The NFT group has been hit with allegations of racism in the past week, spearheaded by LA artist Ryder Ripps
If you’ve ever waded into the Bored Ape Yacht Club discourse on social media (condolences), you’ve probably already formed a fairly strong opinion on the latest wave of extortionate NFTs to hit the virtual art market. Comprising thousands of one-off, two-dimensional ape avatars, the BAYC series proved polarising from launch in April 2021, when all 10,000 images — then priced at the equivalent of just under $190 — sold out within a single day.
Since then, Bored Apes have drawn outrage from various corners of the internet and the art world. Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, for one, argues that the craze is “all about ego and money, not art”, and should bury any romanticism about the once-bright future for NFTs. Others have suggested that the Apes, alongside crypto artworks such as Beeple’s $69 million Everydays, signal a broader decline.
Elsewhere, owners of the artworks have come under fire from tech experts, who have joked about their lack of understanding regarding NFTs, and general incompetence (see: the guy who accidentally sold his Ape for one hundredth of the intended price). Then, there are the allegations of neo-nazism among BAYC creators Yuga Labs, but we’ll come to that in a moment.
First, it’s worth noting that Bored Apes also have their fair share of supporters, who are more than willing to put their money — and lots of it — where their mouths are. Nowadays, the entry point is closer to £200,000, and Apes regularly fetch prices north of £300,000 on NFT marketplace OpenSea. Among the buyers is Eminem, who reportedly dropped 123.45 ETH (roughly £334,000) on a BAYC illustration dubbed EminApe in December last year. Many other owners flaunt their slack-jawed digital assets as wildly expensive Twitter icons. Yes, you can simply right-click and download the JPEG file, but apparently that’s not the point.
Given all of this interest, it’s not surprising that thousands of users dropped into a Twitter space on January 3, to discuss accusations that Yuga Labs has incorporated Nazi codewords and imagery into its designs. Below, we unpack the ensuing drama, and whether Bored Ape owners really should be worried about owning alt-right art.
WHERE DID THE CONTROVERSIAL CLAIMS ORIGINATE?
Like all good controversies, this begins on social media, with a conversation amplified by crypto commentator loldefi (who, for the record, stated that he was “on the fence” about the claims beforehand).
“I really hate how this has become people with Apes blindly defending potential racism because they have Apes,” loldefi writes in a January 3 tweet. “Instead of objectively viewing the racism argument and conducting respectful debate to move closer to a conclusion.” In the name of respectful debate, loldefi went on to launch a Twitter space later that day, drawing in thousands of people wanting to listen or share their views.
Besides the thousands of Bored Ape enthusiasts that flooded the space, lodefi publicly invited another figure central to the conversation — LA-based artist Ryder Ripps — to weigh in, which makes sense. For the last month, Ryder himself has been compiling what he claims is evidence of the BAYC’s neo-Nazi links in a series of inflammatory Twitter threads.
AND WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE OF NAZI CODES, EXACTLY?
“Nothing weird at all that the grinning apes are made by a guy whos name is an anti semitic joke and whos company name is a nazi obsession (sic),” Ryder Ripps writes in a January 3 tweet. “Totally normal.” The tweet is accompanied by two images: an article from the neo-Nazi news site the Daily Stormer, titled ‘Symptoms of the Kali Yuga’, and a screenshot of BAYC co-founder Gargamel’s Twitter account.
In case you’re not up-to-date on your alt-right imagery, the ‘Kali Yuga’ reference is supposed to link BAYC with a fairly obscure idea about cultural rebirth through destruction, which has been adopted by fringe right-wing groups (see also: the ‘Boogaloo bois’). Gargamel, meanwhile, is an antagonist in the Smurfs, long criticised as an antisemitic caricature.
Elsewhere, Ryder pulls out imagery such as the BAYC logo, which shows an ape’s skull on a black background, and places it alongside an elite Nazi patch with a similar design. Both skulls, he notes, have 18 teeth (a number often used as alphanumeric code for Adolf Hitler). According to the New Yorker, the Bored Ape Yacht Club website also launched on the date of Hitler’s death, April 30, which he identifies as another dog whistle.
