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How a pipe-smoking alien became the 'digital Mona Lisa'

Figma CEO (and former CryptoPunk #7804 owner) Dylan Field joins the Source Code podcast to talk about crypto art, owning digital objects and the future of creativity.

CryptoPunk 7804

CryptoPunk 7804, the 'digital Mona Lisa.' At least according to Dylan Field.

Photo: Larva Labs / Peruggia / who really owns digital art?

A few years ago, Dylan Field, the CEO of Figma, started telling people he owned the digital Mona Lisa. Pretty much everyone he told thought he was nuts. After all, the artwork in question was a low-res, algorithmically generated picture of a blue alien wearing a hat and puffing on a pipe. Its name is "CryptoPunk #7804," and it doesn't exactly scream "high art."

Now, though, Field's proclamation seems a lot less nuts. (But maybe still a little nuts.) CryptoPunks have gained huge admiration as early players in the NFT space, helping pioneer the kind of digital, scarce goods that buyers all over the world are clamoring for. And last week, Field sold the pipe-smoking alien for 4,200 ETH, or about $7.5 million.

Field joined the Source Code podcast to talk about his history with crypto art, what we even mean when we talk about digital art and why he's still convinced that his blue alien friend is the digital Mona Lisa. And why he had to sell it to prove it.

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You can hear our full conversation in this episode of the Source Code podcast. The following excerpts have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Go back to, like, 2017 Dylan. How did you get into CryptoPunks in the first place?

Well, I was really into Ethereum. And the reason I was into Ethereum was because I had lived in a house with Juan Benet, who was the creator of IPFS and Filecoin. And I was a Thiel Fellow. And in that community, with Juan, with the Thiel Fellowship, everyone was into crypto. I was actually the person that wasn't into crypto. I was like, "Y'all are absurd, it's crazy!"

In 2017, that was when the ICO craze was starting to happen. And I was looking at, you know, ERC20 tokens, which are fungible. I was looking at centralized organizations, DAOs like Aragon Project, for example, which I remain fascinated by. And I started just to pay attention to CryptoPunks, which I thought was just genius. I didn't do anything when it launched. And then I kind of watched the community form from afar, and started getting really excited about it as I saw more and more people resonate with it just the same way I was. And so, as an observer, I didn't do much with it until the holidays, because I was just busy running Figma. And then right before the holidays, I bought my first CryptoPunk, which is now my avatar. The one with the messy hair, which I think kind of looks like me.

But wait, you skipped a step I think is really interesting, which is to go from this moment of vague awareness that "this is a space that is interesting" to putting down real money and buying into it. Is that the flip you're talking about?

Yeah. Before I put down real money and whatnot, I went and I read the contract code. And that, to me, was a really interesting moment. Because if you look at the CryptoPunks smart contract, first of all, the code is very elegant. It's very simple and beautifully written.

Essentially with CryptoPunks, what you get is an entry in an array. There's an array from zero to 9,999 for the 10,000 punks, and that array indexes to a two-dimensional image. Basically 01 is in the top left, 9,999 is in the bottom right. The image is not stored on Ethereum. It's just an image that exists in the world somewhere. And then you are bidding real money on an array index.

At first I was like, is that art? Is that actually owning anything? I don't know! But then I started to see that other people were believing it was. So I was kind of really fascinated by this question of, what is digital ownership? Do you get IP rights? No. Yet, I really wanted this thing. And I really resonated with the project. And I cared about the project immensely.

And so I bought my first one. I was like, OK, 100 bucks. I can't stop thinking about this thing. I'm just gonna do it.

And worst case, it's a neat thing you've tried and it only cost $100.

Exactly. And, what I found was that the more that I thought about it, the more that I cared about it, the more I actually was interested in engaging with this project more. I started looking at the Discord, at the community that was forming. And I was not the only one. There are a lot of other people who are just amazing — they're still around today. The people that were around then like these people have not gone anywhere. And they were also obsessed with it. And everybody was cataloging them, they were figuring out which ones are the most rare, which ones are the ones that have the most aesthetic value. Different people had different proclivities towards different attributes. And so I started kind of figuring out which ones I liked the most, and then I bought a few over the course of sort of the winter of 2017 to 2018.

My now-wife, Elena Nadolinski, had been at ETH Waterloo, which was an Ethereum hackathon. That's where CryptoKitties was first created. So I'd also seen the birth and the rise of CryptoKitties through her as well. And that kind of came and went. CryptoPunks felt like it was there to stay.

I think that the way that digital communities grow that are important, are that they grow gradually over time. They don't grow all at once. And I've seen that characteristic in CryptoPunks, too, which made me even more interested.

So there was one that I got obsessed with the most, that I really coveted, I was really attracted to, I felt like it had just total gravitas. Among the 10,000 CryptoPunks, there were only nine aliens, and of the nine aliens, the one that I really resonated with was 7804, which was a picture of an alien smoking a pipe.

