Ten years ago, a 25-year-old artist named Chris Torres created Nyan Cat—a pixelated animation of a cat with a Pop-Tart for a torso. Unceremoniously uploaded to Torres’ personal website, Nyan Cat was never meant as anything more than a gag. Somehow, though, it took off as an early viral video. The result was fifteen minutes of internet fame for Torres, and a decade of reproduction for what’s now one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable memes of all time.
In February of this year, just as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) slid into mainstream view, Torres seized the opportunity to profit from the buzzy cryptocurrency tokens, which allow artists to auction off discrete ownership of digital images. Torres sold an NFT tied to a GIF of Nyan Cat for 300 ETH, or nearly $600,000. “It's just really recognizable,” Torres told Decrypt. “That's what created the value.”
The sale started a trend; NFTs of memes from the late 2000s and early 2010s have continued to sell for absurd amounts of money, thanks in part to Torres and the community of creators he’s helped foster over the past decade. With sales in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the auctions are creating ridiculous valuations for GIFs and JPGs—particularly ones that do not confer any legal ownership over the NFTs themselves.
But for at least a few bidders, the prospect of owning the Nyan Cat, Scumbag Steve or Overly Attached Girlfriend NFT is worth the money. The memes were among the first pieces of genuinely viral internet content—image macros that trickled down from sites like 4Chan and I Can Has Cheezburger and filtered into our collective subconscious; the deconstructionist memes of the post-covid era are closely tied to these lingering cultural memories.
Here’s a quick rundown on the most famous Web 2.0 artifacts that found new life on Web 3.0.
1. Nyan Cat
Torres said that back in the early 2010s, companies would use Nyan Cat as a viral marketing tool without bothering to credit him. “It kind of became a trend, not just for me, but for many meme artists that created anything since then. It’s always been kind of a struggle.”
The magic of memes is in their transience and reproducibility—it’s strange to think that Nyan Cat was created by an individual, since it’s passed through so many hands. (Snoop Dogg even partnered with Torres for a twist on Nyan Cat called "Nyan Dogg"; it sold for $33,000.)
By contrast, NFTs are more like connective tissue between artists and their artworks. Someone could try to sell another Nyan Cat NFT, but only the original links to Torres’ address on the Ethereum blockchain.
🐕@SnoopDogg X @NyanCat 🐈⬛
Powered by @BeetsDAO
Edition: 1/1https://t.co/N0ZaRw4kuV pic.twitter.com/kaaFk43Z38
— ☆Chris☆ (@PRguitarman) April 17, 2021
For creators dissociated from their memes, it’s proved an attractive proposition. Torres told Decrypt that within minutes of tweeting about a potential foray into crypto art, a representative for the burgeoning invite-only NFT marketplace Foundation reached out about partnering up. Less than two weeks later, Nyan Cat sold for 300 ETH, and a door was opened for the rest of the vintage meme community.
Torres said he was more than happy to help other creators get on board. “I had so many main creators lining up to ask for help,” he said. “I was like, you know what, let me get you guys all set up. So that's what I did, I basically walked every meme creator through the process of entering the NFT space.”
Torres and his longtime business partner, Ben Lashes, have helped memes like Success Kid, Grumpy Cat, and more find their way into the NFT market. Torres clarified that he’s not taking a cut of their sales. “I’m just really in it to help,” he said. “Ever since entering the NFT space, I've just had that mindset. Not really in it for the money, just in for the art and in it for keeping things cool.”
Nyan Cat just SOLD for 300 $ETH ($590,796.00)!
Huge congrats to @PRguitarman! You've just opened up a whole new world of opportunity for digital artists and meme creators.
Really honored to have been part of this journey 🌈🐈 https://t.co/k3Crq2rnAW
— 𝐿𝒾𝓃𝒹𝓈𝒶𝓎 𝐻𝑜𝓌𝒶𝓇𝒹 (@Lindsay_Howard) February 19, 2021
2. Scumbag Steve
One of the first people to reach out to Torres was Blake Boston, the 31-year-old behind the “Scumbag Steve” meme. Torres helped him get onto the NFT marketplace Foundation, and put Scumbag Steve on the blockchain. As part of the site's "Meme Economy" auction (promoted alongside Bad Luck Brian, Grumpy Cat, and others) it sold for 30 ETH, or $54,000 at the time, to someone with the handle @yourethememenowdog—a reference to the early meme site “You’re the Man Now, Dog.”
The meme took shape in 2006, when a 16-year-old Blake uploaded to MySpace a photo of himself in an oversized snapback and massive fur coat. From there, it found its way out into the broader internet as “Scumbag Steve”—the archetypal inconsiderate bro.
