From early concepts like Bitcoin Colored Coins in 2012, the definition and value of NFTs have grown exponentially. But despite this surge in trading volume and adoption, numerous collections continue to be shaped by the mercurial market, rapidly rising and falling due to influencer and celebrity endorsements.
Understandably, this volatility leaves many wondering how to find assets that aren’t mere speculative, subjective vaporware or nothing more than a passing fad. But some seasoned collectors remain firm in their beliefs, valuing "historical" assets from around 2015 - 2017 more than recent mints or open editions, as they have proven their value over time (so to speak).
These tokenized treasures, which include projects like Spells of Genesis (2015) and Etheria (2015), will forever embed provenance and nostalgia in Bitcoin and Ethereum's perennial landscape of decentralized wonders. Similarly, Rare Pepes (2016) set a precedent by proving that digital collectibles, or NFTs, can accrue value without inherent utility. By doing so, they helped pave the foundations of what has since been dubbed the CryptoArt movement.
A group of innovators known as Rare Pepe Scientists also made a series of firsts possible through the memetic digital frog and the permissionless nature of its underlying blockchain (Bitcoin). A few of these milestones include:
Immutable Community Art and the Pepechain: The first CryptoArt community to freely buy, sell, swap, and destroy NFTs with images tied to the blockchain (CHYNAPEPE).
SCHROEPEPE: the first NFT to dynamically change its appearance.
DJPEPE, PEPEBALT: the first NFTs to include songs, and games to the token.
Opendime, Satellites, and NFC chips: the first NFT to be transferred and stored on a physical device, an NFC Chip, and be broadcast from a satellite.
Contrary to what many might assume, the image of an NFT can be changed if it's not completely on-chain. Several factors, like centralized hosting (that can delete websites) or relying on marketplaces to pay IPFS data fees, could lead to the loss of related art, video, and music if the company or creator shuts down, goes bankrupt, etc. And, as mentioned, media files are not always inextricably tied to the underlying smart contract or blockchain, leaving loopholes for developers to copy, alter, or misuse content.
But the Rare Pepe community addressed these issues in 2016 via CHYNAPEPE, otherwise credited as the first immutable art on a blockchain.
Chyna Pepe released October 2016 by Cryptonati
Creators Goat and Bench largely solved these issues by integrating the MD5 hash of the original Chyna Pepe image into the token description field, which can be found here: https://xchain.io/asset/CHYNAPEPE
For clarity, let’s review:
Any digital image (just a string of numbers or a sequence of numerical data) can produce a unique cryptographic hash. But no two images will generate the exact same hash, not even those that are almost identical. In other words, each image has a unique MD5 hash or code (like a specific ID).
With this in mind, verifying the authenticity of a Chyna Pepe becomes rather straightforward. One simply needs to upload the image to a website like http://onlinemd5.com/.
The website will then create a code from the uploaded image. If this code matches the one provided by Goat and Bench, the asset (Chyna Pepe) is authentic.
The MD5 “checksum” hash can be found in the description field on xchian.io
That said, MD5 hashes aren't perfect. And because of this, it wasn’t long before developer Joe Looney created Pepechain on the 22nd of October 2016 for the public to better secure and verify their assets. Paraphrasing a related medium article, Pepechain enhances the authenticity of Pepe assets using a Merkle tree of SHA-256 hashes.
In other words, the Pepechain links the hashes of all images together via a single “root” hash. It also comes with a script that collectors can download and cross-reference all verified assets in the Rare Pepe Directory.
The Rare Pepe Wallet:
Before the Emblem vault, storing Rare Pepes could only be done with wallets congruent with the Bitcoin blockchain. More specifically, the 'Rare Pepe Wallet.’ Along with functioning as an encrypted storehouse, the wallet also allows traders and collectors to use PepeCash as a medium of exchange.
Joe Looney interview:
As the creator of the Rare Pepe Wallet, and a significant contributor to the ever-expansive Pepe-verse, it was only fitting to gain Joe’s thoughts on the collection, its history, and potential future:
- The Rare Pepe wallet is credited with a lot of innovations as per your interview with art nome in 2018. What’s the best way for readers to trace its history?
Joe: Rare Pepe Wallet as it exists now is relatively unchanged from what it was in late 2016. I suppose readers could use http://archive.org to view the archived version of the site to see what it’s looked like over the years.
