Who is behind Bored Ape Yacht Club, the NFT secret brand? These guys, for starters.


BuzzFeed News; Bored Ape Yacht Club; Getty Images

At the end of JanuaryParis Hilton appeared as a guest on The show tonight. In a segment that was widely mocked for its boosterism, Hilton and host Jimmy Fallon each released prints of their “Bored Apes” – digital images from a collection of 10,000 unique designs. Fallon had bought her last fall for about $216,000, and Hilton had just bought hers for over $300,000. Together, the pair had spent half a million dollars on non-fungible tokens, or NFTS: unique digital assets that only exist on the blockchain, a decentralized digital ledger with no trusted middleman.

Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), a collection of simian avatars created by four pseudonymous founders, has quickly become a hugely lucrative business in a growing space. It recently overtook its competitors to become the most expensive NFT collection – the floor price to buy the cheapest is now over $280,000, and the collection currently has a market capitalization of around $2.8 billion. Yuga Labs, the company that makes BAYC, is reportedly in talks with venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz about an investment that would value it at $5 billion (Andreessen Horowitz, also an investor in BuzzFeed, did not respond to a request for comment).

How do you hold them accountable if you don’t know who they are?

BAYC makes money not only from the initial sale (about $2 million) of its NFT monkeys, but also from a 2.5% royalty on future transactions. He’s done real-world licensing deals with companies like Adidas and had a gig with Chris Rock and the Strokes. Now owned by dozens of celebrities, the Bored Apes have become a flashpoint for both excitement and skepticism over NFTs, which boosters claim will revolutionize art and commerce by creating level playing field without race or gender, and critics say they are a speculative bubble at best and a rip-off at worst.

As the value of the asset they produced skyrocketed, the identities of BAYC’s founders became the subject of intense – not entirely positive – interest. People pointed out that monkeys in streetwear-inspired outfits and gold teeth are a racist trope (Yuga Labs reps strenuously denied this). Others have expressed concern that Seneca, the young Asian American artist who actually drew the main work, was under-recognized and under-compensated for her work. Nicole Muniz, CEO of Yuga Labs, which fronts the public, told BuzzFeed News, “Each artist of the original five was paid over $1 million apiece.” (Seneca did not respond to request for comment). This reveals a unique problem with the idea of ​​a billion dollar company run by a stranger: How do you hold them accountable if you don’t know who they are?

BuzzFeed News can now reveal the identities of the two main founders of Bored Apes: 32-year-old writer and editor Greg Solano and 35-year-old Florida native Wylie Aronow.

Neither man immediately responded to a request for comment.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon via YouTube / Via youtube.com

Jimmy Fallon shows a print of Paris Hilton’s Bored Ape on The show tonight.

BuzzFeed News Wanted public business records to reveal the identities of the two main founders, who go by the pseudonyms “Gordon Goner” and “Gargamel”. According to publicly available documents, Yuga Labs, the company name behind BAYC, is incorporated in Delaware with an address associated with Greg Solano. Other records linked Solano to Wylie Aronow. Yuga Labs CEO Nicole Muniz confirmed the identities of the two men to BuzzFeed News.

Speaking as Gordon Goner and Gargamel, the founders gave interviews to outlets like Rolling Stone and the New Yorker to discuss the origin story of the idea of ​​a group of wealthy apes living in a swamp clubhouse. The outlines of their biographies match Solano and Aronow: they’re both in their 30s, met growing up in Florida, and both had literary aspirations (one earned a master’s degree in creative writing, the other dropped out for health reasons, according to their interview in CoinDesk). They were both interested in crypto and wanted to create some sort of NFT collection. They came up with the concept of wealthy monkeys living in a swamp clubhouse, hired a freelance illustrator to draw the monkeys, and teamed up with two engineers as co-founders to run the collection. The identity of the two co-founding engineers, “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” and “No Sass”, remains unknown.

Greg Solano, “Gargamel”, appears as an editor and book reviewer on a few literary websites and attended the University of Virginia. He co-wrote a book on World of Warcraft with one of the game designers.

