by Oliver Scialdone, Associate Editor
A Symbol of Web3
My most recent interaction with a PFP project was not online or in my crypto wallet, but the sliver of a glance from out the window of an Uber, right about where Bed-Stuy becomes Bushwick. Someone had painted an eight foot tall CryptoPunk on the side of a building, plastered it among the street art and graffiti so distinctive of that part of Brooklyn. Seeing such an unmistakable PFP out in the wild, basking in its blocky pixelated glory, drove a sense of displacement through me. I couldn’t quite identify why, but thirty minutes later, by the time my girlfriend buzzed me into her building, the feeling still lingered. I spent the next few days ruminating on it; so many pieces of art could be NFTs, but could just as easily be sculptures or prints, photographs or live music sets, books nestled between someone’s hands. Material. Tangible. But PFPs by utility are unique to the online space, a product not only of digital art, but of the culture of crypto. Seeing one outside the little circle of someone’s Twitter profile gave me the same sensation I imagine I’d have if I saw a rare Pokémon card mounted on the wall at the MoMA.
In that case, it makes sense that PFP projects have largely become the public face of NFTs–they are distinctly of their communities, the hallmark of the chronically crypto. Especially for Twitter users, CryptoPunks, Bored Ape Yacht Club, Cool Cats, Doodles, mfers, and others are inescapable whether you’re a citizen of Web3 or not. Owning one is like an initiation into NFT culture, and when skeptics criticize NFTs, they often zero in on PFP projects. As NFTs continue to meld with the mainstream, PFPs have come to symbolize the technology and the medium. Even if you don’t know anything about the space, you’ve seen memes about Jimmy Fallon and Paris Hilton, you’ve watched influencers shill scammy PFP projects on Twitter and TikTok, you’ve met that one guy at that one party who won’t shut up about how much he paid for his PFP because he thinks spending power is a personality trait. And while PFPs can be very cool and fun, their value depends entirely on the project, and there’s too much out there to sift through. In truth, I think the skeptics have a point–the worst parts of the space are screeching at them through a megaphone, and I can’t blame them for covering their ears.
While many PFP projects are developed in good faith with dedicated fan communities on Discord and Twitter, by way of how they often work (a template, layers, an algorithm), they’re also easy cash grabs for those with minimal creative skills and the resources to hype themselves up to buyers. Or, even worse, for those trying to scam noobs with unsubstantiated promises of profit. Using tools like Mintables, someone doesn’t need to know anything about blockchain or coding or even art. The market is oversaturated. NFT enthusiasts are getting bored. I’ve heard more than one educated commentator speculate that PFPs are heading for a market crash, and I’m inclined to agree. But then what is the future PFPs, a genre where form is so deeply entwined with function?
Hacking the PFP Formula
When considering form and function, one of the most interesting PFP projects in recent memory is one that rarely appears on lists of PFP projects to know–probably because it isn’t exactly a PFP project. Hackatao, the OG NFT duo, completed the first drop of their “Queens+Kings” project in December 2021. When I spoke to Hackatao over a call, they described “Queens+Kings” as not so much a PFP project, but rather an “exploration of PFP projects.” This description is apt; the idea is to subvert the act of collecting, to blur the lines between collector and artist. They explained to me that demand for a Hackatao avatar project first surfaced in June of 2021 among their audience on Discord, around the time they partnered with Christie’s to bring “Hack of a Bear” to life. As collectors of PFPs themselves, they found the idea intriguing, but alongside their audience, they were sometimes frustrated with the randomization of traits found in all generative PFP projects, the fact that you buy the NFT and you don’t have any say in the design of your avatar. Of course, with most PFP projects a collector can choose an avatar with traits they like. But what happens when no specific combination turns your head? As Hackatao put it, “they wouldn’t necessarily be, let’s say, characteristic of them or like a newer image of them as collectors.” The point of a PFP is to express yourself to an online community, and they wanted to take the possibilities of expression even further than an immutable image. Thus, “Queens+Kings” was born in partnership with NFT Studios and Sotheby’s. To them, “Queens+Kings” is “a very natural evolution of the avatars. It made perfect sense that one would be able to have the avatar and build it as it best represents them.”
The collector experience begins as it would for most PFPs–users mint their avatars after connecting their wallets to the “Queens+Kings” website or by going to OpenSea (whitelisted users were able to mint multiple avatars during the genesis drop). Each avatar has a set of traits with design inspiration taken from Hackatao’s art. But after that, if collectors want the full experience “Queens+Kings” has to offer, they can (and should) hack their avatars. Hacking means that a collector can mint their avatar’s traits, separating the traits from the avatar like the clothes from a doll. If someone chooses to remove all of an avatar’s traits, they’re left simply with a blank template, a gray silhouette waiting for adornment. This allows them to buy, sell and transfer traits to customize their avatars. Some traits are more common than others, and users can see which percentage of “Queens+Kings” avatars possess particular ones. In that sense, the avatars derive value entirely from which traits are attached to them. The concept of trait rarity isn’t new to the PFP game, but the gamification of trait rarity is. Depending on which traits an avatar starts with and which traits the avatar’s owner chooses in the process of hacking, someone could end up with an avatar worth more than where they began. That said, Hackatao shared with me that some more common traits are also very aesthetically popular; the Hackatao community isn’t only in it for the ETH, but rather the experience of creating. You could say they know how to party like royals.