- Rare Pepes have also been credited as the first blockchain centric artwork to dynamically change appearance. Which Pepe card(s) was used here?
Joe: What you’re referring to is SCHROEPEPE which uses a quirk in the way PNGs are encoded to overlay two different images and depending on the browser you’re using to the view the wallet one or the other will be displayed. If you want to know more about how this works, I’d recommend contacting the artist @netindexed on Twitter.
- What is the most underrated or undervalued aspect about Rare Pepes as NFTs and a community?
Joe: I think the fact that Rare Pepes are on Bitcoin and not Ethereum is a large barrier for people that are only familiar with NFTs on Ethereum. In the past this has led people to dismiss RarePepes, although with the advent of Emblem Vaults and greater exposure of Rare Pepes over time, more people have come to realize the historical significance.
- When did you first hear about Rare Pepes and do you still have your first NFT? If so, what is it?
Joe: I first heard of Rare Pepes when Mike created the Nakamoto Card and announced it in the Counterparty telegram chat. I had been active in the Counterparty community since it launched in early 2014 so I recognized the innovation almost immediately. This was the first time I had ever seen someone use art to represent a token without the token having any utility (it was not meant to have game functionality like a Spells of Genesis card). I have a lot of tokens I created over the years on Counterparty so it’s hard to say which is the “first” NFT. One of the first single issue NFTs that I created was used to represent my fantasy football team.
- Do you have a favorite Rare Pepe from the collection? What’s significant about it to you?
Joe: I have a few favorites, PEPEPEANUTS and JONGPEPE are the first two that come to mind. PEPEPEANUTS is a great example of how a Rare Pepe can be very simple but still funny in its own way. JONGPEPE was the first Rare Pepe that I sold for over $100 which was the moment I realized “hey these things could be valuable”.
- What do you find to be some of the key shortcomings of NFTs on Ethereum as opposed to Bitcoin and vice versa?
Joe: I wrote a medium post about this subject.
- Given the deep history and memetic impact of Rare Pepes, where do you see the future of the collection? Are there any iterations or improvements with Rare Pepe functionality that you’d like to see which haven’t been developed yet?
Joe: The Rare Pepe collection marks the beginning of the CryptoArt movement. It was the first time artists had the ability to create their own NFTs and sell them on a decentralized marketplace. I’d love to see more developers build on Counterparty and create more tools for artists and collectors.
- Do you have any advice or recommendations for collectors new to Rare Pepes and the wider NFT ecosystem?
Joe: Join the discord and telegram groups and ask lots of questions.
Influenced by Schrödinger’s cat, the creative process for the SCHROEPEPE card, released in April 2017, started roughly two years earlier, around September 2015. It was during this time that the pseudo-anonymous artist Gilles (also known by his Twitter handle @netindexed) began experimenting with digital artworks that used a PNG rendering exploit. He later refined the concept by creating a proof of existence of the file’s sha256.
SCHROEPEPE released April 2017 by netidx
Upon discovering Rare Pepes, Gilles realized that despite the underlying token, centralized hosting could still remove or alter images linked to assets in the collection. As a nod to this errancy, he created the SCHROEPEPE with a .png that varies the card's appearance (Pepe dead or alive) pending on the software or device used to display it.
Gilles further explained that the unique use of renderers in SCHROEPEPE also reflects how people's perceptions can shift based on their surrounding culture and environment.
Although there isn't a specific list of software that supports the PNG gamma settings, the full functionality of the card is mostly visible with Safari. However, Firefox and Chrome do not show any changes. If the file is scaled in an app, the NFT might glitch and display both versions of the card at the same time.
As the layered complexity and significance of SCHROEPEPE can easily lose itself on people unfamiliar with the nuances of Rare Pepes, the following interview with Gilles provides a more detailed insight into his work.
- When did you first hear about NFTs? And what made you decide to release your own?
Gilles: Tough question. I think the specific term "NFT '' entered my vocabulary much later on. As tech and science are a big influence in my artistic practice, I have a huge appetite for anything "disruptive". I stumbled on Bitcoin around 2013 and was sold on the idea. I've been following the space ever since. On a personal note, the meme "I'm in it for the tech" also rings true. I used namecoin back in the day and tried to get my head around all the new possibilities that blockchain tech enables. I think the SCHROEPEPE was the first digital asset I released in the sense of an actual "NFT."
