It's really hard to visualise Bitcoin. The whole point of the cryptocurrency, after all, is that it's entirely digital—and barely leaves a trace.
Last week, Motherboard's Kaleigh Rogers deplored the attempts of stock photos to represent Bitcoin, which usually rely on a selection of visual clichés like the Bitcoin logo, anything that looks computer-y, and anachronistically physical money (because it's still called "coin," right)?
But some undaunted Bitcoin fans have taken a more artistic look at the payment system and the culture around it. Bitcoin fan art is a thing.
Despite the relative newness of the technology, some artists reference classical genres in their work. Take the French artist who goes by the name Youl and his work Last (Bitcoin) Supper, an homage, or perhaps simply an update, to Leonardo Da Vinci's 15th century mural.
In Youl's acrylic-on-canvas reimagining, Jesus is replaced by a green creature with a Bitcoin logo necklace. According to Cryptocoins News, this is a personification of the blockchain: the distributed ledger central to the cryptocurrency's functioning.
The painting came about in collaboration with Bitcoincito, an anonymous Bitcoin fan who is attempting to turn one bitcoin into a house via a series of incrementally increasing transactions. In a forum post on Bitcoin Talk, he explained that he and Youl were inspired by "the depth and profundity of how the stories of Bitcoin and Jesus intertwine."
Judas's place at the table of Jesus's final meal is taken by a traditional banker in top hat and bow tie who, Youl explains on the same forum, represents Mark Karpelès, the CEO of first-ever Bitcoin exchange Mt Gox who oversaw its dramatic demise earlier this year.
If art is all about interpretation, the painting doesn't leave much up for debate. In many ways, it's a perfect representation of the Bitcoin community—or at least, how the group views itself and its Blockchain deity.
There's money to be made as well as painted in Bitcoin art. Last (Bitcoin) Supper sold for 4.65 BTC in July (then the equivalent of nearly $3,000) in an eBay auction.
But that price tag pales in comparison to the sum that Israeli painter Xania Dorfman's Eye of God exchanged hands for in October: 35 BTC, or around $12,000. Dorfman told me she didn't receive that much—she'd been assigned to make the painting for a Bitcoin conference in Israel, where Coindesk reports it was then sold to mining expert Yoshi Goto.
The painting presents Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin's mysterious progenitor, as a face behind the V for Vendetta-style Anonymous mask. He seems to float above the Earth, raining coins; if Youl's Bitcoin is Jesus, Dorfman's Nakamoto is its creator—and The Creator.
If it all seems rather sycophantically hyperbolic, there's more where that comes from. One of my favourites is Christopher Steininger's The Slaying of BearWhale. An orgy of semi-naked revolutionary types writhe around on a giant gold bitcoin, one of them triumphantly waving a red Bitcoin flag like Enjolras climbing the barricades in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
Before these Bitcoin martyrs lies what can only be described as a chimeric mix of whale and bear. The scene commemorates a specific incident in recent Bitcoin history: Exchange site ShapeShift.io explains that October 6 of this year witnessed "one of the grandest and most brutal struggles ever to grace the tapestry of international crypto-finance."
A reddit thread puts it in simple terms: this "bearwhale" listed 300,000 bitcoins on an exchange at a certain price, and owing to the vast quantity it essentially jammed the market so other traders couldn't raise their prices.
ShapeShift commissioned Steininger's painting, as well as a work by illustrator Matt Habel, to commemorate the event.
Not all Bitcoin art is quite so literal. American artist Ray Istre has a whole gallery of more abstract works, many of which contrast Bitcoin with US dollars and quotes from past presidents. Istre lists several pieces on BitPremier, a Bitcoin marketplace for luxury goods. One original piece is listed for a hefty 33.7 BTC ($12,000).
Meanwhile, Danish contemporary artist Helen Kholin made this painting, which overlays ransom note-style newspaper text over a colourful canvas, pronouncing in Dutch, "We should be there, where Bitcoin is."
The Bitcoin art world is full of variety, in style if not in outlook. As with most art, it ultimately perhaps says more about the artists—and their market—than anything else. I failed to find a single work that seemed in any way critical of the cryptocurrency. This is Bitcoin by the fans and for the fans, in brilliant oil and acrylic colour.