When the picture first blew up, Boston and his family were less than thrilled. “My mom, who took the picture, saw [it] once we went on the computer and looked it up, and she started crying,” he told Decrypt. “She's like, Oh my god, I ruined your life! I had no idea what was going on. I didn't even know what a meme was back then, so I had to do my research.”
He’s still based in Boston, the city where he was raised, and speaks with a thick accent to prove it. Since that initial shock of internet notoriety, he’s embraced his status as a meme icon, and even released a few goofy songs in character.
Boston was working as a chef until the pandemic hit. He’s supported his kids with unemployment checks since then, but the NFT windfall has been a weight off his shoulders.
“It’s such a stress reliever,” he said. “Up until about two weeks ago, my kids have been doing remote learning from home. So just a bunch of different things you gotta add on to expenses, and you're not getting paid as much as you were working. So it blew my mind and almost made me tear up, because I was just like, wow, the support was amazing. The whole process was amazing.”
Chris man, I’m so grateful. Thank you so much for rep us memes. https://t.co/wnVAwsAozO
— SCUMBAG STEVE (REAL) (@BlakeBoston617) March 15, 2021
3. Clarinet Boy
Clarinet Boy is a double exposure photo of a freckled kid clutching a clarinet and prepped for a marching band. On the one hand he’s happy—clarinet in hand, smiling at the camera—and on the other, he’s staring off into the distance, contemplating something unspeakable.
The image found fame on a blog called Awkward Family Photos in 2009, but quickly evolved into something else entirely. Many of the early images involving Clarinet Boy joked that he was plagued by flashbacks from the Vietnam war.
This started out because I'm actually IRL friends with PTSD Clarinet Boy. He's been in the same boat as other popular memes, where a photo of his exploded in popularity yet nobody really knew who he is. pic.twitter.com/vW1YOlMyVU
— ☆Chris☆ (@PRguitarman) April 14, 2021
The boy in the meme was BJ, now a 48-year-old mental health practitioner and educator living in Texas. It was Mike Bender and Mike Chernack, the operators of Awkward Family Photos, who turned Clarinet Boy into an NFT. In April, the token sold for 5.555 ETH (approximately $12,000) on Foundation.
The sale was one of a few auctions centered around NFT-tied images from Awkward Family Photos; Bender told Decrypt he and Chernack will split the profits down the middle with the families responsible for the photos.
“When we wrote [BJ] a month ago or so about this NFT idea, I think it was a really attractive idea to him and all of the families that we are doing this with, because in some ways the NFT gives those people an opportunity to reclaim that photo,” said Bender. “They've been on this roller coaster ride for all these years, watching the photo go everywhere. And now they get to mint it and authenticate it. They get to put their stamp on it.”
Asked about why the profits shouldn’t just go entirely to BJ, Bender said the blog already owns many of the images it has received as submissions over the years. “We paid the families to license the images,” he explained. “So we could have theoretically just gone and done NFTs—but we would never have done that.”
Zoe Roth was only four when her dad snapped a photo of her smirking in front of a burning building. The photo went viral in 2008, and became a kind of shorthand for taking pleasure in chaos.
Now, at 21, Roth is a bona fide thousandaire—in April, an NFT linked to the Disaster Girl meme sold on Foundation for an eye-popping $390,000. The buyer was an account called @3FMusic, which also bought The New York Times’ NFT for $562,000).
One for the grandkids.
5. Overly Attached Girlfriend
Overly Attached Girlfriend is a character from YouTuber Laina Morris that went viral in 2012. Morris’s video riffed on Justin Bieber’s song, “Boyfriend,” turning it into a song about an incessantly needy girlfriend.
Morris’s song includes such persuasive couplets as: “If I was your girlfriend / I’d never let you leave / without a small recording device / taped under your sleeve.” Her video took off; to date, it has 21 million views. But Morris’s fame extracted more from her than she did from it. After a year of uploading comedy videos to YouTube, the stress and the pressure started to overwhelm her. Morris struggled with depression, and eventually quit YouTube in 2019.
As the crypto art craze ratcheted up, Morris auctioned off the still that made her famous as an NFT, taking home a princely sum: $411,000. An account called 3FMusic (it bought the New York Times’ NFT, too) was the highest bidder.
“You’re really gonna make me emotional over a creepy face I made 9 years ago?!,” she said in a tweet after the auction. “Truly, you have no idea how this is going to change my life. I mean it. I am so incredibly thankful and also still just BLOWN AWAY. So weird. So cool. Wtf. Thank you, internet.”
“The creepy face was definitely a last minute decision,” she told Buzzfeed in 2020.
By owning the Overly Attached Girlfriend #NFT, you’re guaranteed to never be alone again.
