New CryptoPunks NFT Collection Unravels After Backlash to ‘Woke’ Artwork

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CryptoPunks is arguably the most iconic and influential profile picture (PFP) collection in the NFT world, and after getting the project into museums, Yuga Labs has been trying to expand their entry into the art world by letting notable artists riff on the IP with the official Punks stamp.

But the first effort, revealed Monday with the launch of a new Punks-branded NFT collection, faced immediate backlash from collectors and crypto observers alike—including claims of “woke” artwork, sometimes accompanied by personal attacks on the artist. Now Yuga is pivoting, and apparently abandoning future plans.

Artist Nina Chanel Abney was previously named the inaugural selection for the Punk in Residence program, and over the weekend unveiled her new collection, “Super Punk World.” Following an opening event at The School at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, Yuga Labs and Abney revealed the planned NFTs on Monday.

The Punk in Residence program was designed to generate on-chain collaborations that foster creative experimentation around the project and NFTs more broadly. Abney’s limited-series digital collectibles incorporate her bold style and perspective, reimagining the iconic CryptoPunk traits through her own vision.

Nina Chanel Abney (center) with original CryptoPunks creators John Watkinson (left) and Matt Hall (right) of Larva Labs. Photo: Yuga Labs

“CryptoPunks are an iconic, pioneering project that has played a crucial role in the creation of the digital collectible space,” Abney told Decrypt ahead of the exhibition. “By collaborating with them, I saw an opportunity to be at the center of a unique intersection of art, technology, and culture.”

Having previously released a digital art collection titled “Super Cool World” through the Pharrell Williams-backed Gallery of Digital Assets (GODA), Abney is no stranger to expanding her work into the medium. For “Super Punk World,” a 500-piece avatar collection, she hand-selected each of the avatars from over 10,000 outputs.

This collection, randomly generated and then hand-curated by Abney, draws inspiration from iconic CryptoPunks traits and Super Cool World attributes. Each trait was hand-cut by Abney and digitized to create 195 unique 3D-sculpted attributes, based on 25 personas. These characters, set against colorful backgrounds informed by her previous works and printmaking techniques, embody Abney’s aesthetic and pay homage to the irreverent, early-Web3 roots of the CryptoPunks project.

“What we wanted to do was kind of introduce wallets and generative art, and Web3 and NFTs, to this more traditional art crowd and group of collectors,” Nathalie Stone, General Manager and Brand Lead of CryptoPunks, told Decrypt last week.

A photo from the "Super Punks World" exhibition
A photo from the “Super Punks World” exhibition. Photo: Yuga Labs

“We’re trying to bring CryptoPunks to the masses here, in a way,” Stone added, “but also have them understand why digital ownership matters.”

Abney’s digital worldview reflects on virtual versus real-world identities, addressing the pricing disparities between digital avatars based on gender and skin tone. White, male avatars tend to generate higher secondary sale prices than their darker-skinned or female counterparts in prominent NFT collections.

Her hybridized figures fuse racial components and aim to blur the lines between masculine and feminine, challenging societal notions of inherent value and pushing viewers to confront their implicit biases. 

However, after Abney’s riff on CryptoPunks was revealed earlier Monday, the project received substantial backlash across social media.

Some commenters have taken aim at the art style itself or the concept of even trying to reimagine an iconic project, while others have levied “woke” accusations due to its emphasis on race and gender, igniting debates about the intersection of art, identity, and digital culture.

It has also received negative attention for diluting the original Punks collection, with some collectors upset about Yuga Labs attempting to expand a project is considered a valuable, “blue chip” Ethereum NFT set.

Yuga Labs initially declined comment to Decrypt once the backlash began, but early Monday evening, company CEO Greg “Garga” Solano tweeted a statement. The NFT were initially planned to be auctioned, but now will be distributed in some way to Super Cool World NFT holders, potentially through a “randomized airdrop.” And it appears that there will be no follow-up artist residency initiative, at least not in this same fashion.

“Yuga will no longer touch Punks,” he wrote. “They will just be decentralized and preserved on the blockchain. The only thing we intend to do is support a few museums and institutions in their quest to acquire a Punk and help educate their audience about them.”

Abney affirmed Solano’s statement in a tweet and thanked Yuga Labs for supporting her art and helping the pieces get into the hands of her holders—but then decried the hateful attacks sent her way on social media as a result of the project reveal.

“I am utterly disgusted with some of the racist, sexist, homophobic, [and] transphobic comments the controversy around this project has unearthed,” she wrote.

“What’s really at the underbelly of this space?” Abney continued. “Now more than ever, I will continue my mission toward an inclusive community where everyone is accepted, and ideas that spark productive dialogue are welcomed. No hate tolerated.”

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