Earlier this week, a heated debate surrounding the NFT project Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) and its alleged ties to racist origins and imagery put the crypto art collection at the forefront of a controversy after a Twitter Space hosted by crypto-enthusiast loldefi saw over 5,000 users pouring in to hear commentary or voice their thoughts.
During the Space and in the days following, both opponents and proponents of BAYC became embroiled in arguments on Twitter where some made accusations of connections to racism while others were quick to dismiss these as coincidence or outright fake.
After much ensuing drama, Yuga Labs, the company behind BAYC, released several statements to try and alleviate the controversy, such as claiming that its name "Yuga" was pulled from a Legend of Zelda game rather than Nazi codewords.
A little a bit about us to start off the new year and what's coming. 🧵
1. What's the inspiration behind the name Yuga Labs?
We're nerds, and Yuga is the name of a villain in Zelda whose ability is that he can turn himself and others into 2D art. Made sense for an NFT company.
— Yuga Labs (@yugalabs) January 3, 2022
One prominent voice among many alleging that BAYC and Yuga Labs had questionable origins was artist and designer Ryder Ripps. To explain some of the most prevalent points of those claiming racist ties to BAYC, we spoke with Ryder yesterday to try and better understand the full scope of this debate.
KYM: For context and additional information on the full scope of this debate surrounding BAYC's alleged racist ties, could you tell us more about the background, such as where it stems from originally or how it was first discovered?
Ryder Ripps: The act of disparaging someone by comparing them to an ape/monkey goes back hundreds of years. There is a word for it, “simianization.” There are many examples throughout history, its purpose is to justify violence and racism against another group by dehumanizing them, comparing them to apes. Simianization has occured with various ethnic groups such as Jewish, Irish and Asian people, but it is most predominantly used as a tactic against Black people. You might think simianization is something of a past era, but racists are still comparing Black people to monkeys today, such as the trend in Europe of throwing bananas at Black soccer players. At first glance, the apes in Bored Ape Yacht Club might seem innocent, but there are several traits that indicate that they are intended to represent Black people and Asian people, such as the gold chains trait called "hip hop," the gold/diamond grills trait or the kamikaze headband. To learn about simianization in-depth, have a look at this research paper titled, “Simianization. Apes, Gender, Class, and Race”_ (ed. Wulf D. Hund, Charles W. Mills, Silvia Sebastiani), which offers a lot of history. Other articles on the subject: Race and The Ape Image, LA Times
and The Racist Trope That Won’t Die, NY Times.
How did you first learn about this, and why did you decide to speak out and get involved in the controversy?
This is not something I have discovered, many others have taken issue with the simianization of BAYC and its derivatives. As a professional artist, designer and Jewish person, I've known about racist images for a long time. I felt compelled to speak up because it's the right thing to do and felt it was deserving of a larger dialogue.
In a concise breakdown, what are the most conclusive pieces that tie BAYC and its parent company Yuga Labs to racist origins based on what you know?
After looking deeper, myself and others have discovered many questionable aspects of the company behind the Bored Ape Yacht Club, Yuga Labs, that point to the possibility of them being Nazis/Boogaloos/Accelerationists. Here is a good recap of what the Boogaloo group is if you are unaware of them.
1. The name "Yuga Labs" seems like a reference to a Nazi/Alt-Right/Boogaloo obsession with the "Kali Yuga," a topic covered in-depth by Nazi publication The Daily Stormer. Nazi adjacent groups often use the phrase "Surf The Kali Yuga," code for start a race war. Here is an article about that. https://themarginaliareview.com/alt-right-apocalypse/ And here is an example meme from the group "Kali Yuga Surf Club" featuring the Nazi Totenkopf skull and the Nazi Black Sun symbol.
2. The Bored Ape Yacht Club logo is very similar to the Nazi Totenkopf emblem.
3. The co-founders handle is Gargamel, a character from the Smurfs, who is viewed as a racist depiction of a Jewish person. The co-founder has since attempted to cover this up.
4. There is a prominent display of Hawaiian shirts, a known symbol of the Boogaloo movement.
5. The BAYC Rolling Stone cover features an ape in a Hawaiian shirt wearing an admiral hat with a skull -- there has never been a militia besides the Nazis to wear a hat in this style. Additionally, the same image features rats huddled around gold, comparing Jews to rats and associating them with gold is a common racist trope.
6. The founders have created extremely complicated and advanced puzzles, have a look at one here. This displays a hyper-awareness of symbolism and demonstrates an ability to embed coded meaning into images, which is hypocritical to the narrative they're telling, that the images mean very little and that they are just some average stoners. Speaking in coded language with plausible deniability is exactly how the Boogaloo/Alt-Right operates, learn more about that here and here.
As someone who was in the Twitter Space on Monday where this controversy went viral, what was the sentiment like from your perspective there? What were some of the biggest takeaways for people who only read about it after the fact?
It seemed to me that almost everyone in the space acknowledged potential racial issues with the Bored Ape Yacht Club images, from being mildly offended to outright repulsed, but for various reasons decided to overlook them in the spirit of productivity. There was discussion about reclaiming this imagery and using it as an empowering force -- but not knowing the creator's true intentions, this is difficult to do, and there's no way to know where they truly stand if they remain anonymous.
Outside of the NFT space, the overwhelming majority of people seem to find the content problematic, as seen in the engagement with this tweet.
That NFT shit seem racially motivated cause why is it all monkeys
— BASED SAVAGE (@crackcobain__) January 2, 2022
I received a slew of private messages in support of me speaking out. A lot of people are not comfortable getting publically involved in controversial issues.
Following our discussion with Ryder, we reached out to Yuga Labs for comment on the controversy and to hear its side of the debate but have not heard back. For now, you can read the company's statement from Monday about the accusations via this Twitter thread on its official account, and we'll update this if we hear back. So far, these claims made by Ryder and others alleging BAYC's racist ties are still conjectures.