In February of this year, just as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) slid into mainstream view, Torres seized the opportunity to profit from the buzzy cryptocurrency tokens, which allow artists to auction off discrete ownership of digital images. Torres sold an NFT tied to a GIF of Nyan Cat for 300 ETH , or nearly $600,000. “It’s just really recognizable,” Torres told Decrypt . “That’s what created the value.”
The sale started a trend; NFTs of memes from the late 2000s and early 2010s have continued to sell for absurd amounts of money, thanks in part to Torres and the community of creators he’s helped foster over the past decade. With sales in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the auctions are creating ridiculous valuations for GIFs and JPGs—particularly ones that do not confer any legal ownership over the NFTs themselves.
But for at least a few bidders, the prospect of owning the Nyan Cat, Scumbag Steve or Overly Attached Girlfriend NFT is worth the money. The memes were among the first pieces of genuinely viral internet content—image macros that trickled down from sites like 4Chan and I Can Has Cheezburger and filtered into our collective subconscious; the deconstructionist memes of the post-covid era are closely tied to these lingering cultural memories.
Here’s a quick rundown on the most famous Web 2.0 artifacts that found new life on Web 3.0 .
Torres said that back in the early 2010s, companies would use Nyan Cat as a viral marketing tool without bothering to credit him. “It kind of became a trend, not just for me, but for many meme artists that created anything since then. It’s always been kind of a struggle.”
The magic of memes is in their transience and reproducibility—it’s strange to think that Nyan Cat was created by an individual, since it’s passed through so many hands. (Snoop Dogg even partnered with Torres for a twist on Nyan Cat called “Nyan Dogg” ; it sold for $33,000.)
By contrast, NFTs are more like connective tissue between artists and their artworks. Someone could try to sell another Nyan Cat NFT, but only the original links to Torres’ address on the Ethereum blockchain .