“As a professional artist, designer, and Jewish person, I’ve known about racist images for a long time,” Ryder Ripps tells Know Your Meme, in a January 6 interview on the controversy.
“I felt compelled to speak up because it's the right thing to do and felt it was deserving of a larger dialogue.”
WHAT ABOUT THE APES THEMSELVES?
As Ryder also notes in the Know Your Meme interview: “The act of disparaging someone by comparing them to an ape/monkey goes back hundreds of years. There is a word for it, ‘simianization.’” The connotations of trading well-trodden racist symbols hasn’t passed other commentators by, either, such as Freddie Gibbs, who writes in a January 11 tweet: “That monkey nft shit be lookin like some sambo racist shit to me.”
Besides the imagery taken directly from the company, Ryder’s Twitter exhibits several Bored Ape illustrations (because again, you can do that). The captions emphasize what, he suggests, are traits that are “intended to represent Black people and Asian people”, such as gold chains, grills, and a kamikaze headband.
He also singles out an Ape from a mobile video game based on BAYC, which is pictured wearing a red Hawaiian shirt patterned with blue leaves. “The Ape in the BAYC videogame is wearing THE EXACT SHIRT of the racist boogaloo boy poster child” in this Wall Street Journal article, he suggests, though it only really bears a passing resemblance.
HOW HAS BORED APE YACHT CLUB RESPONDED?
Without reference to the conversation that blew up on January 3, the team behind Yuga Labs took to social media the same day, obliquely debunking the claims of racism. In a Twitter thread, they begin with the origin of the company’s name, writing: “We're nerds, and Yuga is the name of a villain in Zelda whose ability is that he can turn himself and others into 2D art. Made sense for an NFT company.”
As for the decision to feature apes, as opposed to another less inflammatory animal, they say that they drew from the crypto community’s long tradition of “affectionately” referring to themselves as apes. The logo? It was simply inspired by a ramshackle yacht club, and the skull is supposed to represent that fact that the apes are so bored that they’re “bored to death”.
The name Gargamel isn’t mentioned, but — as if pre-empting the trouble it would cause — the man behind it broke down its origin in a November 2021 Rolling Stone article, saying: “(Gargamel is) a name I ridiculously gave myself based off the fact that my fiancée had never seen The Smurfs when we were launching this.”
Elsewhere in the January 3 thread, the founders of Bored Ape Yacht Club discuss the diversity of their respective backgrounds — “Jewish, Cuban, Turkish, Pakistani” — and how surprised they were that the club got so big. Read the whole thread below.
A little a bit about us to start off the new year and what's coming. 🧵— Yuga Labs (@yugalabs) January 3, 2022
1. What's the inspiration behind the name Yuga Labs?
We're nerds, and Yuga is the name of a villain in Zelda whose ability is that he can turn himself and others into 2D art. Made sense for an NFT company.
SO, WHAT’S THE VERDICT?
Obviously, there’s plenty of evidence stacked up against Bored Ape Yacht Club, as proven by a short scroll through Ryder Ripps’ Twitter feed, or the numerous arguments between Ape enthusiasts and aspiring cryptographers over the course of the last week. However, it goes without saying that allegations of Nazi ties should be taken seriously, and perhaps Twitter isn’t the place to do that (especially when there’s still no concrete proof).
Admittedly, there’s some sketchy imagery that’s worth keeping an eye on, but the rise of artists like Beeple has already proven that the NFT market is littered with bad taste, and it seems like there’s a pretty good chance that this is just more of the same.
Update (January 13, 2022): In a response to this article over email, Ryder Ripps claims that he has been “getting attacked by alt-right Nazis” since first bringing light to the subject on social media.
“Nobody has logically refuted any of these questionable coincidences nor addressed the racist overtones of siminiazed cartoon grinning apes dressed in hip hop clothing being traded on the Open Sea by predominantly white men via their Yacht Club,” he adds in the email. “I have dedicated a lot of time to researching this and as an expert in the field of internet culture, with many credentials, I, and many others, feel very confident these accusations are founded.”
He’s so sure, in fact, that he has apparently contacted the FBI about Bored Ape Yacht Club’s Nazi ties, and claims that the law enforcement agency “feel it’s compelling enough to investigate”.