The first time I spoke to Hackatao about “Queens+Kings” was last year while working on a story about the first 100 tokens minted on SuperRare. This time around, Hackatao offered to provide me with a “Queens+Kings” avatar for the purpose of this article–they expressed strongly that they wanted someone writing about the project to experience it. If it wasn’t already obvious, PFPs aren’t really my scene. At worst they represent everything that kept me away from NFTs before I found my little niche in the space, and at best, I don’t understand the appeal in the same way that collecting baseball cards or sneakers doesn’t really speak to me. I hoped that maybe, Hackatao could change my mind.
My first avatar, “Q+K #4285,” came with a set of traits, each varying in rarity. The components that make up an avatar–power, crown, hair, eyes, mouth, beard, face, dress, body, and background–can all be swapped out, and each variation of a trait is named (#4285’s original mouth is called “two teeth 2”). Hackatao later sent me “Q+K #4273” so that I could hack them together, minting their traits and mixing them between avatars. Once traits are minted, they can also be sent or sold, and the project’s page on OpenSea even features some avatar and trait bundles available for primary sale. I decided to call the original “Q+K #4285” Hamlet and the original “Q+K #4273” Emo. Hamlet had flowing seafoam green locks and a beard to match, blue almond-shaped eyes and long lashes. Their golden crown and epaulets, the background like the wallpaper of an old mansion, gave them the appearance of classic European royalty. Emo, on the other hand, boasted a black crown, pastel violet hair (Manic Panic’s Velvet Violet, in my imagination), winged eyeliner, big, round brown eyes, and a black t-shirt with a skull, all on a pixelated camouflage background. Hair dye wasn’t accessible to me in 2010, but otherwise, Emo was the spitting image of me at the age of fifteen. I almost wanted to leave them as they were, but I thought that if I hacked both avatars, I could maybe give myself something else I didn’t have access to in 2010.
The avatars themselves are ungendered. Andorogynous. Able to adapt with the avatar’s owner, their tastes, their feelings. This, according to Hackatao, is entirely by design. Even the title of the project was intended to be read with a similar lens–the phrase, after all, is most typically represented the other way around: kings and queens. “Sometimes people forget that Hackatao is two people, and that one of those people is a woman,” they told me. Thinking of my avatars as blank canvases for not only aesthetics, but gender too, added another layer to my experience. Full disclosure: I’m a transgender person. One of those they/them-using, HRT-taking, Leslie Feinberg-idolizing types. And while trans people in both my home country and across the globe face far more pressing issues than representation in PFPs, I still felt a spark of giddiness while transplanting a bushy green beard (from Hamlet) onto an avatar with features typically coded as feminine (Emo). In fact, while working on this article, I showed the avatars to a colleague and, half-joking told her, “they’re a queer couple.”
The Future of the Self
“Queens+Kings” allows collectors to become whoever they want online. And in contrast with off-chain PFP options that allow users to customize their avatars – like the Picrew PFPs popular among TikTok users – the fact that “Queens+Kings” requires traits to be bought or transfered in order to apply them to an avatar encourages engagement and community building. Does this mean projects like “Queens+Kings” are the future of PFPs? One thing remains true: if PFPs are going to survive, they need to evolve. Hackatao’s innovation represents just one direction for the genre. With clever engineering and creative thought, more possibilities may come to fruition–animation, audio, equipable 3D figures that translate into the metaverse with full bodies and motion. As Web3 protocols are more widely adopted, cross-project and cross-platform experiences could even become accessible. For now, Hackatao is taking a strong step in the right direction, even gearing up for an exhibition of “Queens+Kings” this spring (as laid out in the project’s roadmap). And indeed, the traditional art world has finally begun to pay attention to PFPs. In February 2022, Sotheby’s New York was slated to host its first evening sale entirely centered on NFTs, auctioning a lot of 104 CryptoPunks with an estimated combined worth of up to $30 million. That is until the seller, 0x650d, tweeted, now infamously: “nvm, decided to hodl.”
CryptoPunks, of course, are different from other projects. Originally available for free in 2017, long before NFTs (and PFP projects specifically) became what they are now, CryptoPunks have amassed incredible monetary value because of their historical value, because they essentially proved the efficacy of NFTs. And while plenty of PFPs are sure to fizzle out (collector WhaleShark famously predicted that 99.99% of NFT projects are going to fail), I certainly see longevity for “Queens+Kings,” especially considering the content of the project, the position that Hackatao holds in the space, and the community that supports it. I found myself hesitant to re-mint my “Queens+Kings” avatars, rendering my changes fixed, but my anxiety around permanence runs contrary to the purpose of the project. The royals are intended to be hacked, minted, and re-minted over and over again. “Queens+Kings” avatars allow collectors to become artists – not once, but as many times as they want. They don’t even need to acquire other avatars if they want to change how they represent themselves online. All they need to do is hack.