May 9, 2037.
You’ve got the first Ethereum art artifacts in your wallet. Someone in your personal metaverse gallery asks you if you know what they mean. “They’re from a moment in time, a pre-NFT world,” you say, tipping your sombrero knowingly. “An art show born out of the Bitcoin meetup days…” You pause, unable to hold back a smile. “Pre-CryptoPunks. Each artist has their own style.”
“But do you know about the stories,” they ask, shimmering in and out of a Raccoon-colored waterfall. “Do you know about the sets, and what the Cards really mean?”
“Robek?” you say, confused and entranced, seeming to recognize the voice.
If you ever find yourself in this magically real scenario, you’ll probably already be familiar with the rich and rewarding history of the Curio Cards collection. Dig further, though, and each 2017 Card-collectible comes to life with a little peek into its past; the tales and tidbits that make a full set a multipart conversation piece — a forever true online art exhibition.
As an art show, the full set has a lot to say — because, as art historians know, art speaks. This was the case, long before language. Long ago, ancient scrawls in dim caves and tombs told stories with untold meaning. As we evolved, so did art, and its power to communicate across time. Now, when we look back, we look at art to see how others thought and acted. This is art’s archival ability. And it applies to modern memes, graphics, drawings, illustrations, and art experiments. Just like long ago, contemporary art encapsulates the human experience; ideas and arguments, as well as news and events, celebrations and catastrophes, or market crashes and rallies. And like each Card, as a set, or within the full set, it can tell us about moments in time, and bits of crypto history.
“The first 10 Cards exist as a collection, and tell a story that has since been forgotten, unless you can track it down.” — Curio Cards, 2017.
As the original on-chain description from the set suggests, the first 10 Cards are especially meaningful together: they tell a story about our journey through the history of art.
It begins with Card 1, Apples. Created by Bitcoin graphic artist, Phneep, the first Card in the collection refers to the most famous creation story of the last two thousand years, Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve have been reimagined by numerous influential artists throughout history, including Michaelangelo, Albrecht Dührer, and Gustav Klimt. While Apples encapsulates the biblical portrayal of mankind’s fall from grace, according to Curio Cards founder, Thomas Hunt (also known as Mad Bitcoins) there’s more to uncover. Hunt says the artwork also references Apple computers, and that its selection as the first Card is appropriate, because it begins with the letter A. Apples is therefore a sign of something starting; the indicator of a beginning, and that a story will follow. And what is it that follows?
More food. Cards 2 and 3 in the set are Nuts and Berries, equally clean Phneep-photoshop pieces. While it has been speculated by Cardholders that the pair refers to mankind’s progression through prehistoric times, seemingly as gatherers, grouping these two together is said to represent “sustenance.” Nuts and Berries therefore signify preparing early humans to grow — specifically — into art creators.
And so, the next part of the set continues the story with art as the vehicle for human evolution. Cards 4, 5 and 6 refer to the development of artistic mediums, though not in chronological order, as referenced in their titles, Clay, Paint and Ink. Clay-based pottery is one of the oldest inventions in human history; objects were found in the Czech Republic from 29,000–25,000 BC, and in China, dating back to 18,000 BC. Paint, however, dates back to prehistoric people, roughly a hundred thousand years BC; the first art supplies, discovered in the Blombos Cave in South Africa, were revealed to contain an ochre-based mixture — ochre is a clay earth pigment — which was used like paint. The oldest known paintings are cave art from forty thousand years ago. Advancement in paint techniques and technology occurred in ancient times, first with the Egyptians, and later the Greeks and Romans. Italians in the Renaissance period made paint with plant oils, creating everlasting artworks that still captivate observers today. And finally, there’s ink: first-used by the Ancient Egyptians to write and draw on papyrus in the 26th century BC, and then by the Chinese, as early as three or four millennia ago. A new type of ink was developed for the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century, enabling widespread distribution of the medium.
Cards 7, 8 and 9 represent the evolution of humans into thoughtful art creators. This brings the Art Story Set to its narrative climax; crude prehistoric art has given way to broad and dynamic expression through the ages, until masters of each medium emerge. Each Card depicts a seminal example by one such master; the fully realized form of each medium that also serves as the name of each Card — Sculpture, Painting and Book. The timeless works depicted are Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” which converts ungraspable imagination into 3D bronze; Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” known for breaking barriers to human portraiture; and books in a pile featuring names of foundational poets and writers, such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson. With respect to da Vinci, Painting’s “Mona Lisa” is presented at an angle, illustrating Phneep’s photoshop manipulation prowess (though, this is likely because of wanting to avoid copyright infringement). The adjustment is a reminder of the type of digital art creation at play, and also, perhaps, that Phneep is a master of a medium in his own right — a medium, which transcends all others before it.
