Around 11 p.m. the night before Halloween, staff at the Bright Moments art gallery in downtown Manhattan hear what sounds like a pack of wild apes howling outside their windows.
Turns out that the commotion is caused by about 15 grown men who’ve just flown in from Las Vegas. They’re hooting demands for wristbands that will get them into an exclusive yacht party the following evening. The soirée is being thrown, appropriately enough, by the Bored Ape Yacht Club.
If you’re not familiar with digital art or don’t spend much time on Twitter, you’d be forgiven for not knowing what the BAYC is: a members-only group whose entrance fee is an NFT associated with a jpeg of a cartoon primate.
And the club members, who call themselves apes, are a determined lot. They return the next morning as early as 7 a.m., forming a line that wraps around a Soho block in order to pick up their wristbands at the gallery. The yacht event is the big kickoff party for the weeklong Ape Fest 2021, the first time BAYC members have gathered IRL in such large numbers. It’s the highlight of the NFT.NYC conference, which features speakers like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk and draws more than 5,000 non-fungible token fanatics to the city.
The BAYC members eat bananas (seriously) and wear branded sweatshirts to show that they belong. Some are dressed in leather jackets or Hawaiian shirts that match their cartoon apes’ outfits so fellow club members can recognize them IRL. “You’re [insert Twitter handle]?!” is an enthusiastic refrain heard throughout the week.
It is an exciting time to be an ape. Launched in April by four pseudonymous thirtysomethings — Gargamel, Gordon Goner, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, and No Sass — through their company Yuga Labs, BAYC is a collection of 10,000 unique digital head-and-shoulders drawings with a variety of traits, some quite rare (and thus more valuable). The floor price of a Bored Ape — which initially went on sale for about $250 each — has reached six figures. One rare ape sold at Sotheby’s for more than $3.4 million last month.
Steph Curry, Lil Baby, Jimmy Fallon, and Post Malone all hold apes. Guy Oseary, who manages Madonna and U2, signed a representation deal with Yuga Labs in October, and last week, Universal Music’s new Web 3.0 label unveiled a Bored Ape act called Kingship. Ape Fest 2021 will culminate with an extravagant “warehouse” party in Brooklyn featuring surprise appearances by Lil Baby, the Strokes, Questlove, Beck, Chris Rock, and Aziz Ansari.
“Now, they’re multimillionaires who made it big,” Rolling Stone recently enthused, referring to the founders. “What’s more punk rock than that?” Many non-believers on Twitter scoffed at that notion, calling BAYC a straight-up scam. But more on that later.
The apes are basically the next generation of CryptoPunks, an O.G. NFT project launched in 2017 by Canadian duo Larva Labs. But the apes are more intricate — they were drawn by a team of artists, not entirely generated by an algorithm like the punks — and with a far greater social component.
The apes’ backstory — they’re ennui-afflicted crypto billionaires hanging in a swampy yacht club in the year 2031 — made them not just art pieces, but an opportunity for worldbuilding. And commerce. And crazy parties.
As Josh Ong — a 38-year-old communications consultant and Brooklyn dad, known by many in the BAYC as an “unofficial community manager” — put it in a recent tweet:
Back in the gallery line, I meet Kevin Rupp, a 37-year-old from California who is dressed like his ape, in a black bowler hat and leather jacket. He’s a digital artist who says he’s friends with Mike Winkelmann, better known as the artist Beeple, who sold an NFT at Christie’s auction house for more than $69 million in March.
Rupp paid 0.5 ETH (then “a little over a grand”) for his ape five months ago. He recently got an offer for $185,000, which he turned down. But does his ape have a price? “My unofficial answer is a million dollars, I guess,” he says. “But my other unofficial answer is: I wouldn’t sell it.”
Later in the day, a 30-year-old named Daniel — who describes himself as “old as hell” and prefers I use his first name only — says he wouldn’t sell his single ape for “less than like a full-blown house in Malibu.”
“How about for a CryptoPunk?” asks a bespectacled man standing nearby.
Daniel doesn’t blink. “I wouldn’t sell it for a punk now,” he says, “because Steph Curry is not a punk. Lil Baby is not a punk.”
Today, the punks are for art world snobs. The apes are for the sneakerheads and music fans. The investment is not just in the artwork, but in membership to a club — one skewing white, male, and young — that grants access to worlds that otherwise might seem unattainable. “It’s like an adrenaline rush, to be where the culture is going,” Daniel says.
