BAPE is taking its sweet time to release its first NFTs, and for more than a month the Japanese streetwear brand has been using its dedicated Discord server to tease the upcoming tokens. Most of the images revealed see a nearly photo-realistic ape decorated in tacky, themed accessories, but a new teaser released this week veers into problematic territory.
The image at issue depicts an ape, whose skin is darker than the others, wearing a Native American headdress. At best, the NFT reads as the sort of cultural appropriation you’ll see at least one white person indulge in at Coachella each year. Native Americans have been adamant in saying that those outside their culture shouldn’t wear headdresses, and within the community itself they are a sacred garment that must be earned.
Making matters worse is the fact that the character BAPE is using is an ape. Depicting any non-white person as an ape should be an obvious non-starter, as it implies subhuman status. Bored Ape Yacht Club, the hottest NFT project of the moment, has also faced accusations of racism that include allege ties to Nazism.
Given that BAPE is based in Japan, it’s very well possible that the creators behind its NFTs have little idea of the crude stereotyping they’ve waded into. More often than not, the conversation around headdresses is one held in America. But if there weren’t someone internally knowledgeable to shut the idea down before it proceeded, outside criticism is necessary to ensure that the NFT doesn’t go on to be minted.
Big yikes — Just last month, Junya Watanabe found itself faced with widespread accusations of cultural appropriation because of its use of traditional Mexican serapes in its FW22 collection. The Comme Des Garçons sub-label is also based in Japan, and the Mexican government issued an official statement calling the designs “unethical.”
Junya Watanabe said it had "invited participation from the Secretariat of Culture of Mexico," but an agreement hadn’t been reached prior to the runway show. The Mexican government requested that the brand include labels recognizing the Mexican communities' rights to the designs as well as making payment for its use. Junya Watanabe was also asked to jointly organize an international seminar on collective rights and consider working with actual Mexican artisans in the future.
Should BAPE go ahead with its headdress NFT, it should only do so after coming to a similar agreement with Native American tribes, if they’re even interested. Care would have to be made to ensure the design is more specific to a tribe and not a brash generalization of the many distinct cultures that makeup the Native American community — but it should ultimately be up to tribe leaders to decide what, if anything, is fair game for depiction by BAPE.
From the jump, BAPE’s pending entry into the metaverse had all the makings of a corny crash grab. But now it’s dealing with significant cultural issues, and it shouldn’t be left off the hook so easily.