Chris Torres on building the Meme Economy.

The creator of Nyan Cat on what it feels like to go viral, how NFTs are lifting up previously unknown artists, and the debut of Meme World.
Published on
1 July 2021
Written by
Lindsay Howard
Chris Torres on building the Meme Economy.

Chris! The last time we hung out on a video chat was during the final moments of your Nyan Cat auction back in February, which sold for 300 ETH, or around $700K USD now. That was such an incredible day, and was just the beginning of a whole market for memes.

Yeah, I still remember that moment—and I still get a lot of people asking me about it. Anytime there's NFT news, all these people are like, "What's this cat flying through space and why did it sell for so much?". I feel like they still don’t get the influence Nyan Cat brings to the world. Lots of big interview websites keep asking, "Can we use this video?" So that Twitch interview has been featured all over the place. 

What was your expectation going into the Nyan Cat auction? It’s hard to imagine now, but it was the first of its kind and didn’t have any precedent.

Before the auction, I was dealing with a crazy week where there was no power and no electricity at my house due to the Texas Snowpocalypse. I was trying to finish the artwork in the limited hours of electricity we did have, and just trying to deal with all the news and buildup around it. So I was already a little frazzled going into it. I had no idea what was going to happen once the auction went live.

I remember in the first few hours, it kind of stalled at 20 ETH or so. And I was like, "Well, that must be it, and that's fine." It was a great amount of money, and I was very happy about it. But then of course in that last hour, things really amped up. At the end, I honestly didn't expect that final bid to come in. It was definitely one of those life-changing moments that I’ll remember forever. 

The final sale price was definitely a shock, and still is. I remember trying to be all calm and collected, but then afterwards I was just celebrating. My partner and I went out to dinner, and it was just a big moment for us. It was great.

Can you describe what it was like when your earliest iteration of Nyan Cat went viral? At what point did you realize it had become such an internet sensation?

That was way back in 2011. I would say less than 24 hours after I posted the original Nyan Cat meme on the internet, it was already going all over the place. That was also a brand new experience for me. I'd made some art before that was and still is daily popular on the Internet , but nothing as huge and explosive as Nyan Cat.

I still find it crazy. Yesterday I uploaded the new NFT I'm coming out with, a surfing Nyan Cat, on Reddit. I was like, "Hey everybody, I'm the creator of Nyan Cat. I've been wanting to make this for many years, and I finally succeeded today." It took me years to have the skills to make the surfing version, and I just wanted people to know that when I posted it. Today I woke up and it already has 5,000 upvotes and lots of awards. And all the comments are like, "Wow, this is legendary. This is iconic. You started the internet," stuff like that. 

So overall, while it's weird, I know that my art has made a big impression on the internet. But there are still people who don't know about all the new NFT stuff I've been coming out with. That’s because it’s still very early days in the NFT space. 

What inspired you to create some of the other versions of the cat, like Cherry Blossom Nyan Cat and Surfing Nyan Cat?

In my mind, Nyan Cat lives in this colorful world with all these different themes. Nyan Cat World is kind of like in a video game where you go to different areas and there might be a volcano theme or a cherry blossom theme, depending on where you are.

With Cherry Blossom Nyan Cat, I got the idea just as spring was starting, and flowers were blooming and everything. I drew the idea on a sticky note and I was like, "I'm going to make this one day." And then I actually ended up meeting Kristy Glas, who is also an awesome pixel cat artist. We hit it off right away, and I collaborated with her to make Cherry Blossom Nyan Cat. It was just a perfect mashup. 

With Surfing Nyan Cat, I've always been inspired by old-school video games. With this meme specifically, I was inspired by this Pokemon game, Pokemon Yellow. There's a mini game in it where you can make Pikachu surf around. That one's always resonated with me because it was just so fun, and I played it so much as a kid and it really resonated with me. With the summer solstice happening, I found myself overcome by a mix of inspiration, and it all went into Surfing Nyan Cat.

Are you actively involved in a community of other meme creators? How have you all connected over time?

Foundation has really been the main source that’s connected me to all these people. Before the Nyan Cat NFT, nobody really knew who I was—but now I'm getting all these meme creators emailing me. They all tend to have the same story, where they created something, it got big, and now they’re trying to figure out how to properly… not just monetize it, but get proper credit for it. So we’ve all connected on that level, where we're all just artists and normal people whose work suddenly blew up, and now we're trying to go with that wave and make things work.

But I've met so many new and old meme creators. With some of these people, I can't believe I’ve even been able to talk to them, because a lot of them are what I’d call internet enigmas—nobody even knows who they are. And now they're all contacting me and looking for not just advice, but to make friends. So it's been really cool having a little community build up from all of this, and I think it’s something that's going to keep flourishing.