- Can you break down how the NFT works more clearly for readers who aren't as tech-savvy?
Gilles: I came across an article from Tristan Hume in 2012 about a pony image posted on funnyjunk.com that appeared differently depending on the browser. He explained that you could define specific gamma rendering in the PNGs metadata. The fun part is that not all renderers support this feature. So exploiting the functionality makes it possible to create .pngs that show a different image depending on what software you use to open/render them. Tristan created a cmd-line tool called gammeDoubler, so I didn't have to fiddle too much with the details myself. You can reference the work by Tristan on Github. It's now called Double Vision. Most of the details are in the readme.
- How long did this process take to finish? And how many iterations did you have to go through to get it working properly?
Gilles: Uhm, it’s been a while. I can’t say exactly, but I did a bunch of versions before I was satisfied since the result becomes quite dark (low gamma) for the change to function correctly. You have to get the right balance between the two images so the result doesn’t show both. You can also check the file's date on the Proofofexistence website.
- What did you enjoy most about the process of making this card? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Gilles: I generally enjoy learning new stuff. The best way to do things like this is by experimenting. Besides insights and knowledge, I really like the Rare Pepe community.
- What is the difference between the Fake Rare card and the original?
Gilles: There’s a few differences, the most notable being a rework of the actual image(s). Depending on the renderer, the original SCHROEPEPE shows either Schrödinger's cat(PEPE) or Schroedinger carrying a fat Pepecat in his arms.
However, the SCHROEFAKE's image(s) are based solely on Schrödinger's cat(PEPE), showing either the broken flask of poison and the dead Pepecat OR the intact flask with the Pepecat alive. Also, the thumbnails of the SCHROEFAKE read either "ALIVE" or "DEAD", depending on the software used to render the .png.
Along with the SCHROEFAKE, I released two sub-assets that show the original images used as input to generate the SCHROEFAKE.
- Was there anything specific that made you reference Schrödinger's cat? What is it about him as a person, or his broader body of work that influences you as an artist?
Gilles: Being an integral part of pop culture, Schrödinger’s cat naturally influences art and culture. Generally, my artistic practice draws inspiration from science, history, and technology. I guess another part of my practice is also self-therapy. That element of introspection generally ties into the notion of creating things to better understand/digest the world or a historical moment you live in.
- Besides the SCHROEPEPE, do you have any other favorite cards in the collection? If so, which ones and why are they unique to you?
Gilles: Hmm, I’ve never had any set preferences for things in general. And that includes favorite colors, shape, food, job, etc. I don’t have enough data for these decisions, and it mostly depends on my mood. But there are a bunch of RarePepes that I like. Since I’m a full-time artist, I like the Pepes that reference art like PEPMONDRIAN, KANDINSKYPEP and UZUMAKIPEPE. The classic meme cards like JIHANWU or PEPEWAT also stand out to me. But I keep discovering new favorites - some become more relevant while others fade into obscurity over time. There are also grails like the original RarePepe or the more accessible, HAIRPEPE.
- Do you plan to release any more Rare Pepes, and if so, are there any ideas you can tell us about?
Gilles: I do have a bunch of Pepe assets in the pipeline. Some are ready, and others are pending approval. I always try to layer artistic value. Like creating something that is aesthetically pleasing while also integrating a deeper conceptual aspect like a cultural reference, a historically significant meme, or an easter egg.
- Is there anywhere people can view your body of work for both NFTs and other mediums?
I have an almost nonexistent NFT production for now. I’m working on some personal projects, and I plan to release some as NFTs. I’m terrible at marketing my work and still separate my professional career from my online persona. I like being able to experiment under the radar ;-)
- Lastly, do you have any advice or lessons for creators of both Rare Pepes and NFTs in general?
Gilles: DO IT FOR THE TECH
DJPEPE (VIP MUSIC):
Along with an excess of 1700 renditions that span across 36 different series, the open nature of Rare Pepes also inspired a range of community-driven initiatives. Examples include games like PepeBalt and the accredited DJPEPE - a full production music NFT released as a collaboration between Scrilla and Joe Looney.
DJPEPE released October 2016 by Rare Scrilla
Much like how NFTs can grant access to private Discord servers, the DJPEPE is structured such that by proving ownership of the asset through an API, holders receive a non-sharable link (masked and tied to their specific computer/device), which provides them access to Scrilla's exclusive Soundcloud.
