Meme culture is one of the internet’s most cherished and valuable pastimes. And for a good reason — memes can be a deceptively rich form of social commentary that manifests itself in tightly-looped GIFs or evocative yet simple images featuring blocky text overlays.
But they can also just be good, silly fun.
For the longest time, memes were a great cultural metric of creator disenfranchisement on the internet. The disparity between the heights of global popularity that viral sensations have reached and the lack of compensation (or even basic recognition) their creators received is vast. It’s enough to cause a massive case of cultural and ethical vertigo.
But this isn’t a colossal surprise. On the internet, it’s easy to forget that content doesn’t simply manifest out of the digital ether — it comes from real people. This perceived anonymity makes us more inclined to feel we possess it in some way, and more likely to share and use the content we stumble across as we see fit.
This cognitive disparity between origin and value is why internet memes make fitting candidates for the application of NFTs. Blockchain technology has undisputedly changed the game for cultural creators in the last few years. In fact, NFTs have helped meme creators gain the recognition and monetary compensation they deserve for changing the global internet landscape with their work. And we love to see it.
But few people embody this iconic use-case more than Chris Torres, the 36-year-old, Dallas-based digital artist behind Nyan Cat, which is arguably one of the most famous internet memes of all time.
Nyan Cat origins
On April 2, 2011, while brainstorming ideas for a charity drawing he was doing for the American Red Cross, Torres drew an image of a cat with a pastry body surrounded by a group of colored lines. Using the drawing as the blueprint for the Nyan Cat GIF, Torres finalized the design and, a few days later, posted it to his Twitter and Tumblr accounts.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Torres said of the reaction he woke up to the following day, in an interview with nft now. “Waking up to 100 emails from people asking me what was going on. I’d never experienced anything like that before. It was the internet’s infancy of meme creation.”
Within days, Nyan Cat was everywhere. A music video set to the tune of a song by the artist daniwell shot across the internet, instantly ingraining itself in the memory of early-2010s web denizens.
It didn’t take long before individuals and even big businesses started using Nyan Cat for their own gain. Game developer isTom Games came out with a release called Nyan Cat: Lost In Space shortly after the meme’s birth. Even Warner Brothers used the meme without permission in a slew of games released on the Nintendo DS. Torres sued them, and the parties agreed to allow Warner Brothers to continue using Nyan Cat while compensating Torres for doing so.
“Several companies have used my artwork [without permission],” Torres explained. “And it’s funny, all this time, Nyan Cat has kind of been free on the internet, everybody has been able to use it. But, as an artist, before NFTs, I never saw a dime for that. It was other people using it while I was on unemployment. In come NFTs, and now I finally have a way to get proper compensation for my artwork. It’s been a crazy ride.”
Torres first jumped on the crypto bandwagon by buying some Dogecoin in 2013, followed shortly by Ethereum and then Bitcoin. Then, a close friend introduced him to NFTs by showing him an article on various NFT marketplaces like SuperRare and Foundation.
Without quite understanding how NFTs worked and thinking the technology was too good to be true, Torres remastered the original GIF pixel by pixel and put the Nyan Cat NFT up for auction on Foundation on February 11, 2021.
“I thought I’d give it a try,” Torres said. “I was expecting maybe five or ten Ethereum at the time, but as the auction went on, I had a lot of people tell me that Nyan Cat was kind of an unofficial mascot of Ethereum, and I didn’t really know that. That final hour was just a giant bid war, and it landed at exactly 300 ETH.”
At the time, 300 ETH was worth nearly $600,000.
Building the meme economy
Torres says the sale changed both his life and memes forever, opening a door for creators like himself to join the Web3 community.
“With the NFT boom, I have finally been able to get proper credit for being an artist,” said Torres. “And it’s really started the meme revolution. I called it the meme economy back then, and I still believe in it. Nyan Cat has been an awesome beacon in a way. Its success brought so many people into the space, including other meme people from my time, lots of OG meme creators.”
Torres explains how, immediately after the sale of Nyan Cat NFT, other meme creators began contacting him, curious about the process of getting set up to sell their memes as NFTs.
“It’s so surreal being able to help so many people in this way,” he said. “But that’s the power of Web3 and NFTs, being able to help other people and show that this person actually created this piece. I haven’t turned back ever since. Ever since I’ve joined NFTs, it feels like the best community to be in.”
Torres has helped some of the creators of the most well-known memes of all time onboard to Web3: Grumpy Cat, Keyboard Cat, Troll Face, Disaster Girl, and others. In April 2022, he helped bring The Coffin Dance NFT to Foundation, whose auction landed at 327 ETH, more than $1,000,000 at the time. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds from that sale went to benefit the Ukrainian charity Come Back Alive, which supports Ukrainian Armed Forces as they resist the Russian invasion.
“It’s just so great knowing that your creations are helping not just meme creators but people all over the world,” Torres said of the philanthropic potential of NFTs.
Nyan Dogg and the future of NFT memes
Torres has been busy since the sale of Nyan Cat, exploring the opportunities Web3 offers.
In April 2021, he collaborated with BeetsDAO and Snoop Dogg to drop the Nyan Dogg collection on OpenSea, featuring 131 editions of a 4/20 friendly Hazy Nyan Cat and 81 editions of a rainbow-emitting Nyan Blunt.
“The collaboration with Nyan Dogg was kind of the [quintessential] Web3 experience,” recalled Torres. “I was contacted by BeetsDAO, saying they’d love to do a collaboration with me, and that they had an awesome guest that would like to do something with you. It was almost 4/20 at the time. I was already kind of making a hazy Nyan Cat, and they said, well, we have the perfect match for you, so here’s Snoop Dogg. It was a surreal experience and it also boosted my presence in the space. People already knew about the [Nyan Cat] sale, but now I was doing collaborations with major artists. We’re still in contact. It’s been pretty awesome.”
Looking toward the future, Torres is working on creating a collection of fractionalized NFTs for Nyan Cat as he wants the meme to be more accessible. He’s also brainstorming ways to link utilities to the NFTs he creates, launching collaborations with metaverses like Worldwide Webb, Turf.NFT, and Decentraland.
Torres also started the NFT collection G.I. Toadz just a few months ago, a project that began when CrypToadz’s creator Gremplin sent him a folder of deleted NFTs that didn’t quite make the official collection. Torres and Gremplin built on top of those models to create the new superhero-inspired Toadz drop.
Looking to experiment further in the Web3 space, Torres is also planning on releasing a photography NFT collection.
“Just a small, limited collection,” Torres said. “I post a lot of pictures of my cats all the time, so I want to have some fun with it. Right now I’m in the brainstorming process. I’m just trying to expand to other genres of NFTs.”
For Torres and others, NFTs have opened up a new vector of exploration and creative opportunities. While it was indeed a long time coming, the story of how meme creators and NFTs have found a home in one another is one of the best examples of why the era of Web3 is not only important for intellectual property rights, but also inevitable.
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