Claims that the popular Bored Apes Yacht Club NFT collection contains hidden racist imagery have resurfaced. But what is really behind the allegations?
How it started
First suspicions that Yuga Labs’ Bored Apes may have racist undertones came up as early as November 2021, as the base character of the NFT collection is in fact an ape, which can also be understood as a racial slur targeting People of Color. This culminated in NFT satirist Ryder Ripps launching the website gordongoner.com in January 2022.
The site is named after one of the pseudonymous Yuga Labs founders and accuses the founding team of deliberately lacing the BAYC artwork with racist imagery and references to Internet nazi trolling culture. On Monday, YouTuber Philip Rusnack, also known as Philion, released an hour-long documentary, in which he laid out the allegations in detail. Specifically, Philion linked the imagery and lingo used within the BAYC ecosystem to alt-right trolls on anonymous imageboards such as 4chan, calling BAYC the “biggest troll in Internet history”.
The video seems to have convinced most people who watched it. At the time of writing, it has over 500,000 views and more than 38,000 likes. The browser add-on Return YouTube Dislike estimates that the video has received 3,100 dislikes.
Is the BAYC logo based on a nazi symbol?
While this wouldn’t be the first time a conspiracy theory, especially in the web3 sector, turned out to be true, it also wouldn’t be the first time a conspiracy theory managed to fool thousands of people. The best argument for the validity of the Bored Apes conspiracy theory is likely the logo used on the official Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT collection. According to the video, the logo resembles an emblem worn by members of the SS Division “Totenkopf”, which became infamous for its brutality and war crimes under the Third Reich regime.
Philion also points out that both logos have rough edges, which he calls “uncommon in circular emblems” and that the monkey skull visible in the BAYC logo also has 18 teeth, which he attributes to an alpha-numeric code for Adolf Hitler. However, looking up the symbols of the Totenkopf division, one can find that most emblems featuring the skull are either not circular, or have round edges.
The BAYC logo, therefore, does not resemble the official emblem of the Totenkopf division, but at best one variation of the emblem that was worn rarely, if ever. In an interview with Input Magazine, Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the ADL’s Center on Extremism, debunks the claim that the BAYC logo contains any hidden nazi imagery:
The Nazi Totenkopf is one very specific graphic design of a skull and crossbones. And the monkey skull resembles it in no way except insofar as all skulls resemble each other to a certain degree.
One hour of tinfoil
The documentary continues in the same style, stringing together vague references to nazis and alt-right trolling culture that even most people familiar with imageboard trolls would call farfetched. From the company name Yuga Labs and the pseudonyms of the founders, over an online puzzle conducted by Yuga Labs, to the graphic design of some of the NFTs themselves, everything under the BAYC ecosystem is dissected, connecting all the dots in the best tinfoil hat fashion.
If you switch around the characters in another founder's pseudonym, it becomes an Australian racial slur. #BoredApe #6969 has a prussian helmet. Don't even get me started on #1488. This list goes on and on and on. This is a clear sign of a bullshit conspiracy theory.
— Tobias W. Kaiser (@T_W_Kaiser) June 21, 2022
Philion claims that Yuga Labs is making all the supposed nazi references so obscure that they can plausibly deny making them on purpose. This makes the BAYC conspiracy theory unable to both prove and disprove. The problem with this kind of tinfoil hattery is that it becomes easier to see things that are not there than to not see things that are not there.
I tried doing it with a few random projects last night & very quickly found “coincidences”
Would recommend people trying it for themselves on their favorite projects pic.twitter.com/qZhj9FGQcl
— arch.eth 鳥居 (@0xArch) June 20, 2022
Taking enough of these coincidences together can make a false conspiracy theory seem plausible, especially when it revolves around a topic that has much public awareness, such as far-right extremism.
For instance, earlier this year, Binance inadvertently released a new Twitter emoji, which, to some users, resembled a Swastika. To make matters worse, the new emoji dropped on Hitler’s birthday and this was not even Binance’s first design gaffe with a nazi connotation. Prior to that, Puma and Amazon were criticized for designs that resembled the mustache of Adolf Hitler.
RR/BAYCs took #1 spot on OpenSea before getting banned
The documentary closed with a call to all BAYC holders, including the various celebrity owners of a Bored Ape, such as Stephen Curry, Post Malone, and Jimmy Fallon, to burn their NFTs. Instead, Philion promotes a re-mint of the whole BAYC NFT collection by Ryder Ripps, called RR/BAYC.
On the RR/BAYC website, the self-ascribed satirist Ripps wrote that he wants to test “the boundaries and meaning of digital images within a new paradigm of IP law, copyright, computer-generated images, and Non-Fungible Tokens”:
My recent NFT work has been centered around provocations and inquiries regarding the nature of NFT, provenance and digital ownership. Provenance has always been the definitive aspect in establishing an artwork’s meaning and value. The technology of NFTs is widely misunderstood, but in its greatest form, it enables an immutable trace of origin in time to the publisher/creator of a digital work.
The RR/BAYC collection actually managed to secure the top spot in trading volume on OpenSea shortly. Floor prices for RR/BAYC NFTs temporarily exceeded 1 ETH. The hashtag #BURNBAYC has been trending on Twitter since Philion’s video was released. At the time of writing, OpenSea has banned the RR/BAYC collection, but still lists several collections that were in turn pirated from RR/BAYC.
Last year, Ripps reminted CryptoPunk #3100, which is one of the most expensive NFTs ever sold. His re-mint received a DMCA Takedown Notice from Larva Labs, which Ripps successfully countered. For his re-minting of the entire BAYC collection, he also received a DMCA notice from Yuga Labs, which was retracted two hours later. According to his website, this sent “a strong message that you can’t copy an NFT”. He further elaborates:
RR/BAYC uses satire and appropriation to protest and educate people regarding The Bored Ape Yacht Club and the framework of NFTs. The work is an extension of and in the spirit of other artists who have worked within the field of appropriation art.
Putting everything into context, it becomes apparent that not Yuga Labs are the master trolls in this case, but Philion and Ripps. They have not only pirated one of the most successful NFT collections on the market but also launched a smear campaign full of baseless allegations against the company that released the original NFT collection, to both promote their pirated NFT collection and to write the next chapter in the NFTs vs. right-clickers debate.
So what’s to make out of all this? Are Philion and Ripps scammers or artists after releasing RR/BAYC? Are those who pirated from RR/BAYC scammers? If you hold a BAYC, can you be really sure that you own it? Can NFTs be copied? What does ‘copying’ even mean in this context? Answering these questions is up to you. After all, art is in the eye of the beholder.