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The Crowd: Two Bit Punks

Hi Crowd! I wrote a very long essay about a new series I've been working on called Two Bit Punks. It's on my website, but I thought I'd send it to you here as well. Enjoy!


(Still from Angels With Dirty Faces, 1938)

The term Two Bit Punk instantly makes me think of James Cagney in the 1938 film Angels With Dirty Faces. There's something about that era of gritty black and white 1930's-1940's Hollywood gangster films about down trodden hoodlums with hearts of gold that I just love. I spent many hours sitting on my grandparent's living room floor watching these movies and imagining the world that inspired them. It's fascinating that the connotation is so evocative for me, especially as the term isn't something we hear too much these days. Separately "Two Bit" and "Punk" have much more common definitions these days, though this slang isn't entirely lost either.


In 2010 the gold standard of linguistic documentation, Urban Dictionary, agreed with the assertion that a inexperienced criminal might also known as a two bit punk. Of course this is built on two-bit being a slang reference to a quarter or $0.25 (a bit used to mean 12.5 cents), often used in a pejorative way to say something (or someone) is cheap, low quality, and/or degenerate. Some readers might remember "Two Bit" Mathews as a character from S. E. Hinton's 1967 novel The Outsiders, an older wise cracking gang member who earned the moniker by always having to add his "two bits" to any conversation.

Rick Bennet's almost unknown 1979 folky sleeper "Two Bit Whore" revisits the theme of value proposition, however I'm much more partial to the Canadian punk band Subhumans who, that very same year, often played their own similarly titled tune to a much more engaged audience. I also like the use of "whore" here as it conveys (perhaps unintentionally, and in direct contrast to "punk") a certain level of professionalism.

These are far from the only examples and the term remained popular for decades to follow. There's already an interesting association here with differing definitions of punk, Cagney's low rent criminals couldn't be more different than the 1970's music movement, though we can find similarities. Punks (the musicians) often didn't have a lot, and part of the whole idea with punk is that we don't need anything fancy to just get out there and do it. And importantly, doing it because we wanted to do it, because we needed to do it, because we wanted it done - not because someone else wanted us to. The spirit of independence and DIY culture, and that the message and the feeling can be more important than the delivery. Talent and skill are optional, all we need is passion.

"There is nothing more common than unsuccessful men with talent... We aren't particularly talented. We try harder!"

- Joe Strummer, The Clash

Similarly, Musicians have often been looked as degenerates. And not just Punks either, one needs not look far to find any number of historical disparaging comments made about the likes of Swing bands, Jazz players and Rock N Rollers. Polite society has always disapproved of whatever got the kids moving. Visual artists, especially when we get into modern and contemporary art (not even mentioning graffiti, pop or low-brow) have suffered from similar snobbery, at least until their prices hit 6 figures. The same horror would fill the eyes of a typical well-to-do middle American family learning their child wants to be an artist as if they wanted to be a musician, rejecting the respectable hopes of raising a doctor or a lawyer. Artists would be derided as punks, even if they weren't.

I also kind of enjoy the fact that blockchain tech, cryptocurrency and web3 have a less than stellar reputation in some circles, so I can imagine a stodgy, old timey commentator ignorantly brushing off an entire genre of art by saying "Cryptoartists? They're just a bunch of two bit punks!"


(Rothko installation)

“A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.” 

- Mark Rothko

I started thinking about the passion involved with creating art, and the beauty of experiencing it. Be it a song or a canvas - art is art and it can move us if we let it. The abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko knew this, and stated repeatedly that his "multiforms" - his most famous body of work produced in the later portion of his life - were not simply fields of color but rather paintings of emotions. He said "The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point." And while Rothko, who died in 1970, wasn't a punk, his approach was certainly punk. In 1958 he famously abandoned a $35,000 commission he'd already spent a year working on after having a meal with the intended audience. “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine." Try to tell me that isn't punk. Try to tell me these aren't aren't just exploding with emotion.

Rothko: Yellow Over Purple, 1956 / Untitled, 1951

Rothko: No 61. Rust And Blue, 1953

The lesson from Rothko is that it's not only what it looks like, it's what it feels like–how it makes us feel when we look at it. Just like music, it's not what it sounds like so much as how we feel listening to it.