In a different line, for BAYC merch, I meet Digging4Doge, a 34-year-old from Philadelphia, along with his pitbull and older brother. Digging4Doge, who requested that Input not use his real name, says he started off with just $1,150 worth of Dogecoin that his cousin gave him in 2019. He parlayed that into a few apes this past spring before they “blew up.”
When you buy an ape, you also get to unlock other NFTs, like a “mutant serum” to create a Mutant Ape and a dog you can get via the Bored Ape Kennel Club. Digging4Doge sold his mutant serums and dogs to buy up more apes. Now he owns an enviable 11 apes. He estimates his total NFT collection, which also includes a CryptoPunk, to be “like $10 million.”
“You couldn’t make it up if you tried, right?” his brother laughs. And I laugh, too — maniacally — in an unexpected fit of FOMO.
Finally, I get inside Bright Moments, a gallery space that, according to its website, doubles as an “on-chain Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) that specializes in live NFT minting experiences.” The walls are covered with apes spray-painted onto canvases. There’s also a video screen featuring a 3-D rendering of apes lounging in a fountain of radioactive-looking goo.
The crowd, in the words of one staffer, is “less subtle” than the buyers attracted by other NFT collections the gallery exhibits — they’re more like sneakerheads at a product drop. “It’s peak hypebeast shoe culture, right?” says Jesse Willenbring, a 42-year-old artist who works with the gallery on NFT projects.
Indeed, there is plenty of BAYC merchandise. At a separate pop-up, BAYC sells limited-edition white sweatshirts only available to those attending Ape Fest. Like all BAYC merch, it doubles as a signal. Regular $400 blue sweatshirts, which are available to anyone, show you’re in the know. Black sweatshirts signify that the wearer owns an ape; they cost about $800.
Among the blue- and black-sweatshirt-wearing men mingling with Stellas in hand, I spot Sera, who is 29 and from Hawaii. She’s wearing an outfit she made, which features her ape on a shirt. Unlike the other apes I’ve seen so far, hers has long, styled, bubblegum-pink hair.
A self-taught artist, Sera designed the hairdo herself. She created and runs the Bored Ape Salon, a “derivative ape service” through which NFT holders can personalize their apes. “Generally, the apes aren’t very feminine,” she says. “So that’s my whole niche in the space.”
Not long after, she dons a wig that looks just like her ape’s — she’s a participant in the Halloween costume contest starting at the back of the gallery. One of the contest’s four judges is Andy Milonakis, the star of The Andy Milonakis Show, an absurdist sketch comedy series that debuted on MTV in 2005. Milonakis tells me he does not own an ape yet but wants to “grind and make money in the space” to eventually buy one. (He somehow manages to obtain an ape a few days later.)
“One point for bribery!” Milonakis calls out as a woman dressed like her ape — in a furry hat and wraparound sunglasses — hands the judges stickers of her avatar. That’s not enough to win, alas. A man wearing a burgundy vest, a white-collared shirt, a cap, and tie and stationed behind a life-size valet-parking stand (covered by a giant umbrella) takes first place.
The winner is a 27-year-old with a background in software development who owns an ape called Jenkins. I subsequently learn that Jenkins the ape has taken on a life of his own and become a bona fide business. Jenkins is represented by Creative Artists Agency, a huge talent management company, and has a dedicated following — a true subculture within the BAYC.
The valet’s tell-all
While I don’t get to party with the apes on a yacht on Sunday, I do drink endless margaritas with about 175 of them at a dinner hosted by Jenkins’ owner at a densely packed tequila restaurant in Tribeca on Tuesday. He’s rented out the entire place for the event.
Jenkins is what one might call a “floor ape,” according to the NFT’s owner (whom we will also call Jenkins, in the spirit of BAYC pseudonyms). That means the NFT’s traits are so common as to render it the least valuable among the ape varieties. “There is literally nothing special about him,” the human Jenkins says. At least, there wasn’t until his owner gave him a backstory.
Originally, Jenkins was just ape #1798, purchased on the secondary market shortly after the BAYC launch. The human Jenkins created a Twitter account for the “valet” — he wears a “work vest,” an official ape trait — and he posted a 500-word story introducing the character.
“He wasn’t a member of the Bored Ape Yacht Club,” Jenkins explains to me. “He grew up on the other side of the swamp and was lucky to get a job as the valet.” A good valet, Jenkins “practiced discretion” while covering up the dirty deeds of the wealthy club members, but he promised to eventually write a tell-all. Apes flocked to Jenkins’ Twitter and, later, Discord.