Wylie Aronow, 35, is also from Miami. Aronow lived in Chicago for a time, where he was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune in a “Readers of the Week” story where he and a friend were asked about the books they were reading (he said he recently enjoyed a translation of Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s book).

In May 2021, a crypto firm called Bitmex took Aronow to arbitration over a disputed domain name. Aronow had purchased the bitmex.guru domain name in 2018, which Bitmex said was clearly designed to mislead people looking for the real Bitmex website. Aronow failed to show up and the arbitrator ordered the domain name transferred after he defaulted in the proceedings.

Nickname is a rooted part of Web3, the umbrella term for a vision of a decentralized, user-owned internet with cryptocurrency payments and NFTs at its core. Web3 supporters see it as a chance to cure some of the ills of Web2’s toxic social platforms. Holyn Kanake, a former Twitter employee and influential crypto enthusiast, wrote in her Substack newsletter about the potential for communities not bound to use their legal names — but held accountable by their blockchain reputations — to reduce harassment.

Playing with the concept of identity has also been a source of creativity for NFT artists. A popular NFT artist who only goes through “shl0ms” has sold an NFT of an image revealing his true identity details – but all of this information was written in unreadable white type. Other artists have used it to play with traditional copyright concepts, from copying Damien Hirst’s famous polka dots to selling Olive Gardens images (Disclaimer: This reporter owns one of these Olive Garden NFTs).

Artistic merit aside, the people behind BAYC are courting investors and running a business potentially worth billions.

Noam Galai / Getty Images

People walk past a Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT billboard in Times Square on January 25, 2022.

As NFTs continue to expand into popular culture and as Web3 becomes mainstream, the issue of pseudonymous businesses dealing with real money – and lots of it – is a new economic and legal reality.

There are reasons why in the traditional business world, the CEO or founder of a company uses their real name and not a pseudonym. For publicly traded companies, officers must be named in Securities and Exchange Commission filings and reports. For even smaller private businesses, there are banking regulations and “know your customer” laws that require real names for banks lending money or holding accounts for businesses. These laws are intended in part to prevent terrorists, criminals, or sanctioned nations from doing business in the United States.

Solano and Aronow don’t seem to have any particular red flags (other than squatting the Aronow domain name). But what if in another NFT collective, the founders turn out to have a long criminal history or extreme political leanings that might make collectors regret spending huge sums of money on their products?

“It shouldn’t be hard to know who you’re dealing with,” Gary Kalman, US office director for advocacy group Transparency International, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a pretty basic thing.” While a sophisticated venture capital firm might know more about who is really behind a company, the average NFT holder cannot. “Without transparency and openness, so ordinary people who can’t do their due diligence like big business does, it can create problems – and there’s no reason for that.”

“It will significantly open up opportunities for people who otherwise have the odds against them.”

Some believe blockchain heralds a new and improved form of corporate transparency. “Yes, there can be liability,” said Mark Cuban, entrepreneur and owner of two Bored Apes. “The reason for this is that all transactions are based on smart contracts and written in the blockchain, which is the antithesis of traditional commerce. What other collectibles company publishes all of its sales and business processes?”

It is possible that pseudonymous companies will become our new reality. Soona Amhaz, a partner at Volt Capital, a crypto-focused venture capital firm, thinks this could have some benefits. Unlike the traditional startup world, it frees founders from judgments about their physical appearance, school, social class, gender, or race. “This will significantly open up opportunities for people who otherwise have the odds against them because they don’t come from the right school, the right companies, or because they live in a place where coming forward might mean become a target,” she told BuzzFeed. News.

According to Amhaz, it is possible for investors to learn how to do their due diligence with pseudonymous founders; they just need to adjust and adapt. In the recent case of a founder of a decentralized finance protocol who turned out to be a person previously convicted of fraud, the information had been sitting there in the blockchain if someone had just pieced together the links. “It’s an unfamiliar way of doing things and relatively new,” Amhaz said, “but I really believe it’s going to be a meaningful part of the future of work.” ●

Emily Baker-White contributed reporting for this story.


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