Ever. ❤️https://t.co/zJQ5keWmlh pic.twitter.com/aZD6P00CJh
— Laina (@laina622) April 2, 2021
Remember Keyboard Cat, the adorable kitty who played a sweet little song on a synthesiser? Her name was Fatso, and she’s now an NFT. @yourethememenowdog, who picked up Scumbag Steve, snagged this one for 33 ETH—then $64,000.
— Keyboard Cat (@KeyboardCatReal) January 2, 2016
7.Bad Luck Brian
Kyle Craven, better known as the star of the Bad Luck Brian meme, sold his NFT for 20 ETH in March. Craven’s meme stemmed from a photo originally intended for his high school yearbook.
In the picture, Craven is dressed in a dorky sweater and pulls a goofy face. He looks impressionable, even a little awkward; no different than any other good-natured high school student. Craven said in a YouTube interview in 2016 that he was nothing of the sort: he posed for the photo to amuse his friends.
The prank picture didn’t make it into the yearbook (the principal, Craven claims, was onto him). He saved a copy and it wound up on Reddit, where things began to spiral. “I fortunately don’t look like the picture, so I hardly get recognized in public,” Craven insists. What was not Craven’s intention was for his likeness to become the butt of hundreds of thousands of online jokes, each a play on the Bad Luck Brian archetype: a nice guy, and a hapless victim of endless unfortunate circumstances.
Craven, now 31, has finally come into some good luck: the Bad Luck Brian NFT he sold on Foundation generated 20 ETH, or $36,000. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
🌐 #MEMECONOMY WEEK 1 🌈 by @NyanCat
6 OG memes. 1 brand new NFT. We’re seeing the rise of the meme economy on Foundation. 📈 @solidbadluck @idascreatures @steveibsen @realgrumpycat @keyboardcatreal @twerkypepe @blakeboston617
Only on → https://t.co/A7bTOLs99m pic.twitter.com/XVaUZrDoQI
— Foundation 🌐 (@withFND) March 9, 2021
Grumpy Cat’s real name was Tardar Sauce. The cat was named Meme of the Year at the 2013 Webby Awards. Her owner, Tabatha Bundesen, translated Grumpy Cat’s viral moment into successful social media accounts and merch collections. In NFT form, Grumpy Cat went for 44 ETH, or nearly $100,000.
It's Grumpy's birthday! Happy Birthday @RealGrumpyCat We miss you 🥳🐈🎉 #CatsOfTwitter #Easter pic.twitter.com/Z5PoE9OPzf
— Ima Jerk (@58isGREAT1) April 4, 2021
Apologies to Maggie Goldenberger, otherwise known as the "Ermahgerd" girl—her NFT made just $4,600.
Annual football starting excitement... #Ermahgerd #Footnall pic.twitter.com/TPiFW5Pox6
— Gabriel (@Gabe_TFB) August 3, 2018
10.Charlie Bit My Finger
The twist with the “Charlie Bit My Finger” NFT, which sold for $760,000 on a platform called Known Origin, is that the original YouTube video was set to be deleted. The idea was that only the purchaser of the NFT (in this case, the mysterious “3fmusic” account that’s been snapping up lots of other expensive crypto collectibles) would possess the original instance of “Charlie Bit My Finger.”
Investors pulled a similar stunt with an artwork by Banksy—after an NFT representing the work was purchased, the physical piece was burned. The idea was to increase the value of the NFT, which would supplant the original artwork and become the closest thing to the “real” work.
But after some thought, 3fmusic apparently decided to spare the original video. “After the auction we connected with the buyer, who ended up deciding to keep the video on YouTube,” said Howard Davies-Carr, the father of the children in the video, in an interview with Quartz. “The buyer felt that the video is an important part of popular culture and shouldn’t be taken down. It will now live on YouTube for the masses to continue enjoying as well as memorialized as an NFT on the blockchain.”
11.Pepe the Frog
At first, Pepe the Frog was just another cartoon character; the artist Matt Furie created him back in 2005 for a strip called "Boy’s Club." Pepe’s transition into an early internet meme began innocently enough, but quickly spiraled out of control as alt-right groups and white supremacists appropriated him as a type of hate symbol.
In April, Furie sold an NFT tied to Pepe’s most famous "Boy’s Club" strip (featuring the phrase “feels good man”) for 420 ETH—around $1 million at the time. As with many other pricey meme NFT sales, it’s been framed as “reclaiming” ownership of the work.
“It’s been good to mark my territory with Pepe here, and show that Pepe is a character that I created,” Furie told Decrypt.
Editor's note: This article was last updated on June 2 to include more meme NFTs.