For months now I've been obsessively staring at color fields. Rothko of course, but also Truitt, Noland, Kelly, Stella, Newman, Albers and others.. but also the colors used in Matt Hall and John Watkinson's Cryptopunks collection. I've been thinking about how they make me feel, really letting myself bathe in them. I decided to restrict myself to this palette for this series, and in doing so realized that just a single color will sometimes make me think of a trait. A pair of colors even more so. But to turn that around and try to express what I was feeling and experiencing visually wasn't as easy. I imagine someone seeing these colors removed from context would have an entirely different experience. I pushed pixels, I pulled things apart and stuck them back together. Eventually I realized a crucial, embarrassingly obvious and yet super important thing: this, of all of this, is about interpretation. It's not literal, nor should it be. These artists aren't telling us what emotion to feel, they're putting their emotion into the work, putting it out into the world, and letting the viewer have their own reaction to it.

Anne Truitt, Parva LIV, 2001

Barnett Newman, Cathedra, 1951

There's a wonderful Charlie Rose interview with Quinten Tarantino where he explains that he purposefully doesn't reveal every bit of story because he wants the viewer to imagine it themselves, and in that act make the movie their own - that three different viewers can come up with three different backstories and the result is that they've seen three different films. I love that. This is the experience of art and I've seen the same thing with some of my photos, people see them and tell me what they think is happening and I love that they've interpreted it in a way I never imagined. And when I applied that thinking back to this work, things suddenly clicked for me. A color does not need to explicitly mean one thing, nor does one thing need to be explicitly represented by one color. There can be many options, and that can be left to the viewer's interpretation. I'll get back to that in a moment.

Revisiting "two bits" but now with a digital context and we could be talking about a very simple set of data. Some of the most simplified digital music is known as chiptunes, songs and soundtracks we might recognize from videogames but also an entire genre of musicians simplifying a song down to it's most basic parts. These are typically 8-bit or 16-bit so we can imagine 2-bits being aggressively minimalist. How much can be taken away from something before it stops being what it was? How much needs to be added to something for it to become something else? Rothko shows us that, when done right, the result can be much more than the sum of the parts. Again, we could say the same for punk rock which is stereotypically 3 chords or less. I think this is part of the same idea that digital artist Tjo was poking at with BLeU, and I know it was part of the joke the tragically underrated Two Bit Bears was making with their "hyper realistic" collection of pieces made up of only 2 pixels. It's a brilliant idea, perfectly executed and along with Rothko and Cagney and Strummer helped me both chip away and and build up the ideas that would become my own Two Bit Punks series.

I walk a delicate line with my reference to Cryptopunks here, drawing inspiration from them while simultaneously stripping away everything that makes them what they are. I've written a lot about how important and influential Cryptopunks are, and as one of the authors of a forthcoming book on the subject, you can be assured I have a lot more to say. Obviously a body of work called Two Bit Punks released (in part) as NFTs in 2024 is going to have some inspiration fueled by Cryptopunks, something I whole heartedly embrace. We should all be so lucky to have such rich inspiration.

Cryptopunks (detail), 2017

For anyone skimming through all the boring history and navel gazing philosophy to find the punks references, I hope you feel better now.


One of my favorite fan made projects about Cryptopunks is which digs into the colors in the collection, how how often they are used and in what context. A theme also explored in the Clickbait collection by Capsule21. Both of those are deeply technical, even analytical, and one can dive as deep as they like–there's a lot to learn and explore for anyone who is interested. My work is not technical–I'm not dealing in the world of code and metrics so much as feelings and reactions and emotions.

Josef Albers (1967), Capsule21 (2022), Frank Stella (1971)

Again returning to the word "punk" but now in a new context. In the web3 cryptoart scene the term generally refers to a pixelated portrait image, usually 24x24. Cryptopunks created and defined this genre (hence the name), however the artists cited the 1970's London punk scene and the cypherpunk movement as part of their own inspirations, so we have these ideas which keep building on themselves and inspiring new work along the way. Art is a circle, all inspired by and derived from parts of each other, and that's part of what makes it so magical.

Earlier I talked about interpretation and giving space for the viewer to have their own relationship with the work. Cryptopunks provide an interest palette for exploring this. For example, black is a fairly common color in the 10,000 piece collection, but what is it referring to? Depends, what does the viewer want it to be referring to? A black square could mean many different things, or it could just simply be a black square.

