The Bored Ape Yacht Club, a combination NFT/membership club for people with too much money and too little taste, is embroiled in a legal battle over allegations of secret alt-right imagery and a knock-off collection that is allegedly making millions of dollars.
The Bored Apes are one of the most valuable NFTs in the world, selling for up to millions apiece at their height. (An NFT is like a digital deed to a piece of art.) Owning an “ape” gives members not only the rights to their unique ape image, but also access to parties, chat rooms, and bragging rights. Justin Bieber, Madonna, and Shaquille O’Neal are all members.
But the project has recently come under attack by artist Ryder Ripps, himself a celebrity-backed but controversial figure, who claims the BAYC is actually an elaborate troll founded by alt-right forum-dwellers and studded with racist dog whistles. He started compiling data points in a Twitter thread in January, and eventually launched a website laying out his arguments point by point. A spokesperson for Yuga Labs, the company behind the Apes, responded by calling the allegations “deeply painful,” and “disturbing,” and the founders posted a Twitter thread debunking some of Ripps’ points.
Things really heated up last month, when Ripps launched a line of identical images he called the “RR BAYC” and sold them on major NFT marketplaces using official Bored Ape branding. In a tweet, he called the line “artistic statement on the nature of NFT, satire against Yuga Labs’ practice & protest against the content.” The collection has sold 6,900 items according to CoinGecko, and Ripps claims it has made at least $1 million so far.
Yuga Labs escalated the battle on Friday, filing a federal trademark infringement suit against Ripps and collaborator Jeremy Cahen that accused them of flooding the market with counterfeit bored apes to purposely devalue the real thing. (The company claims Ripps has made $5 million off the scheme.) It called the project a “deliberate effort to harm Yuga Labs” and asked for monetary damages and an order requiring Ripps to and Cahen to stop using its name and imagery.
“Ripps’ misuse of Yuga Labs’ trademarks and false advertising of the RR/BAYC NFTs is not accidental,” lawyers for Yuga Labs wrote. “These actions are calculated, intentional, and willful with the stated purpose of causing actual and monetary harm to Yuga Labs and to the holders of authentic Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs, all of which causes real harm to Yuga Labs’ goodwill.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Ripps said the company had “grossly mischaracterize[d]” his project, which was not a knockoff of Bored Ape but a protest against it.
“People who reserved an RR/BAYC NFT (Non Fungible Token) understood that their NFT was being minted as a protest against and parody of BAYC, and no one was under the impression that the RR/BAYC NFTs were substitutes for BAYC NFTs or would grant them access to Yuga’s club,” he wrote.
He added that he was a “passionate supporter of the principles of free speech and the blockchain,” writing that he had been creating NFT artwork for the past year that “scrutinizes the purpose, meaning, and social import of NFTs as numeric entries on distributed ledgers—not as the public images they link to.”
“I believe the greatest purpose of NFT is to establish provenance of digital content which previous to their advent was inherently difficult to trace the authorship and origins of,” he wrote.
Ripps is something of an internet troll himself, known for making a fake Balenciaga Twitter account that fooled Rihanna and a fake Kanye West project that fooled The Washington Post. While he is an accomplished designer—his studio, OK Focus, has worked with clients including Kanye West, Nike, and Red Bull—his personal artwork is known for taking occasionally incendiary shots at internet culture and sexuality.
One of his shows, ART WHORE, in which he paid female masseuses $80 each to make art in his room at the Ace Hotel, was deemed “in the running for the most offensive project of 2014” by New York art blog Art F City. Another show, featuring distorted oil paintings of an Instagram model’s photos, earned him the Jezebel headline: ”Petty Man Builds Art Career By Shitting on Fitness Star Adrianne Ho.” (Even Jezebel, however, called him “undeniably brilliant; a chatroom-bred forum troll who knows the power of publicity (or ‘discourse’) and wields it to his advantage.”)
That Ripps has something in common with his allegedly alt-right targets makes him the perfect person to research this theory—most of which involves secret symbols and dog-whistles familiar to those who inhabit the bowels of the deep web. It has already been picked up by major art publications such as ArtNet News—”How Seriously Should We Take This Bored-Ape Conspiracy Theory?” it asked—and digital culture publications including Mel Magazine, though it was shot down by a reseracher for the Anti-Defamation League in at least one story.
Earlier this month, a YouTube user known as “Philion” uploaded a video about the theory entitled “BORED APE NAZI CLUB.” Over more than an hour, the narrator lays out the purported “proof,” including the similarities between the BAYC logo and the Nazi “Totenkopf” symbol, and the supposed alt-right ties to the founders’ screen names. (The founders went exclusively by these names until Ripps provided their true identities to several news outlets this year.) At the end, it encourages owners to ditch their NFTs and viewers to tweet the hashtag #BURNBAYC. It had more than 1.1 million views and 85,000 likes as of publication.
The founders of BAYC respodend to the viral video with a Medium post, reiterating that they are of Jewish, Turkish, Pakistani, and Cuban descent, and releasing emails they said shows the original, decidedly non-Nazi reasoning behind the BAYC logo.
“Overall, we think it’s crazy that these conspiracy theories have been able to proliferate,” they wrote. “It really shows the power that a demented troll on the internet can have.”
Ripps responded, predictably, on Twitter.
This game of “who is the true internet troll” all occurred during a nosedive in the profitability and popularity of NFTs, set off by the crash of the crypto marketplace starting in May. According to the research firm BeInCrypto, NFT sales volume dropped 75 percent between January and April; the value of the average NFT has dropped about 80 percent.
The Bored Apes have not been spared from the bloodletting: the value of a Bored Ape dropped 78 percent between the end of April and mid-June, and the entry-level price dropped below $100,000 for the first time since August 2021. Major celebrity backers including Paris Hilton, Jimmy Kimmel and Serena Willaims quietly changed their profile pictures to something other than their apes.
The price of ApeCoin—YugaLab’s cryptocurrency—spiked this week following the release of a music video featuring rappers Snoop Dogg and Eminem driving around as animated apes. (Both are BAYC NFT owners.) And Yuga Labs tweeted Friday that the “outpouring of support from our community today has been overwhelming” following the news of its lawsuit. But whether the legal battle and celebrity endorsement can save the apes from a future of irrelevance, spending their attempting to write Hamlet, is yet to be seen.
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