Phneep’s art evolution story comes to a close with Card 10, Future, depicting a road through a tree-lined valley into an eye-poppingly bright horizon. As optimistic as this presentation seems, the future of art may already be on our doorstep; NFT innovation has introduced new means to royalties and commissions for creatives entering a widening digital world. And that world was enabled by Curio Cards, the reason they’re referenced in Ethereum’s ERC-721 Standard that defined modern NFTs.
Curiously, did you know?
Phneep’s handle is meant to be “onomatopoeic for censorship.” His freelance graphic work focuses on Bitcoin education through satire and mashups, but also includes things like politics, religion and hockey.
While Nuts and Berries are grouped together to represent “sustenance,” they also reference lyrics from one of Mad Bitcoins’ favorite songs: “Animals”, by the Talking Heads. Alluding to the band’s name may be a further clue to the Card-pairing being about prehistoric humans, specifically “hunter-gatherer” tribes; animals needed to be hunted, while nuts and berries were gathered.
Painting may be the first depiction of the Mona Lisa on the Ethereum blockchain — “clean Lisa”, as she’s affectionately known, has been kept safe from cake attacks since 2017.
Cards 11–13 (The Cryptograffiti Set)
The genesis idea for Curio Cards came to founders Thomas Hunt, Travis Uhrig, and Rhett Creighton when they met at the San Francisco Bitcoin conference (known as “the oldest Bitcoin conference in SF”). That’s why the next 10 Cards are littered with pro-Bitcoin motifs, beginning with Cryptograffiti’s set, Cards 11, 12 and 13. Entitled BTC Keys, Mine Bitcoin and BTC, each artwork shows a major bank logo replaced by Bitcoin’s ticker symbol, BTC. The banks they rebrand are: The Union Bank of Switzerland (11), Mastercard (12), and Citibank (13).
Cryptograffiti is an early Bitcoin activist artist who repurposes banking materials in his work to discuss the current financial system’s role in perpetuating an Orwellian society. This bank-resistance message is all over his Cards, which capture the pro-Bitcoin ideology common among early cryptocurrency advocates. Cryptograffiti’s previous work was a large inspiration for the reason why Curio Cards decided to exist as an art show. In fact, he exhibited art at the Bitcoin art show Hunt and Uhrig organized in 2016. If Phneep’s first 10 Cards described the journey into modern art, then Cryptograffiti’s set is modern art with a message; the convergence of crypto and art, in the name of a bank-free future.
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Cryptograffiti was a bank tagger. He stuck these hijacked bank logos on neighborhood ATMs, as well as other self-made pieces on bank buildings. Repurposing banking materials, such as dollar bills or international legal tender, has remained a theme in his work. He enjoys using legacy banking items to help spread awareness of Bitcoin.
Cryptograffiti repurposed credit cards to make a portrait of Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, the man who Newsweek magazine falsely claimed was Bitcoin’s creator in 2014. Nakamoto, who Cryptograffiti knew because of his portrait, helped “paint the walls” of the gallery where Uhrig and Hunt held their first crypto art show in San Francisco — the precursor to Curio Cards.
Cryptograffiti was the first artist Uhrig met who made art about crypto. He’s also the first artist exhibited in the collection, following the art story.
The second set of Cards by Phneep includes 14, 15, and 16 — CryptoCurrency, DigitalCash and OriginalCoin. Like Cryptograffiti before him, Phneep incorporates cryptocurrency endorsements into globally recognized food and beverage brands, this time serving up a witty response to modern society’s emotional “overinvestment” in marketing and potentially “unhealthy” products. On display is a refreshing serving of Cryptocurrency instead of Coca-Cola (14), a striking dash of good ‘ol digital cash via Wendy’s (15), and a cheers to Bitcoin and open source code from Heineken (16). These tongue-in-cheek meme pieces are the last Cards in the full set to feature references to food and beverages — but certainly not the last to advocate for Bitcoin.
Curiously, did you know?
Before Curio Cards, Phneep created a series of reimagined movie posters, some of which feature Mad Bitcoins.