You all have shared an experience that's very unique, and which most people will never have in their life. It's very cool that you can connect with each other and share that together.

Yeah, it's definitely a unique experience. At the end of the day, none of us really know what we're doing, but we’re making it all work and having fun with it! We see the potential for memes, so we're all working together to not just raise awareness for our work, but to have fun with it and share the process, and see where things go from here. So far it’s been working well for everybody involved!

What has your entry into the NFT space been like? Has it encouraged you to create more memes?

The first thing that I tell everybody entering the NFT space is that it will make you age twice as fast. It's a lot of stress, but at the end of the day, it's also very fun. Everything's growing. Everybody's trying to be seen, and artists are just creating stuff left and right. So it's definitely an experience where you have to learn what you're going to be up against, because it is wild and fast-paced.

Even though it can be stressful coming in, it's also very inspiring. While you’ll still be just one person making your artwork, in the NFT space, there's a whole community that’s co-evolving at the same time. It has definitely inspired me to create more. These days I'm drawing more than ever. At least once a week I'm at the computer for six hours trying to figure out my next piece. 

So yeah, making new art and remastering old art is kind of my full-time job now—as well as interacting with the community. Being involved in the NFT space is about making friends, and making connections. That's where the real engagement comes from: making friends and helping each other out. It's honestly one of the most tight-knit communities that I've ever been a part of on the internet.

What advice would you have for someone coming into NFTs for the first time?

First of all, stay calm. The process takes a lot of patience to hit its stride. The first thing I warn other artists about is to not message random people and be like, "Hey, buy my artwork." A lot of these collectors are putting their faith in you—not only in your artwork, but in the fact that they believe that your stuff will become more valuable over time. So you have to take time to get to know them, while continuing to make a reputation for yourself.

You also can't just go all out, guns blazing, and put something up for 100 ETH and think somebody will buy it right away. You have to start small, you have to get to know people. The best way I’ve been able to do that is on Twitter, where there are new conversations popping up all the time. And in those conversations, you not only get to learn new things, but talk to new people. It's a rabbit hole that you have to go down if you want to really get into the space.

Does sharing your work in the NFT space feel different to you than sharing it on other platforms?

Yes. It's more explosive. I would post stuff in the past, just artwork, and it would get maybe 10 retweets or so. Now, if I post the same exact thing as an NFT, not only does it get a hundred likes overnight, but now I get all these media inquiries for it. People are like, "Oh, you just created this? What do you feel about this artwork?" All these people are going, "How does the NFT market look based on Nyan Cat?" It's very surreal knowing that I have that kind of influence now, where whatever I do on the internet goes past my little bubble and is analyzed.

You’re best known for having created one of the most-viewed videos of 2011, but we’re also interested in learning more about the other kinds of work you create. For example, when I look at your pieces on Foundation, there are a number of animated pixel art pieces, but then you also have the Nyan Cat doodle. Are you mainly invested in pixel art, or do you like exploring other mediums?

I love pixel art because while it can be complex, for me it's also easy. It's like building blocks that you have to place perfectly. I've also always been a fan of old-school Nintendo games, and have always been a big nerd. But I also love art in general. Digital art has always been a big interest of mine. I've also been making comics for almost 20 years now, and have been working on a series called LOL Comics.  The Nyan Cat doodle reflects that artwork, as it’s based in my doodle cartoon style and is now being considered as my genesis piece.

LOL Comics is literally just a stick figure-comic based loosely around my life. There are a lot of weird situations in all of it. Honestly, I think my art is most expressive in stick figure format, where I can keep things simple. And I think that's what people like—just something where they can read it really quickly and get the joke, even while that joke might be about something that’s kind of hard to explain. Hopefully when things settle down for me, I might actually publish a series of LOL Comics NFTs, because a lot of those have been popular and I think a lot of people would enjoy them.

How did you approach the Meme World you curated for Foundation? Were there any surprises or fun discoveries in the process?

The whole thing has been a fun surprise to work on. I think Foundation has turned into a meme hub, because thanks to Foundation, memes are now a serious thing. We got the meme economy going, and it’s been surprising and cool to see all these meme creators coming in and wanting to make NFTs, too. Now we are about to launch Meme World, a fun little hub for all things Meme

It's also great knowing that in the process of minting my Nyan Cat NFTs, a lot of people are being lifted in the process. With Meme World, we've got all these great meme creators and artists who are about to debut their work as NFTs. I'm really excited to actually share Meme World once it’s ready, since it’s going to be really cool. And for me, knowing that all of these artists will be able to get proper attribution for their work is exactly the goal that I had in mind the moment I started doing all of this. So I'm rooting everybody on, and I'm trying to get people prepared for it. It's going to be a fun party, and I can’t wait.

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