Jenkins’ best friend from childhood, who on Twitter goes by Safa — short for “See ape follow ape,” a nod to apes following others with ape avatars — works in marketing and saw an opportunity. He encouraged Jenkins to post an online form asking other apes to “remind him” of the shenanigans they got into with Jenkins, so Jenkins could write out their stories in full and post them for his following.
“I was probably writing two or three a week for five or six weeks,” says Jenkins. By midsummer, he and Safa — who tonight is dressed like his ape, in 3-D glasses and a striped shirt — decided to start a business. They created 6,942.0 (get it?) NFTs in the BAYC valet theme — everything from valet “tickets” to rare “yachts,” one of which just sold on the secondary market for $85,000. They got signed by CAA in September.
These NFTs have utility: They determine how much voting power each holder has in directing the plot of the Jenkins tell-all, and about 2,600 people have them. That evening, after the Jenkins fans in attendance have their fill of tacos, Jenkins and Safa announce to the crowd who’ll be writing the book.
“We needed to find the best memoir writer that ever existed,” Safa says. “So, we found Neil Strauss.” Strauss has authored wild memoirs with the likes of Mötley Crüe, Marilyn Manson, and Jenna Jameson. Perhaps most famously, he wrote The Game, about the pickup artist community.
“Really, you’re the author,” Strauss tells the crowd. “I hope you guys are ready to write this together, because it’s going to be a powerful experience. It’s never been done before.”
The crowd cheers in ape fashion: “Ooh ooh, ooh ooh!”
Apes vs. haters
Sometimes all this apery can go a bit overboard. Just ask New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose, who wrote a story about the Pudgy Penguins, another NFT collection, in August. It was a fun piece, but it drew the apes’ wrath.
“There was a deranged series of tweets that tried to prove that I wasn’t, in fact, a journalist but was a secret penguin shill using the NYT to pump my bag,” Roose tells me in an email. “[The apes] thought they were the premier PFP [profile picture] project, and were upset when the penguins started getting attention.” He adds, parenthetically, “They’ve chilled out since, I think.”
To some, the apes come off as cultish. Of course, any club where members deal in magic internet money and collect jpegs that you could technically right-click on and get for free sets off alarm bells in people’s minds. The Rolling Stone feature, which came out as NFT.NYC began, raised a lot of hackles on social media. Critics accused the magazine — which partnered with the club to create a “collectible zine” — of putting out “sponcon” promoting a pyramid scheme.
While BAYC is not structurally akin to multi-level marketing or its more pernicious form, the pyramid scheme, the president of the nonprofit Pyramid Scheme Alert, Robert FitzPatrick, says there are similarities. Both MLMs and BAYC have a “narrative lore and mystery that helps people believe” in these projects, and that alone gives them their value.
As with MLMs, BAYC is valuable to join “only if someone else will buy behind you,” FitzPatrick says. If just a handful of people had purchased the apes at launch and no one else followed, they’d be basically worthless.
College of New Jersey marketing professor and MLM expert William Keep doesn’t see BAYC using the recruitment structure of an MLM, just the “retention structure.” MLM members employ what’s called “love bombing” — showering new recruits with praise and welcoming them into the “family” — and Keep sees a similar dynamic at play within the BAYC.
I witness this firsthand as ape holders embrace like long-lost brothers throughout Ape Fest. You also see it in action on Twitter when someone buys an ape and suddenly receives a massive jump in followers from the BAYC community.
Then there are the perks. Just as MLMs take their “independent distributors” on cruises and resort vacations, so BAYC has spent Ape Fest amply rewarding its members. In MLMs or pyramids, these perks “appear to be tangible, but in reality, there’s nothing there you wouldn’t find on your own,” FitzPatrick says. “But you look around at all the smart people that have also joined — how could you be wrong?”
The apes on the bus
I observe what some would call cultishness and others would term simple esprit de corps on Wednesday night, onboard an ostentatiously colorful full-size bus advertising the Nice Drips NFT collection.
We’re en route to the warehouse party with about a dozen other apes. The bus is a perk organized by Ong — a way for the group to continue to hang out as they travel in style and generate FOMO.