The slogan “Code is it!” on Card 14 is a reference to a Coke slogan from the 1980s, popularized by a series of commercials, one of which stars Keanu Reeves.
Coke and Heineken have both released metaverse assets, while Wendy’s, as of July, 2022, has filed “six new trademarks to expand into NFTs and virtual fast-food restaurants,” according to USPTO attorney, Mike Kondoudis.
Considered the first dogs on the Ethereum blockchain, Cards 17–19 are the final three-Card set in what some call the “Bitcoin propaganda” sequence (Cards 11–20). Created by Filipino artist Cryptopop, also known as Luis Buenaventura, each Card depicts Bitcoin- and crypto-specific history, tropes and memes.
Card 17, entitled UASF, portrays a controversial moment in Bitcoin’s development. The initialism stands for “user-activated soft fork”, a proposal to scale Bitcoin, deployed on August 1, 2017. A soft fork is effectively an agreed-upon software change to the blockchain, which makes all previous valid transactions invalid. This creates a new chain, which miners agree to use — one, which is backward compatible, because old nodes can still mine new blocks (see here for a more detailed definition).
Because Bitcoin is decentralized, community consensus is required for changes to the blockchain, which is why it was highly debated. Buenaventura’s depiction of the bulldog dipping its toes into the water of “UASF” celebrates the uncertainty and debate around this key Bitcoin event. Card 17 is also highly prized among collectors, because of its association with 17b — a rogue Card created from an incorrectly deployed contract when the Cards were launched. This is an uncanny example of life imitating art: a fork of the original 17 Card, which was later accepted and highly sought-after by the community.
Card 18, To The Moon, reflects a well-known crypto meme, which is the idea of the value of an asset “taking off,” or increasing substantially, perhaps, figuratively, all the way to the moon. Dogs Trading (Card 19), on the other hand, humorously portrays an all-too-common, darker feature of crypto boom (and bust) cycles: traders “shilling” or shamelessly promoting certain assets they’ve invested in.
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Dogs Trading, deliberately inspired by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s 1903 painting, A Friend In Need, features the names of several coins, including Litecoin (LTC), Ripple (XRP) and Zcash (ZEC). The privacy coin Monero (XMR), commonly reported as being associated with illicit activity, is being slipped under the table.
Buenaventura chose to draw “Bitcoin bulldogs” instead of bulls, because he wanted to draw dogs, but still retain the idea of “bullish” sentiment.
Buenaventura invented the art genre of Cryptopop art, which doubles as his pseudonym, “Cryptopop.”
The only portrait in the Curio Cards collection is Card 20, MadBitcoins. It depicts Curio Card co-founder Hunt, with photoshopped, suave James-Bond-inspired tuxedo, and is also the final Card by Phneep. The Bitcoin graphic expert’s artistic touch and retouch is all over this piece; much like some of his early work, it frames Hunt as the hero of a film — 2012’s James Bond flick, Skyfall. The Card was initially created to bring in funding to support Hunt’s YouTube show. In this sense, it was a kind of “Patreon” experiment; a way to buy into an artist directly, and the first example of this on the blockchain. While the experiment didn’t work at the time, the official “MadBitcoins trading card” (as it’s labeled) is one of the most recognizable Cards in the set.
Curiously, did you know?
Mad Bitcoins has appeared in various movie posters by Phneep, including Bitcoins To The Future, Noderunner, Noderunner 2049 and Mad Bitcoins in Las Vegas.
Thomas Hunt’s YouTube channel World Crypto Network has been promoting and discussing Bitcoin since 2014, although his first video as Mad Bitcoins aired on April 21, 2013.
A video titled Proof of Art, about the San Francisco Bitcoin art show Hunt and Uhrig organized in 2016, is viewable on World Crypto Network.
Cartoony and full of character, Cards 21–23 are the creations of Robek World, the first community artist involved in Curio Cards. Robek discovered the project thanks to his friend, Moon, the first Curio Cards fan. Together, they made an entire gallery of art, intended to function as a social media network. This included roleplaying-game- (RPG) and fantasy-inspired, animated pixel art which was too sophisticated for blockchain technology at the time. Forced to simplify his submissions to Curio Cards, Robek decided to create “Curio-meta” artworks instead. These depicted the founders as universal RPG character archetypes: Hunt is presented as The Wizard (21), Uhrig as The Bard (22) and Creighton as The Barbarian (23). The final Card in this set is the only collection piece with its number on the right. It’s also a two-frame GIF, showing Creighton, the barbarian winking and flexing his muscles; The Barbarian is therefore considered to be the first animated NFT on the Ethereum blockchain.
