Sonny Q, who would prefer I not use his last name, was telling me about the exorcism he had received as a younger man in Boston, in which he lay in a bathtub while a priest covered him with eggs. “I had a weird spirit on me,” he said. “I was struggling, doing bad things and having constant failures. Bad things happening in my life over and over and over again.” Stoutly built and bearded, he shook his head somberly as he recalled the demon possession that had nearly ruined him.
It was early spring, we were on the crowded deck of a private club in Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard, and he was sharing this story by way of illustrating why he particularly valued a passage from the Gospel of Mark—the one in which Jesus casts the demons out of a man into a herd of pigs, which proceeds to rush off a cliff and drown. Sonny lit a joint; the DJ started spinning B.T. Express’s “Do It (’Til You’re Satisfied).” “I like to think that happened to me,” Sonny said. Now, his demons are long gone, and with them his propensity for failure. He is born again, in a manner of speaking. “I have a personal brand,” he said. “I want to, like, fuck bitches and live a player life.”
A timeless story of redemption, sure, but the mechanism by which he planned to make it was new: Like everyone else at the party (except, I suppose, myself), Sonny was the proud owner of a ludicrously expensive cartoon portrait of a monkey. It wasn’t the first time I’d been the brokest person in a room, but it had to be the most ridiculous—any given three attendees, one owner pointed out to me, were collectively worth at least a million dollars, most of them much more than that. This was an invite-only gathering of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, namely those savvy enough to have gotten in early and held onto an avatar from arguably the most well-known NFT collection to date, which bills itself as part social club, part streetwear brand, and part collaborative art project. Besides receiving a headshot of one’s ape, this was the thing owners really got: access to members–only meetups, merch drops, and Discord rooms. The value of that membership—the initial price of an ape was around $200, but the price floor was by now over $300,000—is a function of the collection’s exclusivity (there are just 10,000). The Yacht Club, though, was in the process of transforming into something else, and I had come to better understand why and how. What were they plotting, and why was the collection so interesting to so many people? To me, the apes looked unremarkable, like pure assembly-line kitsch—but the owners were desperate to show them off. “Put my ape in GQ,” Sonny demanded, before a bartender came over to confiscate his joint. He looked down at the primate on his phone and smiled like a doting father.
Nearby, Jeremiah Allen Welch stood out for his rainbow-colored hair, thick gold chain, and sequined black cardigan, which shimmered when he moved his arms. He had been raised in California’s Central Valley by a family of evangelical Christian ministers who were also professional clowns. He’d long since relocated to San Francisco, where he made a living as an artist—he’d toured as a DJ and his art had been laser-engraved on at least one satellite currently orbiting the Earth. One of the most respected of the O.G.s in attendance, Welch had jumped on the bandwagon the first week the apes became available in spring 2021. “Everyone knows my ape,” he told me. “People say I sound like my ape,” he added, confusingly.
He was eager to insist that he didn’t care about his apes for their price point alone—it was about the culture, the ecosystem that had organically sprouted up around them. “The new people are the rich people,” he said, meaning Paris Hilton, Justin Bieber, Eminem, and the many other celebrities who had perplexed their fans in recent months by announcing their purchase of a Bored Ape. “They’re not active in the community. They bought it as an asset. They had somebody help them buy it, or maybe a company bought it for them.” Still, Welch was content to see celebrities buy in if only because it meant someone poorer had likely flipped them an ape for a life-changing sum. “In January a bunch of people around me sold,” he said. “Now they have a lot more money than me, so it’s like, Why am I holding my apes still? Everyone says I should sell, but I’ve gotten so used to seeing the price go up.”