Since its debut last April, the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT has exploded as one of the most recognizable, and coveted, products in the crypto zeitgeist.
Anybody who bought one of these ape avatars for the early minting price of 0.08 Ethereum, or just over $200 at press time, is probably feeling like a genius now. These days, the going price is closer to 93 ETH — more than $230,000 in cold hard cash for the honor of owning one of 10,000 Bored Apes, each with a custom set of traits that affect its rarity. Celebs like Jimmy Fallon, Paris Hilton, Eminem and Steph Curry have jumped onboard, paying huge money for an image of a tired-looking cartoon ape that derives its value from ballooning hype and nothing more.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, come in all shapes and sizes, with everything from fine art objects (like Picasso’s ceramics) to cringeworthy digital “Meta Girlfriends” trading hands on the blockchain. A major part of NFT culture, however, is the growth of exclusive clubs that come with ownership, allowing users to network, tweak and evolve their NFTs over time. Bored Ape Yacht Club, for example, launched a series of cryptographic puzzles for the community to ponder, using deeply embedded clues to lead people to prizes.
But this cryptography, and the imagery of Bored Ape, has been setting off red flags among critics for months. Artist and creative director Ryder Ripps has been sharing what he sees as evidence on Twitter since 2021, arguing that Bored Ape, and its founding company Yuga Labs, is trafficking disguised references to racist alt-right figureheads and neo-Nazi iconography. (Yuga Labs has not responded to requests for comment for this article.)
Ripps is familiar with NFTs because of his work as a digital artist, and he tells me that Bored Ape didn’t really catch his interest until a friend — Lil B’s manager, Sebastian Demian — texted him about red flags he saw in BAYC’s aesthetic. It sent Ripps down a rabbit hole that culminated in a single post last week, simply titled “Bored Ape Yacht Club is Racist and Started by Neo-Nazis.”
“It’s insidious [and] extremely manipulative to leverage people wanting to get rich quick and use that to put forth an encoded message that’s racist. And this kind of activity has been a joke for the alt-right, trolling world for a long time,” Ripps tells me.
The most damning bit may be the similarity of the Bored Ape Yacht Club’s logo, which depicts an ape’s skull against a black background with white text, to the Nazi Totenkopf worn by members of the Schutzstaffel (SS), complete with exactly 18 teeth. The number 18, commonly used in online posts and tattoos, has been deemed a “numeric hate symbol” by multiple groups who track far-right extremism in America, as it’s a simple code for the letters “AH” — or Adolf Hitler.
Ripps also argues that the name of the company behind Bored Ape, Yuga Labs, is a coded reference to a far-right subculture that advocates for the destruction of modern culture and a rebirth shaped in the image of older societies, bolstered with antiquated ideas of caste and gender. “Yuga” is a concept of cyclical time in Hindu mysticism, with the “Kali Yuga” being the fourth and final stage before the universe is purified anew. It has become a cornerstone of alt-right memery, with one phrase — “Surf the Kali Yuga” — becoming a viral slogan, often accompanied by deeply anti-Semetic imagery and white nationalist dog-whistles.
Yuga Labs noted in a January tweet that their name was merely inspired by the villain Yuga in the popular game franchise The Legend of Zelda, and clarified the origin of the company in a thread, claiming its creators come from diverse backgrounds (“Jewish, Cuban, Turkish, Pakistani”), and describing the origins of the ape theme.
But for Ripps and other critics who have dissected Bored Ape’s iconography, that doesn’t explain all the other alt-right references they’ve found. That includes “GUENON” being an answer in the cryptographic puzzle game; it’s a reference to philosopher René Guénon, who along with Italian fascist Julian Evola became the inspiration for the “Traditionalist” movement spread by fascist thinkers like Steve Bannon and Russia’s Alexander Dugin. Traditionalism and Kali Yuga go hand-in-hand, and it’s popular in the far-right fringe, falling alongside other accelerationist theories like the “Boogaloo” and similar civil-war rebirth narratives.
Ripps also points to the fact that one co-creator of Yuga Labs named himself Gargamel, most widely known as the sinister villain in The Smurfs that many (including posters on alt-right hubs like 4chan) have acknowledged is an anti-Semitic caricature. Ripps, fascinated by Bored Ape’s use of anagrams, noticed one solution to a BAYC puzzle is “macaque” — a historical slur against Black people that famously landed a U.S. senator in deep trouble after he uttered it publicly. He also observed that another co-creator’s name, the odd-sounding “Gordon Goner,” can be unscrambled to read “Drongo Negro” — with “drongo” being an Australian slang term meaning “idiot” or “slow-witted.”
“The odds of a name being a racist anagram is very, very low,” Ripps asserts. “I sat around for days trying to untangle this, and I can’t justify these references any other way.”
Elsewhere, Ripps points out less obvious bits and pieces that he believes collectively show how Yuga Labs is actively trolling using right-wing dog whistles. He finds it curious that co-founders told media that the NFT launched on April 30th — the day that Hitler died by suicide. There’s the fact that users can dress their ape avatars in what appears to be esoteric German symbolism, like the pickelhaube helmet. And then there’s the criticism of the entire simian aesthetic of Bored Ape, which Ripps and others claim is one giant reference to the racist act of comparing people to apes. Other forms of media have been criticized for simianization that dabbles in racist tropes, and Ripps argues that Bored Ape is guilty of leveraging such iconography on purpose.
Ripps has attracted criticism about his research methodology and some of the weaker claims he makes on his Bored Ape post, which some say relies on conspiratorial rhetoric to magnify the weight of the claims. But taken as a complete picture, it’s difficult to ignore the references — the kinds of content beloved on 4chan and spread by far-right agitators like Nick Fuentes. There’s certainly plausible deniability at play, but that’s also something alt-right figures in the past have taken advantage of by claiming that Pepe the Frog or the OK hand symbol weren’t actually white-nationalist symbols, but rather just innocuous coincidences. Such humor is a core part of alt-right culture, especially for self-aware grifters and content creators who are hot on cryptocurrency as the future of their work.
There are certainly more explicitly racist NFTs being minted all the time — consider the utterly mind-boggling Meta Slave project, which claims to be inspired by BLM but literally wants you to buy images of unblinking, smiling Black faces. But it’s clear that Bored Ape’s creators see the NFT as a genuine conduit for clever cryptography and messaging. As co-founder Goner told Coindesk in response to a question about creative control, “At a certain point, to borrow a phrase from Gordon Lish, you’re just writing to create that next perfect sentence that delights you.”
“We didn’t just throw 3D glasses onto apes. And we didn’t have a long essay on what exactly what this was. But we knew what it was. It’s like Wittgenstein’s ‘let the unutterable be conveyed unutterably,’ or Hemingway’s iceberg theory,” added co-founded Gargamel in the same interview. “We knew all about what this world was, and why these apes are this way. And that somebody else might get a little tingle on their neck looking at it, thinking, ‘Yeah, this is kind of different. This isn’t just random.’”
Do the people who own a Bored Ape NFT believe that they’re fans of a neo-Nazi cypher? Almost certainly not — and yet, when it comes to fringe-right trolling, that may just be the point. For now, critics like Ripps believe the design choices Yuga Labs made suggest that the biggest NFT in America is a winking tribute to all kinds of troubling beliefs about society, progress and, ultimately, the role of crypto in the future.