Cryptograffiti: Making Bitcoin Accessible Through Activist Art

Maybe you’ve seen his Bitcoin dollar bill on a billboard in Washington D.C. Or watched migrants tear down his mural of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, in Cúcuta, a Columbian border town, as part of an agreed-upon protest. Or, perhaps, you raised an eyebrow at his Bitcoin stickers on a Bank of America ATM in San Francisco. Or knew someone that knew someone who took part in his auction for the least expensive art in the world, Black Swan, which sold for a millisatoshi. Cryptograffiti’s art is diverse, taking on many physical forms and media. But it’s guided by a singular purpose: educate others about the benefits of Bitcoin — a solution for a better world.

That’s why he labels himself a Bitcoin artist or, more specifically, a Bitcoin activist artist. Bitcoin is the reason he decided to create art professionally; it was the cause of his art career. But his openness to the movement was shaped by his prior experiences, too.

A case for Bitcoin

Cryptograffiti first created Bitcoin art in 2013. But there were several factors that led him to being receptive to Bitcoin as an alternative money system before it entered his life. In a 2021 interview with Jimmy Song, Cryptograffiti says, “A lot of it goes back to not really fitting in at school, because I have auditory processing issues. And so, being told early on that you need to do things a certain way when they just don’t come naturally to you, breeds questioning of authority early on, I think.”

In college, he also went through a violent incident involving police. “Someone attacked a roommate and myself, trying to get money and drugs from us,” he explains. “This is something where, in present day, it wouldn’t even be an issue with the current drug laws.”

He continues: “What happened was really severe. In the ensuing court case there was civil asset forfeiture involved. That led me to look at the authorities in a different light, too, because after the court case was dropped, they just kept the money [laughs sardonically].”

Cryptograffiti in San Francisco.  Image from:
Cryptograffiti in San Francisco. Image from:

After college, Cryptograffiti worked in sales at Apple headquarters in San Francisco. It wasn’t fulfilling, so he founded his own startup — a very San Francisco thing to do — called “Top Eight,” inspired by social media network MySpace. Top Eight’s product was a “locket” people could wear and update with images based on what they were doing. A developer he’d hired asked him to pay him in Bitcoin, and Cryptograffiti couldn’t figure it out at the time. It was too complex. But he still wanted to reward the developer with something. Because that developer was into RC planes, Cryptograffiti looked up the Bitcoin logo and then drew it with a propeller, which he printed on a T-shirt. That was the first time he’d played with Bitcoin creatively.

But that first introduction preceded continued encounters. He started seeing Bitcoin everywhere, and hearing about it in cafés — also typical of San Francisco’s bubbling tech scene. He was also reading WIRED magazine, including the Rise and Fall of Bitcoin article, a thorough account of Bitcoin’s early growth and growing pains, as well as disparaging articles about “Silk Road,” the illegal Bitcoin marketplace. Yet Cryptograffiti’s curiosity was electrified by the positives he saw in blockchain technology.

“So I already got the big picture and why [Bitcoin] was important, and the permanence of it really stuck with me,” he tells Song. “In SF [San Francisco], there’s a million different startups that come and go. But this idea that you couldn’t stop Bitcoin was really intriguing. And yes, overtaking banks; it was just a huge idea when I was in a sea of different ideas.”

The early history of Bitcoin. Source: The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin, Wired Magazine, 2011.
The early history of Bitcoin. Source: The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin, Wired Magazine, 2011.

In 2012, he came across Hashcash, which he describes as “the big rabbit hole moment.” Hashcash, invented in 1997,  is a proof-of-work system used for thwarting email spam and DDOS attacks. Satoshi Nakamoto was inspired by Hashcash when creating the Bitcoin proof-of-work algorithm. For Cryptograffiti, this innovation at a micro level was an interesting idea, and spoke to his love of ideas generally, encouraging him to somehow get involved.

As Cryptograffiti connected these new concepts, he became engrossed, staying up all night in his 600 square foot apartment on Valencia Street in San Francisco, digging deeper, overcome with the sense of falling down a rabbit hole as his gut told him his life was about to change.

Getting creative

Top Eight’s MySpace locket idea failed to take hold, so Cryptograffiti slowly phased out the startup. Simultaneously, he was figuring out how to transition into Bitcoin.

He knew he wanted to contribute, but he wasn’t yet sure how. All he knew was there was a need for it, and he wanted to raise kids in a better society — and Bitcoin, in his view, was the key. He realized people needed to know about Bitcoin, and that he should educate them.

And the way he would teach, he realized, would be through art. There was a lack of it in the emerging Bitcoin industry, so he was wary the growing movement would suffer a similar fate to San Francisco, where “a lot of the culture was leaving,” as well as the “soul, (...) because of the wealth gap that’s under a microscope.” But through art, he saw he could introduce new culture, while getting the word out. The idea was refreshing. The Bitcoin scene was dominated by programmers. Through creativity, he could bring non-programmers into the fold.

