revolutionized the concept of digital art and NFTs. Many of the most popular—and most valuable—NFT collections that have followed in CryptoPunks’ footsteps have borrowed its highly successful methods.

Who created CryptoPunks?

The crypto community and broader public became fascinated with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) in 2021. However, the root of the NFT movement started growing in 2017, when Larva Labs launched CryptoPunks.

Larva Labs was founded by Matt Hall and John Watkinson, two Canadian developers involved in creative technology solutions long before blockchain technology existed. Inspired by the London punk scene and pop media’s cyberpunk movement in both movies (e.g., Blade Runner, RoboCop, The Matrix) and books (e.g., Accelerando, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), they created CryptoPunks as a way to explore the idea of digital ownership while also capturing the burgeoning culture of crypto.

In the ensuing years, Larva Labs has gone on to release other NFT projects including Meebits and Autoglyphs. In March 2022, Larva Labs sold the intellectual property for CryptoPunks and Meebits to Yuga Labs, the creators of the Bored Ape Yacht Club.

How was the CryptoPunks collection developed?

Ethereum launch

CryptoPunks were created using a smart contract on Ethereum. At the time, there was no accepted way to make NFTs, so the team at Larva Labs built their own. This became the inspiration for the ERC-721 token standard, which dictated the rules followed by all future Ethereum-based NFTs.

The smart contract was published on Ethereum’s blockchain in June 2017 and it took 8 days for users to claim the 9,000 Punks (developers kept the other 1,000). Users who wanted a CryptoPunk could go to the dedicated website and mint (or create) one for free—only paying the gas fee necessary to process the transaction on the network.

From off-chain to on-chain

In the first version of CryptoPunks (v1), each punk NFT was a token that referenced one part of an image depicting all 10,000 punks in a 100 x 100 grid. This image was stored off-chain, and developers had to compare the encrypted code in the smart contract with a downloaded image file to determine the authenticity of each CryptoPunk by its position in the grid.

In 2021, Larva Labs announced that CryptoPunks were moving entirely on-chain—creating what the community would come to call CryptoPunks v2. The images were transitioned directly onto Ethereum using text-based descriptions called scalable vector graphics (SVGs), which can be interpreted by platforms as images.

How were CryptoPunks designed?

Generative art

The CryptoPunks collection was created using a process called generative art. This term is used to describe NFTs that depend on an algorithm to choose randomly (or pseudo-randomly, based on the artist’s input) from a series of pre-specified characteristics—ultimately resulting in varied individual units.

For instance, when the CryptoPunks smart contract was run to mint each of the 10,000 punks, it pseudo-randomly chose from 5 types of punks (alien, ape, zombie, female, and male) and 87 attributes (such as types of beards, hair, eyes, and more). Through this process, most punks were given between 2-4 of these attributes. However, there are only 9 alien punks, and only one punk with 7 attributes. Because these punks have rarer qualities, they command a higher price on the market.

Impact on the NFT landscape

By introducing the process of generative art to the crypto community, CryptoPunks inspired other coders and artists to create NFT collections in a similar mold. For example, it has become an unspoken standard to introduce collections of PFP-type NFTs with 10,000 individual units as a nod to CryptoPunks.

Cryptopunks paved the way for other popular NFT collections such as the Bored Ape Yacht Club, Art Blocks, and other popular collections.

Why own a CryptoPunk?

There are several reasons that people own CryptoPunks. Some received their punks as part of the original claiming process in 2017 and hold onto them due to nostalgia. Others have bought theirs as a way to own a piece of NFT history, since CryptoPunks helped build the foundation for many NFT projects that have followed.

The social and monetary value of CryptoPunks has undoubtedly been a draw for many collectors, especially in recent years. They have seen great price appreciation since their release, with the largest sale for a punk being $24 million. Even the established art world has begun to pay attention, and Larva Labs’ founders sold nine of their own CryptoPunks at Christie’s auction house in New York for just under $17 million.

CryptoPunks essentials

  • CryptoPunks was one of the first collections of profile picture-type non-fungible tokens (NFTs), comprising 10,000 unique punks with different attributes.
  • Launched for free on Ethereum in 2017, CryptoPunks have become a highly valuable collection of digital property created using a process called “generative art”.
  • In the years since the project’s release, others have borrowed from the standard for NFT collections set by CryptoPunks, including the popular Bored Ape Yacht Club.

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