The long-haired and bearded Ong, who’s been wearing his ape’s outfit (a red Hawaiian shirt) for most of Ape Fest, has organized BAYC meetups in New York and Los Angeles. Others started popping up in Colorado, Minnesota, the U.K., and Hong Kong. “Then I had the idea with some friends to do the yacht party,” he says. He suggested it to the BAYC creators: “I caught them on a good week, because they’d just finished the mutant sales.”
The bus, driven by a man everyone calls the Farmacist, takes a harrowing turn down a tight Brooklyn corner. We collectively hold our breath as he squeaks between two rows of parked cars. When he pulls off the maneuver unscathed, everyone claps.
“Fucking balls of steel, Farmacist!” someone yells.
“WAGMI,” says another, an NFT rallying cry that means “we’re all gonna make it,” to show that every holder is in this game together. If the prices rise, they rise for all, and not just those at the top — ideally.
Now that we’ve all survived a near-death experience together — and truly, for the first time this week, I feel WAGMI deep inside my bones — I decide to broach the grift question: What do you say to the people who call BAYC a scam?
The bus, until now filled with the sound of ape chatter, goes silent.
Ong pauses before answering. “I understand that people have doubts and reservations about the world of NFTs,” he says. “My goal is to build a community so strong that it’s a compelling argument to help people understand why NFTs are the bridge into persistent digital ownership that can take us into the future, which will be immersive digital worlds, which I call the metaverse.”
He pauses again. “That’s all.”
A cheer erupts from the bus. “Josh is the plug!” someone says, referring to Ong’s promotional skills. Bando, another ape owner using his Twitter pseudonym, brings up that some people minted their apes for just $250. Now they’re about to get into a 2,000-person warehouse show with “who knows what musical acts” without paying an additional cent.
We pull up at the warehouse, and after waiting in yet another line, we enter an IRL version of the BAYC. It doesn’t look too dissimilar from the digital version: There’s neon lighting, palm plants, and nautical flags hanging from the ceiling. Members get rum drinks from the open bar and take pictures by walls covered in Bored Apes.
Comedian Aziz Ansari takes the stage to announce the first act, Beck. Chris Rock appears next — introducing himself as Kevin Hart, to the merriment of the majority white audience — to bring out the Strokes. Questlove follows, introducing Lil Baby. And though the beachy cocktail ingredients run out early and the male–female ratio leaves a lot to be desired, it’s an epic party.
But that’s kind of all it is. As the Strokes’ “Someday” plays, I talk to a developer who’s been building in the Web 3.0 space for years. He’s been making things that he hoped would change the world, and here he is, at the tail-end of a weeklong adventure for hypebeasts. He says he’s not “disappointed,” but he doesn’t offer another adjective.
But maybe it’s enough for now? Maybe it’s good that the prototype for mass adoption of Web 3.0 isn’t taking place in, say, the political sphere, but rather in the less consequential entertainment space? The real world sucks pretty hard at the moment, so why not escape into a metaverse where you, your friends, and Steph Curry are all members of the coolest club you could belong to? Why not LARP as a primate crypto billionaire — or his valet, at the very least?
When I run into Ong again, inside the party, I ask him to introduce me to BAYC’s creators. He declines. “With great power comes great responsibility,” he says. “They’re actually having a good time this week just being anonymous.” He describes how the creators have been “trolling apes” by fist-bumping guys in BAYC sweatshirts and admiring their NFTs without disclosing that they are the people behind the entire project.
Now, the creators are upstairs in the venue’s VIP section, with other elites of the NFT space like Beeple. Even if security let me up to the VIP section, I’d have trouble spotting BAYC’s core team — all I’d have to go on is the Rolling Stone article’s description of Goner’s tattooed neck.
On the new non-fungible frontier, the elites are anon and could be anyone. That’s a big part of the appeal for some NFT buyers. I think of Digging4Doge, a casually dressed guy with a big beard and a big dog, telling me his full name and then asking me not to use it once he realizes that we’re discussing assets of his worth millions.
To Digging4Doge, NFTs like BAYC “even the playing field.” He adds, “All these big companies and celebrities entering the space, they have real-world clout, but they’re clueless here. Some big hotshot comes to talk to me about NFTs, it shrinks them down to size. Because they don’t know what they’re talking about, and I do.”
While waiting in line at the BAYC merch store pop-up, Digging4Doge and his brother chat about what to do with all this newfound digital wealth. “I’ve always wanted an island,” Digging4Doge says, and he and his brother laugh.
“Now I think I could really click two buttons” — all it would take to sell a couple of apes — “and freaking buy an island.”