The choice to use art was obvious to the former Silicon Valley sales guy. “People had always said, ‘You should try something with art,’” Cryptograffiti explains. He comes from a family of artists, and he was a class away from minoring in it at college. He’d also had practical experience, often making functional art on the side, like a coffee table, if he needed one.

So, Cryptograffiti turned his art skill to Bitcoin — and then took to the streets. His first art was street art with the Bitcoin QR code on it. The approach he used would become the signature of his work: repurposing existing banking materials, “the tools that have been used to hold us down,” he says. Initially, this approach meant cutting up fiat currency and transforming the fragments into pro-Bitcoin art. It was controversial, but he became committed. The unusualness of his chosen path is perhaps best captured in another short anecdote delivered to Song: “Imagine that conversation with my parents: ‘I’m going to be ripping up this thing you call real money, for magic internet money.”

But his art stuck. In fact, it resonated so much with those in and out of Bitcoin, that Cryptograffiti could become increasingly active, producing larger and more impactful works using a number of media.

Major contributions

United Nodes of Bitcoin

"United Nodes of Bitcoin" — Cryptograffiti (2015).
"United Nodes of Bitcoin" — Cryptograffiti (2015).

Over the course of his career, Cryptograffiti has created numerous significant artworks, not least of which is his 2015 piece United Nodes of Bitcoin. A repurposed dollar bill, the art features details about Bitcoin, including its supply, functionality, and founder, Satoshi Nakamoto. It was first exhibited at “Proof of Art,” the San Francisco Bitcoin meetup art show organized together with Curio Cards founders Travis Uhrig and Thomas Hunt (Mad Bitcoins) in May, 2016. At the center of the remodeled Bitcoin bill is a hooded George Washington, below which read the words “no leader,” a clear nod to Bitcoin’s decentralized nature. Instead of being a “federal reserve note,” the line at the top reads “no federal reserve” — a reminder Bitcoin operates without government oversight. Cryptograffiti made United Nodes after spending time in Mexico and trying to talk to locals about Bitcoin in “broken Spanish,” soon realizing he needed a way to succinctly explain the concept using  “some sort of anchor” in what people already knew. In an interview with Bitcoin magazine, Cryptograffiti said how this piece was successful at communicating Bitcoin’s purpose to newcomers, and that they really “gravitated toward it because of the [familiar] imagery.”

Cryptograffiti has transformed United Nodes of Bitcoin into two more art experiments. First, he teamed up with an AR studio to create an application that — when used to view artwork — depicts a US dollar burning away and then gradually being redrawn. This includes the back of the dollar bill, which he created in 2020. In 2021, he took both sides of the bill nationwide, in the form of twelve billboards in low-income neighborhoods of federal reserve cities around the US. The publicly funded project was called “Bitcoin vs The Fed,” which is phase two of the original 2015 work. The Bitcoin-dominated-bill was accompanied by short, thought-provoking insights around issues in the current financial system, as well as social media handles directing viewers to more information. Cryptograffiti also included a treasure hunt for the private key to a wallet address holding 0.21 BTC, inspired by his friend and fellow Bitcoin artist, Coin Artist.


"Nakamoto" — Cryptograffiti (2015).
"Nakamoto" — Cryptograffiti (2015).

Perhaps Cryptograffiti’s most recognizable artwork is Nakamoto, a portrait of Dorian “Satoshi” Nakamoto, the retired San Francisco security engineer once falsely labeled by Newsweek as the real Satoshi, the “Father of Bitcoin.” Built entirely from bits of credit cards, the piece was auctioned off over 20 days in 2015, and managed to raise 17.3 Bitcoin at the time, all of which went to Nakamoto. Cryptograffiti had learned of Nakamoto’s financial difficulties, prompting him to make the portrait and auction it off. Nakamoto had endured grievous amounts of media attention after Newsweek’s false claims, yet has become an endearing figure in the Bitcoin community since. The adhesive on wood artwork is also signed by Nakamoto.

Nakamoto was the blueprint for later Cryptograffiti credit-card portraits, including one of JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, called Terrible Store of Value. This was followed by Running Bitcoin, an ode to Hal Finney commemorating his early involvement in Bitcoin, ten years after his “Running Bitcoin” tweet.

Curio Cards

After working with Travis Uhrig and Thomas Hunt on the “Proof of Art” show in 2016, Cryptograffiti was approached by the pair to provide artwork to the Curio Cards project. Cryptograffiti agreed, and provided the Cards for 11, 12 and 13 in the set — BTC Keys, Mine Bitcoin and BTC. Each Card features the repurposed logo of a well-known bank: Union Bank of Switzerland, Mastercard and CitiBank. These artworks originally appeared as stickers on ATMs around San Francisco.

Curio Cards launched in 2017, yet only took off in 2021, after the project had disappeared and was rediscovered. It reached the ultimate art industry heights in October, 2021 — being sold at famed auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s within the same month. Cryptograffiti has said it was difficult to find places to exhibit Bitcoin art in those early days, when he collaborated with Curio Cards. In general, he’s experienced “risk” working with other projects, because of relying on other individuals or not having full control of the roll-out.

