Memes Are Modern Art: Auctioning NFT Memes in Decentraland

Keith Cagney
February 5, 2021

Somewhere in the Cartesian sprawl of Decentraland, twenty-five people huddled to celebrate the sale of a meme. Four hours and a brief bidding war later, its creator walked away with 10.5 ETH — about $14,000 for one piece of NFT art.

It was the last day the colossal, magenta-hued subject of Elon Musk Inevitable Bitcoin would grin before Tominoya Casino’s phosphorescent glitz. But as he leered over a cryptic and damning phrase, you couldn’t help but feel things were just getting started. After all, it’s inevitable.

LAND of Infinite Promise

A digital landscape featuring a demonic fountainhead.

To explore Decentraland’s pastures is to wander through a common dream. Like all dreams, its logic is hard to follow even when it doesn’t veer into the unexpected.

The terrain is divided into purchasable parcels of unvarnished, weed-strewn grassland. To own a piece of that wild, green yonder, players can trade Ethereum-backed MANA tokens for discrete allotments of the (X,Y) coordinate plane, tokenized as LAND. Claimed plots jewel the landscape with DIY scenes from their owners’ imaginations.

A digital landscape featuring a statue of Buddha and a mosque.

It’s a misconception that Decentraland costs money to enjoy. Though you need a digital wallet, you don’t need to hold cryptocurrency or supply private information to play. Signing with your wallet’s public key (using a blockchain gateway like MetaMask) is all it takes to load in with your NFTs — your avatar’s wardrobe of wearables and the scenes you’ve constructed — in tow.

If that just sounds like Minecraft on helium, you’re short of the full picture. Yet that’s the takeaway from most other casual forays you’ll find on the web. It’s easy to gawk at the sea of impressive, perplexing scenes and come away still wondering what it’s all for.

I set out to figure out what goes on in its unsung places.

Everything’s a Token, and No One Reigns

A digital avatar admires various artworks in a gallery.

They say foreign cities are best traveled on foot, and the same applies to Decentraland. There’s no predicting what you’ll find in the next random plot. Though you can easily teleport to the busiest spots, I eschewed the more populated locales for a clean beat across the landscape.

One minute you’re pondering the throne room of a medieval castle, and the next you’re finding ads for Miami tattoo parlors hidden in brutalist architecture. It takes just steps to rove from horror games to hedge mazes, or from a zoo of mythical beasts to a plein-air astronomy exhibit.

A digital avatar on a stock exchange sales floor.

Decentraland offers a living gallery of wondrous sights and a pasticcio of minigames. Between stretches of undeveloped land hide massive replicas of world monuments, homemade pop-up art, and intriguing secrets. But it’s practically a ghost town.

Who built all this? There are no regents, but subjects are likewise few. The combined potential energy wanes under the open sky. Vast attractions wait idly like Japan’s haikyo amusement parks while the real world makes up its mind about blockchain games.

Digital robot avatars on the Moonshot soccer pitch.

You get the sense this wasn’t meant for you, but for the future. Scrutable time and place just aren’t concepts here. It’s not your language. You wouldn’t get it. But your kids are gonna love it.

Maybe that’s why the diehard players stay. They prize self-expression above all else — more than sense or mass appeal. That shared value is driving the evolution of blockchain art and blockchain gaming to a common vertex. And I discovered that during a walk on the seamier side.

Trying My Luck at Tominoya Casino

The Tominoya Casino entryway.

The palatial Tominoya Casino is the work of Decentral Games, a community-owned “metaverse casino” that operates a common set of protocols between its three Decentraland-based properties.

When I happened upon it, I didn’t know I was also walking into history. After watching the auction of the one of the world’s first meme NFTS, I had to wonder if Decentraland wasn’t the perfect realization of blockchain’s subversive appeal.

An avatar enters an atrium filled with video monitors.

Crossing Tominoya’s bridge felt like disembarking at a perfected City 17, where your fortunes could only improve. The ornate plaza resembled what I’d expect from a Singapore airport: enameled edges, trees in bloom, and helpful robot attendants hovering in the corners.

Making my way upstairs, I was charmed to find my first clutch of fellow players. I joined them for a few hands of Blackjack with a droid croupier.

Avatars play Blackjack with a floating robot croupier.

Down and out in Decentraland is a special kind of blues. Playing with freebie tokens was fun, but my ETH was elsewhere making me a millionaire someday. I turned away from the tables to greet a pair of players fervently discussing what music to play on the speakers.

“This is a U.K. deep house stream,” one called Baus informed me. “I’m trying to find a good set for the auction.”

A digital avatar admires a massive portrait.