A Study of Black and Black Traits in the Cryptopunks Collection, 2024

Conversely, some traits need several colors to illustrate what they are. Taking an overly aggressive minimalistic approach, what happens if I broke a multicolor trait down to single color individual parts? Are these colors strong enough to stand on their own? Do they convey something, even alone? I think they do, but perhaps now it's something different than they do combined.

A Study of Colors in Cryptopunks 3D Glasses, 2024

There is also something powerful about how these colors relate to each other, and those relationships tell different stories. The choice of background color alone is the perfect example of this. This green square on white is just a green block, but put it on the traditional blue/grey background and many people would instantly recognize a zombie skin tone. This feels different. It says something that the other didn't.

Green, Green With Background, 2024

A beautiful thing I knew but realized more fully while immersing myself in this palette–there isn't just one green. Or one blue. Or one red. I think a lot of people assume the artists did actually that (as De Stijl artists like Piet Mondrian might have done), but they didn't and the result is that we have all these slight differences that convey different things in a specific context, but what happens if we remove the context from the color? One of these is a clown nose, another a red mohawk, another red lipstick. Which is which? Does it even matter? Stripped down to the absolute minimum, all we're left with is feeling, emotion and interpretation. These colors might make us think of something, or feel something, they also might not. Anyone's guess might be right or wrong, but at this simplified level it hardly matters. Everyone will experiences them differently, and that's the point.

Reds, 2024


Let's go back to the beginning... to the beginnings. I wanted to build a body of work exploring the relationships between these colors, their associations and the feelings they evoke. This is Two Bit Punks. Two squares, two colors, a definitive background. Is this a Cryptopunks derivative? Yes-ish. But in a similar way it's also a Rothko derivative. And Truitt, Noland, Newman, Tjo, PIV, etc.. And a dozen other creators and projects and ideas I was inspired by while working on this. You could also call it a remix, just like everything else. I took these ideas, inspirations and concepts, chopped them up, pulled them apart, boiled them down, and tried to make something interesting with the parts. NWA's Straight Outta Compton is built on The Winstons' Amen Brother, but it's still its own thing as well.

I'm really happy with where I landed, and if others like them too even better.

Two Bit Punks (examples: 2x humans, a zombie, an alien)

Two Bits here refers to two variables, not 2 pixels. Each piece has an attribute (top) and a type (bottom). There are 333 Cryptopunks with one attribute, but this isn't a direct copy of those punks. There's no matching numbers, and while there may be Two Bit Punks with similar traits to existing single attribute punks, those instances are purely coincidental. Put another way, if someone has a favorite Cryptopunk, it's intentionally unlikely there will be a perfectly matching Two Bit Punk, but there may be a Two Bit Punk that feels like a match to them.

As I've alluded to in this essay, there is a lot of room for interpretation in this series, intentionally. There are traits which are visually identical, but have different names in the metadata, as well as traits which look different but are similarly named. For example there are 4 named types comprised of 8 different colors. This means while each piece in this series is a unique 1/1 I consider the metadata part of the art. There will be some pieces that visually identical but have different metadata, and some with different imagery but matching metadata. Using the color and trait studies I referenced earlier: 3 pieces may have a black square, but the metadata would show each having different traits, and separately 3 pieces may all have a 3D glasses trait, each with a different color square.

Top: human with wild hair, human with eye patch, human with smile
Bottom: human with 3D glasses, human with 3D glasses, human with 3D glasses

Extrapolate that out to all the traits and colors and the possibilities are vast. Art isn't just something to look at, there's also story and concept and intention. There are layers to peel back, and the conceptual framing intentionally allows for contemplation. I want the viewer to think about this, and chew on the idea for a while. I'm interested in finding the visceral, emotional reactions to the work. I'm looking forward to others discovering those connections for themselves as well.

Series Details

The NFT collection is 500 1/1 pieces, algorithmically generated based on a custom set of rules and hand made desktop outputted image sources. These pieces are intentionally not rendered code, rather 2400x2400 PNG files built from a 200 layer photoshop file, each hex color sourced one at a time and typed by hand, each square brush painted with a mouse and a brush tool.

In addition to the digital tokens I plan to do a series of signed screen prints around this concept. Details TBD while I await samples. Prints will be extremely limited, signed, numbered, and offered to collectors exclusively.

500 NFTs
(9 Aliens / 24 Apes / 88 Zombies / 379 Humans)
Release Date 2/24/2024
Minting details TBA

Silkscreen Prints
Hand signed and numbered
Edition size and price TBD

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