Even though Curio Cards are the first art NFTs on Ethereum, Cryptograffiti says he did Bitcoin-related art on it, because he “knew that’s where the direction of the rare art was going, and [he] wanted to put a stamp [down], and say, “Bitcoin [was there]. We started this with RarePepes.”


Cryptograffiti, left, along with the project team for #AirdropVenezuela, in front of his mural of disputed Columbian president, Nicolás Maduro. Image from:
Cryptograffiti, left, along with the project team for #AirdropVenezuela, in front of his mural of disputed Columbian president, Nicolás Maduro. Image from:

Undeniably one of Cryptograffiti’s most impactful, politically charged projects was his collaboration with AirTM, a cryptocurrency wallet, for #AirdropVenezuela. The day-long mural project took place in Cúcuta, a Columbian border town home to numbers of Venezuelan migrants. Cryptograffiti produced a top-to-bottom wall mural of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, made entirely of 1000 Columbian bolivars (the local currency). Maduro’s mouth is obscured by the project’s hashtag. The mural was visible on a livestream, and viewers could donate any amount, with funds going to Venezuelans to send back home. For every 10 dollar donation, a bolivar bill was removed, as people gradually “tore down” Maduro. The dismantling of the dictator was viewable over the course of the day.

Cryptograffiti says he was motivated to help Venezuelans because of a desire to learn about their economic strife. In a 2019 interview with Coindesk, he says he almost felt “a sense of guilt by referencing Venezuela as why cryptocurrency is necessary, without knowing enough about the situation down there.” Instead of reading about it online, he chose to immerse himself in the situation on the ground, and get to grips with local migrants' real struggles.

The project enabled him to distribute Bitcoin to locals, and show them how transactions worked, as they could purchase food kits and other items onsite.

Black Swan

Image from:
Image from:

To celebrate the launch of the Lightning Network in 2019 — a Layer 2 solution allowing for faster transactions and greater scalability of Bitcoin — Cryptograffiti created a tiny artwork called Black Swan. Only 1.44 x 1.75 inches in size, the artwork is a framed black swan in front of pieced-together leaves, made from a single U.S. dollar bill. The size choice reflects Lightning’s possibility for micropayments, which Cryptograffiti also highlighted via a one-of-a-kind auction. Bids were placed using Lightning, until the artwork sold to the lowest micro-bidder, a complete inversion of traditional auction mechanics. Black Swan went for a millisatoshi, the smallest fragment of a Bitcoin transferable, equivalent to $0.000000037 at the time. It is therefore the “least expensive artwork in the world.” The winner also received a “counterfeit pen” — what merchants use to confirm a banknote’s legitimacy. In challenging the “absurdity” of traditional art auctions, Cryptograffiti also released an accompanying parodying video playing on their seriousness — all the more effective considering the art’s final price tag.

On the potential of micropayments, Cryptograffiti told Artnome in 2018: “I’m excited about a future where micropayments are omnipresent. Artists paid by the view, writers by the poem, musicians by the listen.”

Unlocking Bitcoin’s art value

Because of Cryptograffiti’s dedication to Bitcoin, he’s refrained from actively taking part in the Ethereum-based marketplaces selling NFTs, such as OpenSea (his experiments with early marketplaces and projects like Curio Cards in 2017 were because of a lack of viable alternatives). Instead, he’s gotten involved with helping develop Bitcoin-based solutions, which align with his purpose and message.

Speaking to Bitcoin magazine, he says: “I think the digital art movement is awesome. And I love that artists are getting paid through it (...) and there’s the innovation happening with royalties, the secondary sales, and how it helps with provenance. I think it’s all super cool, and a lot of the art is really amazing, too. Just for my particular subject matter, I don’t think it’s the best fit.”

In 2021, he helped bring three creative projects to market, including Raretoshi, a Bitcoin NFT marketplace using Liquid, a sidechain pegged 1:1 to the cryptocurrency. His other two projects leverage Lightning Network for split payments — Strikes Twice, for the music industry, and BTC Origin Stories, for the film industry.

Cryptograffiti is passionate about DJing which is why he chose to launch Strikes Twice. The aim is to get artists paid fairly using Lightning’s split micropayments feature. To showcase how it works, he played a live house music set called Strikes Twice in front of the U.S. mint in San Francisco. Listeners enjoying the stream could make a split payment: 10% to Cryptograffiti, and 90% to the song’s producer.

By helping develop creative avenues rooted in Bitcoin, Cryptograffiti hopes to produce new paradigms for artist support, and attract artists to get involved in Bitcoin, the way he did. Only that way can the soul of the culture be preserved, and continue to expand; the “why” to the movement’s how, the springboard to future onboarding. All in service of undoing the injustice of a broken fiat regime.

This article was written and edited by Curio DAO contributors. To find out about becoming a contributor, go to Visit the Curio Cards Discord to get to know the community.

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