The DJPEPE character (a giant cardboard cutout) also appeared at the first live CryptoArt/music auction (Rare Digital Art Festival, aka Rare AF, aka Rare as Fuck) - in 2018, where the 1/1 Homer Pepe sold for a notable $39,000 (350k in Pepe Cash)
Created by the late John Villarz in 2017 (another core contributor to the Rare Pepe community), PEPEBALT is the first video game inside a Rare Pepe card. Holders can play the micro-video game by clicking on Bonus Content inside RarePepeWallet. The aim of PEPEBALT is to jump over spikes by tapping the spacebar. Only 600 NFTs were ever issued.
PEPEBALT released October 2016 by John Villar
In contrast to tokenizing traditional art, Rare Pepes transitioned to the “physical world” in 2017 through Opendime. This small USB stick allows you to spend and transfer Bitcoin outside the blockchain like a dollar bill.
As Counterparty is compatible with Bitcoin and vice versa, no unique code is required to send assets like Rare Pepes to an address generated by Opendime. Moreover, since private keys are only accessible through the device, people can freely trade or sell their assets without corrupting their finite and immutable nature.
A self-proclaimed unapologetic fan of novelty, the driving force behind Rare Pepes' journey into cold storage—including satellites and NFC chips—and a Rare Pepe on an Opendime embedded within a replica keychain of the PEPEGOTCHI card, goes by the Twitter handle @mikeinspace.
The following interview gives a deeper insight into his inspiration, methodology, and perspective on the collection.
- When were the first Rare Pepes stored on Opendime? Do you remember how many devices were used and which cards?
Mike: The first time I sent a Rare Pepe to an Opendime was in 2017. It was the one and only Rare Pepe that I had created called CHAMPAGNETNT. Joe Looney, creator of Rare Pepe Wallet also did some early experimentation with Opendimes. He even sent me a Rare Pepe on one: PEPEJOSE. It should be noted that while any Bitcoin address can hold Counterparty tokens, only a Counterparty-aware wallet would be able to detect their presence. For this reason, I wrote a simple block explorer query for the Opendime software that would have exposed Counteparty assets at a given address and did get merged but was never actually deployed. Source: https://twitter.com/mikeinspace/status/891051761733128195
- Were there any hurdles in the process? If so, how do you resolve them?
Mike: No hurdles because it's completely permissionless. I could send a Rare Pepe to Satoshi's earliest address if I wanted to. In fact, someone recently set-up a Counterparty Dispenser on an early Satoshi address that will send you a token through an atomic swap when you sent Bitcoin.
- Were the Opendime devices eventually sold? And if so, to whom and for how much? Do you know if the Pepes are still on the original devices?
Mike: Back in the day, most of this stuff was done for fun. Profits were rarely even considered, at least for me. I would send these things out for free to others in the community. Had I retained the pubkeys, I could tell you if the Pepes still remain on the original devices, but I didn't. The one I received from Joe Looney still sits on the original Opendime. It's a cherished piece of art, why would I ruin it by extracting the private key and sweeping it?
- You mentioned that you're also responsible for the first Pepe broadcast from a satellite in space. Are you able to walk us through the process of when this happened? Which Pepe did you broadcast?
Mike: A few years ago, Blockstream had a service where you paid a Lightning invoice and were able to broadcast text messages from their satellite. Because of my handle "Mike In Space" I somehow got looped into a twitter thread about a "Pepe in Space". A private key of an address containing a RarePepe could easily be sent as a text message from the satellite, received on earth and then swept. What was special about this particular experiment was that the late great John Villar (Counterparty Legend who recently passed) assisted by doing the technical heavy-lifting. The Pepe that was broadcast was actually commissioned by John Villar for a game he was working on, and I happen to be the subject matter of that Pepe. It's called PIMENTOLOAF and depicts me on the card. It's sort of an inside joke that ties into a Bitcoin comedy series I was doing at the time called Bitcoin Car Talk. Here's a video that chronicles that day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SbH0goQP8M
- You are also the first to put a Pepe on an NFC chip. Can you walk us through this process and how people would be able to engage with it?