Curiously, did you know?
When Robek’s cards were released, he couldn’t even buy them. He was forced to wait for them to sell out (they were the only Cards that did, at the time).
Robek was the only artist to create a commercial for his Cards.
The supply of The Barbarian was originally 250—half the supply of Robek’s other two Cards. He realized people would want to collect an artist’s set, and by making one Card scarce, it would be more sought after. This worked: The Barbarian was the first Card to sell out.
Cards 24–26 (The Daniel Friedman Set)
The second artist who was entirely unknown to the Curio founders beforehand is Daniel Friedman, pen-based creator of Cards 24, 25 and 26. Entitled Complexity, Passion and Education, these Cards deviate from the collection because of their abstract nature. But they’re also a shift in form: all hand-drawn using ink on paper, and then scanned and morphed into black-and-white digital NFTs.
As a researcher in entomology, Friedman’s inspiration stems from “brains, ant colonies and other complex systems,” and explores how “global patterns arrive via local relationships.” He’s also likened the permanent, creative act of drawing with a pen (instead of an erasable pencil) to mining on the blockchain. These ideas converge into the collections’ most conceptual pieces, feeding into the founders’ original vision of exhibiting a diverse mix of mediums and styles.
Curiously, did you know?
Friedman submitted his art to the project for consideration via a long-lost Google form, and was the only fully-doxxed artist to take part.
Friedman has a PhD in Biology from Stanford University, and was in graduate school when he created the art for his Cards.
Education is the rarest Card in the set, with a supply of only 111.
The next artistic turn in the collection comes via the collectively produced Marisol Vengas set. Forming a kind of “subverted fine-art” series, each Card is a full-size digital photograph of a gradually assembled physical artwork. The Cards’ names, Blue (27), Pink (28) and Yellow (29) refer to the color of each piece, which feature real-life images of buildings overlaid with foliage. Marisol Vengas is a pseudonym adopted by Chico, California-based artist Max Infeld, whose real identity was only revealed during the Curio Cards rediscovery in 2021. Infeld described the process of creating the Cards as his “community algorithm”; this occurred over multiple stages, using an actual algorithm, extremely affordable materials, and help from people who never met each other. As the “stage director,” Infeld organized sessions at local coffee shops where friends got together with total strangers to color in a series of pieces. These works are part of the Marisol Vengas Series 6, from 2016 — Infeld has created seven series in total, going back to 2007. (View the latest Marisol Vengas art at marisolvengas.com.)
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Because of the pseudonym, fans initially thought Marisol Vengas was a woman. Infeld says he received some uncomfortable messages, as a result.
The real artworks for Cards 27–29 are small enough to hold in your hand.
Infeld has received a private offer of over a million dollars for the physical piece, Yellow.
Rounding out the collection is Card 30, Eclipse. Its name is a reference to the “Great American Eclipse” of August 21, 2017, the same day the Card was released. The artwork commemorates the cosmic event as an animation of Curio, the Raccoon — the Curio Cards mascot present in the projects’ logo — winking while blocking out a materializing sun. It was created by Thoros of Myr, the most mysterious artist of the collection: Thoros’ identity remains unknown until this day, and is likely to never be known. There is also no online presence or traceable history of the artist anywhere.
Curiously, did you know?
New Curio Cards were typically released on Tuesdays, but Eclipse was brought forward to Monday to match the date of the Great American Eclipse.
The Card’s supply is 821 — just like the date of the eclipse, 8/21.
There has been speculation Travis Uhrig is Thoros, a claim the founder firmly denies.
Now you know a little more about the stories wrapped around each set of the Curio Cards collection. As the first art NFTs on Ethereum, this gallery stands on its own as a marker of cultural and blockchain history. But together, each set within the full set made history, too; whether as an array of artistic expression, a series of “firsts” on the blockchain, creating characters that double as avatars, experimenting with artist support, telling stories, exhibiting decentrally made pieces, or advocating for cryptocurrency.
These are what Curio Cards means.
This article was written and edited by Curio DAO contributors. Special thanks to Jon Torrey for his early work in tracing the meaning of the Curio Cards collection. Support the DAO and its Writers’ Guild by collecting this NFT.