A mohawked avatar with worried eyes paced nearby, looking with almost motherly concern at the colossal, purple Elon Musk in the glowing frame behind him. Clicking the portrait revealed that this was none other than CryptoChimp, creator of Elon Musk Inevitable Bitcoin — the coveted prize of today’s auction.

“We’re auctioning off my first ever crypto meme,” Chimp chirped.

Whether I’d imagined his anxiety, it was plain to see what selling the bizarre piece could mean for blockchain art as a whole. Musk clutched the life-giving Bitcoin AllSpark responsible for the very room around us like a beatific testament to that potential.

Avatar with spiky hair, futuristic googles, and a tunic.
Avatar in an umbrella hat, smiley emoji shirt, and Bitcoin glasses.
Avatar in a headdress made of fiber-optic cables,

Onlookers trickled in. Cat-headed memesters and cyberpunk royalty suddenly appeared in the lobby, primped in their finest tokenized garb like dignitaries from incomprehensible, Borgesian nations. They were works of art themselves.

Chimp became more convivial with each arrival. He addressed a few by name, preferring the polite and neuter title of “ser” for everyone else. They began joking like old friends, jeering at those unfortunate enough to “get rekt on XRP” (thanks to the SEC) and complaining about Ethereum gas prices with the clipped jargon of a newsroom.

Baus elicited a few lulz by piping in an elegant piano medley. After a few minutes more searching, he settled on another throbbing house mix. "That's the one," he decided.

Chimp looked about the room. “It’s nearly time, ser.”

More of the Decentral Games crew had blipped in for the event. They wore characteristic white fur and graphic tees, standing coolly aside to let people gather close. By the ring of the auction bell, there were thirty people on hand to cheer a disruptive moment in modern art.

Memes Are Modern Art

Avatar in a horned helmet watches an auction.

Between bass-heavy grooves and pleasantries, Chimp and the attendees were happy to entertain a few questions. Was it modern art? And did the distinction matter?

“Like Elon Musk said,” Chimp shrugged, “memes are modern art.”

“I think in a couple years or a hundred years later, this kind of stuff will be worth a lot,” a person going by StreamCrypto chimed in. “People will look back and try to understand how Infinity War and Elon influenced this piece.”

Chimp agreed. “Exactly. Did you listen to Elon’s Clubhouse talk yesterday? About the rise of Bitcoin and memes going mainstream?” I admitted I hadn’t.

Model of a Tesla Cybertruck on display at the auction.

“This meme has 1.5k likes on my account,” he said matter-of-factly. It seemed like a paltry milestone from someone about to clear thousands on a laugh, but for Chimp, the real achievement is keying into opportunities to connect through artistic subversion.

“It’s the very first meme I turned into [an] NFT,” he said, “so this one will always stay at the top. There will be more video memes going up soon. But this is the genesis, so it’s special.”

There was a pardonable pride in the statement. In the four years since creating Elon Musk Inevitable Bitcoin, Chimp has sold plenty of meme NFTs. But it was bittersweet to see this piece go up for sale.

“I hope that someone in the DG community wins it, so Elon can stay in the casino forever,” he mused. Watching the bid ratchet to double digits, I asked him if he knew how wild this all was.

“It will get wilder soon,” he said with a wink. “I’m waiting for the big, chad whales in here to start throwing some bids.”

NFTs Are the Future

CryptoChimp's avatar stands beside the writer's.

The mood was just as electric a few hours later, though newcomers weren’t sure what was going on. “What exactly happens in an hour? I thought we were entering for a chance to win pants.”

Chimp looked over from his spot, hovering by the Cybertruck. “This is bigger than pants, ser.”

“It’s the future!” added a man in calavera makeup. “We’re living in the future.”

Chimp was in great spirits, chatting with outgoing friends and curious looky-loos, speculating as to which other investors might be prepared to quietly up their ante on the sly.

“That Cybertruck? It’s for me,” he quipped. “After the auction, I’m going to roll with that.”

I started to get it. These were the makers. The breakers. They had the angle on the next thing, and they were memeing it to life in garish color.

“Good luck, Chimp!” said someone. “Anything is possible in this space!”

You didn’t have to tell him. The bid had been rock solid at 10 ETH for upwards of an hour. The high bidder is a friend and meme believer at Rarestone Capital.

“The real fun begins in the closing hour,” said Chimp.

A guy with the head of a fortune cat sauntered up. “Going to get cray cray.”

“Charles is still top?” someone asks.

“Yes, ser. I’m here for the whale wars.”

CryptoChimp looks off idly into the distance.