Mike: Like the Opendime, an NFC chip can conceal a Bitcoin private key, so its just as capable of storing Counterparty assets. I like the form-factor of NFC, because it allows you to create flat cards with a printable surface, which is a very different type of design compared to the Opendime that's not as easy to customize creatively. So I printed physical trading cards of my Rare Pepe: CHAMPAGNETNT and placed an NFC sticker on the back. The NFC chip contains the NFT and I sold several on Scarce.City recently within an acrylic glass container, so it's something you can plop on your desk and maybe be a conversation starter. There are many different implementations of NFC today, but the version I used requires the download of an app called CircBit. The user simply taps the NFC sticker on the back of the card and the app tells them what's available at the address whether it be Bitcoin or Counterparty assets. I actually worked with the creator of CircBit to integrate Counterparty awareness into the mobile app itself.
- Are you working on other unique methods to store/view Rare Pepes?
Mike: I do have a novel idea I've been toying with, but I want to be first, so I don't want to let the cat out of the bag before I actually do it, for fear that someone else does it first.
- If you could store a Rare Pepe anywhere in the world, where and what would you choose?
Mike: Why not out of this world? I'd choose the moon. Maybe we can get a space-race going again. First to the moon gets to sweep the private key.
- What are some of the gaps in the market that you're seeing with cold storage, or even unique ways to physically engage with NFTs?
Mike: Yeah there are plenty of gaps. I think cold storage solutions are really lacking, particularly on Counterparty as it hasn't had the same level of investment as some other platforms. As the value of Counterparty assets increase it becomes an ever more urgent concern. People literally have millions of dollars worth of assets sitting in hot wallets, because the cold storage solutions aren't quite there yet. Physical engagement is another area that needs work. Looking at NFTs on a tiny phone screen isn't ideal. It would be nice if we could easily project our collection onto a big screen in our home and there are some solutions that have come to market, but they tend to focus exclusively on Ethereum NFTs. Hopefully that will change soon.
- Do you have any favourites or favourite artists in the collection? If so, what makes them stand out?
Mike: I tend to gravitate towards the Japanese Pepe aesthetic. There are several collections by Japanese artists that gave a whole new look and feel to Pepe. I also really like PEPEBASQUIAT which is one of the most striking and artistic Pepes in the collection.
- Do you have any advice for creators of Rare Pepes and people new to the collection?
Mike: I think you first need to go down the rabbit hole and absorb the history. That really helps in creating an authentic Pepe that the audience will be receptive to. For collectors, I would say ignore the supply, people tend to be hyper-focused on low supply cards thinking that that automatically imbues a card with monetary value. It's a very shallow assessment as some of the best cards in the collection have high supply, but even beyond that buy what you like and don't worry so much about resale value. When I first got into Rare Pepe in 2016, I never thought my collection would be worth anything, and that was totally fine, I just enjoyed having them.
- What makes Rare Pepe unique to you?
Mike: I think it's unique in the current NFT era by being community-driven. Most NFT projects follow a very common template of 10,000 generative art characters produced by a company and then shilled hard on Discord. That feels very much like a product to me, not art. All the Rare Pepes were created by hundreds of artists organically over a span of a couple years, so it's a very different process altogether. It also fostered a community that's lasted longer than any other NFT project to date.
- What would you like to see expanded on or improved with RarePepes?
Mike: Well Rare Pepe was a moment in time and that moment ended in 2018 when the series concluded. It did spawn new series' like Fake Rares and the Dank Directory that are very much in the spirit of the original series but they are trailblazing their own paths. In terms of Rare Pepe's legacy it would be nice if it was given more recognition for its role in creating the NFT phenomenon. Hopefully one day it will get its due.
Though the collection size deters some buyers, and the popularity of later collections like CryptoPunks eclipses many of the earliest NFTs, Rare Pepes are not to be taken lightly and will not be soon forgotten. Together with the above milestones, and in contrast to the hierarchical art economy, Rare Pepes are more widely celebrated for setting the stage for CryptoArt - a global movement defined by a decentralized community of anonymous artists, technologists, and CryptoPatrons brought together through nothing more than the love of dank memes and Bitcoin.
In that sense, together with creating a unique range of functionality for developers and creators to expand on, one cannot overlook the technical significance of the protocol itself. For as long as Bitcoin is around, so too will Rare Pepes forever reflect a moment of human history where a grass-roots community discovered how to create unique, irreplaceable digital assets for posterity.
Or, to quote revered developer Joe Looney, "The token is the art."