It was totally magnetic to me. I couldn't stop thinking about it. And so I saw that the person who had it had sold a few others. And I was like, I think that if I make a big enough bid, they'll sell. And so I bid 12 ETH, which at the time was $15,000. And it did sell, after three days or so of waiting around and trying to see if I'd go a little bit higher.

I really thought, "this is the digital Mona Lisa." CryptoPunk is the first project. And of all the CryptoPunks, this is clearly, to me, the best CryptoPunk. And everyone will want it when people want CryptoPunks.

There are some symbols, I think, that really imprint in your mind. I think that's an example of one: I can see it as clear as day right now. And I think most other people can do that. This image just is very sticky. And I think there's some other Punks that do the same. But it's one of the ones that does. For that reason, and also its rarity, and also how magnetic it is, I thought this has potential to be the digital Mona Lisa.

And so then I was embarrassed, frankly, because I told a few people about this, people that cared about art and knew what they're doing. And they were just like, "That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

I was just gonna say! That sentence is a pretty bold thing to say right now, in 2021. In 2018 you probably sounded like an insane person.

I think I did, yeah! And to be fair, most of them have come around. They say, "OK, I can see what you're doing now … but I'm not sure I agree with it." But yeah, I was obsessed. And so I cooled off a bit. I thought I'll just be quiet about my ownership of 7204. I'll kind of see how that evolves. I still checked the CryptoPunks Discord every day, and then eventually in the last six months as it started to take off more, I thought, OK, I can't be quiet about this anymore. So I made it my avatar, and I started to be more public about my association with 7804.

At some point, though, it was bugging me, because to me, 7804 is clearly the best punk. But not everyone saw it that way. So I thought, if I want to make this a digital Mona Lisa, there's kind of a paradox because I'm going to have to sell. It's a classic leadership thing, right? You can say, "We're all going this direction, this is the way the world is gonna be, etc." But until someone else follows you on that statement, it doesn't matter, right?

And so I put it at a price that I thought was obviously extremely aggressive, but also a price that the right person who cared about this and resonated with this punk as much as I did, would be willing to do. And that is exactly what happened. I have no idea who they are, this person named Peruggia — which is a reference to the person that stole the Mona Lisa, which is amazing. I have no idea where they are in the world, what their gender is, I don't know anything about this person.

So take me through the emotional journey of selling this. Because I think it gets to one of the really challenging questions about all of this stuff, which is, what does it mean to own this stuff? You could have kept using 7804 as your Twitter avatar, you can still look at it anytime you want. It's not like it gets removed from your universe forever. But I still get the sense, and you've said before, that it was like a very emotional experience.

I believe even more than before that CryptoPunks is art after selling 7804, which is super fascinating. And I think the reason why is after parting with it, I did feel emotional. I felt sad. It wasn't just sad like, "Oh man, this is the digital Mona Lisa and I can make way more money at some point."

It was sort of a part of my identity. It was a mask. What are masks? They're objects that you can project identity onto. And for 7804, the wise alien, I felt a bit different wearing it. And as soon as I sold it, it didn't feel right to wear it anymore. And so I had to take it off. And now the person that's wearing it, I'm like, "Wow, you are totally the wise alien, this is perfect." But I definitely did feel very emotional about it. I felt extremely attached to it. It felt like a breakup to have sold it. I literally had dreams about it.

It's more than just like a collectible. I never dreamed about a Pokemon card when I was a kid, you know? It's just different.

Is that unique to 7804? How much is that about this specific one? It goes back to the question of like, what is art?

I think the "What is art?" question for CryptoPunks is super fascinating, because there's all these different ways to break it down.

There's the algorithm of how punks were generated in the first place: They had this algorithm that would remix all these different characteristics infinitely, and they took a random sampling of 10,000 of the different images that came up. They could have had millions. This is a random collection of the universe of punks. So maybe that's the art.

Then there's individual punks as well, like 7804. And that seems to be art, too, in terms of the individual piece of art. But what I've come around to is the belief that the community itself is the art piece. The market, the discussions that are being had, the community that's forming. It really does care so much about the project and is loving it into existence. That is the art piece itself, these interactions were all happening around the punks ecosystem.

And on the side of, what does it mean to own art? If you look at Geneva Freeport, it's basically a warehouse that houses almost $100 billion worth of art. If you have something in the Freeport, which is art, and you own the right to own the art, and you own a smart contract in an array, maybe they're kind of the same thing. I think there are parallels in the existing art world, to this sort of structure.

What did you make of all the Beeple stuff last week? In the "who's the Mona Lisa of digital art" debate, you have some solid competition there.

I think it's awesome. What I thought was coolest about it was how MetaKovan was really thinking, "How do I produce something around this?" One of the things that's amazing with digital art is that — IP aside, which is a more complicated question that I don't think there's clear answers to at this point — it is infinitely remixable, right?

MetaKovan is really trying to do more production around the Beeple art. And I think that they're very excited about Decentraland, and the idea of making it so that people are able to kind of come into digital museums in the metaverse, these virtual spaces, in order to interact with this art. And I mean, that's awesome. Whatever you want to do around that, I think it's great.
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David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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