Soon after he’d said it, Chimp retreated from the auction floor. I found him in the garden, looking at the clear, blue sky. Perhaps he was reconciling himself to seeing something else in Elon’s frame.

I left him to his thoughts to watch the closing bids. By now, the crowd had become embroiled in spirited debate over whether the Twitter-based XRP rally was worth getting into, even for purely “PnD” (“pump-and-dump”) reasons. I couldn’t help but smile.

It was impossible to tell anyone’s age, origin, or the kind of life they had led. But they were all scrapping with cryptocurrency, watching a meme sell for thousands in a digital casino.

The language and casual effrontery of their community somehow underscored how important the auction was, without ever daring to look like it. They wore outlandish garb to signal their inclusion like the gangs of A Clockwork Orange — except Chimp and his groodies were having a laugh at art and finance.

Gambling on Whale Wars

Avatar in sunglasses, work boots, and a winter hat.

Suddenly, alarmed responses flooded the chat. The top bid had been cleaved in half to 5 ETH. “There’s an emergency,” said Chimp. “[The top bidder] pulled out because Stream removed his.”

StreamCrypto was mortified. It was true. Seeing that he’d been outbid, Stream had pulled an offer. He reclaimed his stake of 8 ETH to try and double it at another crypto casino. With tragic results.

“I lost it,” he admitted. “It’s gone. I know how it looks, but I wasn’t trying to mess with you guys.”

“You went full degen,” laughed Chimp. “A sad end.”

We couldn’t decide which was worse: crunching the numbers on Stream’s monetary loss, or seeing poor, galactic villain Elon leaving their lives for single digits of ether. As the final minutes wound down, Stream continued to apologize for his risky decision, declaring it evidence of his “gambling problem.” Chimp hardly seemed bothered.

How could he be mad? Stream had staked a healthy chunk of change just to keep Elon smiling over the table games. Besides: it would have been nice, but 5 ETH — around $7,500 — was “not bad for a meme.”

We entered the last stretch in solemn agreement. The mood was by no means spoiled, but some of the energy had retracted. Chimp took a last, wistful look at Elon’s smug expression. “I was really hoping this meme would stay here,” he said. “But I guess it will have to go.”

CryptoChimp speaks with an avatar in a fur coat.

“Nope,” says a newcomer, “I’m going to win.”

“Who’s this chad?” Chimp laughed.

It’s Cheaux, a man sporting the black tee and white fur of the casino’s inner circle. No sooner had he spoken than a new bid of 10 ETH splashed across the screen.

Jubilation rang out, tinged with confusion. What the hell was happening to the bid? Cheaux strutted over to face the artist. If Chimp wanted the meme to stay in the casino, he was going to make sure it did, and damn the expense.

Cheaux’s zero-hour entry had extended the bidding period. A few tense moments elapsed as the foretold whale wars ensued. Elon’s fate hung in the balance, though you couldn’t tell it from his face. Whatever happened was inevitable.

It ended with a thunderclap. Shy top bidder Charles came back with a vengeance, besting Cheaux’s bragadocious tenner by another half ether.

“Damn, king,” sighed Cheaux, “I’m broke.” He had liquidated his on-hand ether.

So the auction closed, to relief and sorrow. Elon would leave Tominoya for good, but he’d become part of something bigger: the first meme NFT of CryptoChimp’s increasingly illustrious career was in the hands of a private collector. Better still, it was going to someone in the community — somebody who really got it. You couldn’t beat that.

There was no gloating. Well-wishers bid their adieux like so-and-so’s at Gatsby’s latest shindig. As everyone filed out, Chimp graciously thanked them for making the event a success, and took one last chance to poke fun at his friends.

“Love you, Stream,” he wrote, “but next time, don’t go full degen.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Assorted digital avatars in comical dress.

As I watched the crowd disperse, it really did seem inevitable. It was funny to imagine Chimp driving off in that aquamarine Cybertruck, fifteen grand richer. I know little else about him — his age, where he’s from, what he does in his spare time. But everyone in that casino was sure he was onto something. Maybe meme art would be the entropic, absurdist conclusion to a bankrupt modern art movement.

Memes are a thought virus; they rely on deeply-felt heuristics to render barriers to understanding more permeable. If they tickle your funny bone, you’ve already been convinced that their conceit is true.

Like the weirdest memes, blockchain art isn’t something most people have a grip on. If collectors begin to respond to this new breed of web-savvy daring — the willful pop culture send-up that is Elon Musk wishing away the fiat system — would that redefine modern art as we know it?

Until more people come to understand how NFTs work, mass adoption will remain the white whale of every blockchain creator. But I’m convinced Decentraland will find its population one day, thanks to people like CryptoChimp letting us all in on the joke.