In late January, Paris Hilton appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show. In a segment that was widely mocked for its boosterism, Hilton and host Jimmy Fallon each pulled out printouts of their “Bored Apes” — digital images from a collection of 10,000 unique drawings. Fallon had purchased his last fall for around $216,000, and Hilton had just bought hers for over $300,000. Together the pair had spent half a million dollars on nonfungible tokens, or NFTS: unique digital assets that exist only on the blockchain, a decentralized digital ledger with no trusted intermediary.
Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), a collection of simian avatars created by four pseudonymous founders, has quickly become an extremely lucrative venture in a fast-growing space. It recently surpassed competitors to become the most expensive NFT collection — the floor price to buy the cheapest ones is now over $280,000, and the collection currently has a market cap of about $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 (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 just from the initial sale (approximately $2 million) of its NFT apes, but also from a 2.5% royalty on future trades. It has real-world licensing deals with the likes of Adidas and was involved in a concert event with Chris Rock and the Strokes. Now held by dozens of celebrities, the Bored Apes have become a flashpoint for both excitement and skepticism about NFTs, which boosters say will revolutionize art and commerce by creating a level playing field free of race and gender, and detractors say are a speculative bubble at best and a scam at worst.
As the value of the asset they produced has skyrocketed, the identities of BAYC’s founders have become the subject of intense interest — not all of it positive. People have pointed out that apes in streetwear-inspired outfits and gold teeth is a racist trope (representatives for Yuga Labs vigorously denied this). Others have expressed concern that Seneca, the young Asian American artist who actually drew the main artwork, has been underacknowledged and undercompensated for her work. Nicole Muniz, the public-facing CEO of Yuga Labs, told BuzzFeed News, “Every single artist of the original five were compensated over a million dollars each." (Seneca did not respond a request for comment.) This reveals a unique problem with the idea of a billion-dollar company run by an unknown person: How do you hold them accountable if you don’t know who they are?
BuzzFeed News can now reveal the identities of BAYC’s two main founders: Greg Solano, a 32-year-old writer and editor, and Wylie Aronow, a 35-year-old originally from Florida.
Neither man immediately responded to a request for comment.
BuzzFeed News searched public business records to reveal the identities of the two core founders, who go by the pseudonyms “Gordon Goner” and “Gargamel.” According to publicly available records, 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 both men to BuzzFeed News.
Speaking as Gordon Goner and Gargamel, the founders have given interviews to outlets like Rolling Stone and the New Yorker discussing the origin story of the idea of a group of rich apes living in a swamp clubhouse. The broad strokes of their biographies fit Solano and Aronow: They’re both in their 30s, met while growing up in Florida, and both had literary aspirations (one completed an MFA degree in creative writing, the other dropped out for health reasons, according to their interview in CoinDesk). They both were interested in crypto and wanted to create some sort of NFT collection. They came up with the concept of rich apes living in a swamp clubhouse, hired a freelance illustrator to draw the apes, and partnered with two engineers as cofounders to execute the collection. The identities of the two engineer cofounders, “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” and “No Sass,” remain unknown.
Greg Solano, or “Gargamel,” appears as an editor and book critic on a few literary websites, and attended the University of Virginia. He coauthored a book about World of Warcraft along with one of the game's designers.
Wylie Aronow, 35, is also from Miami. Aronow lived in Chicago for a while, where he was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune in a “Readers of the Week” story where he and a friend were asked about what books they were reading (he said he had recently enjoyed a translation of the work of Russian author Nikolai Gogol).
In May 2021, a crypto company called Bitmex took Aronow to arbitration over a disputed domain name. Aronow had bought the domain name bitmex.guru in 2018, which Bitmex argued was clearly designed to trick people looking for the real Bitmex website. Aronow did not appear, and the arbitrator ordered that the domain name be transferred after his default in the proceeding.
Pseudonymity is an ingrained part of Web3, the umbrella term for a vision of a decentralized, user-owned internet with cryptocurrency payments and NFTs at its core. Proponents of Web3 see this 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 required to use their legal names — but held accountable by their blockchain reputation — to reduce harassment.
Playing with the concept of identity has also been a wellspring of creativity for NFT artists. One popular NFT artist who only goes by “shl0ms” sold an NFT of an image revealing his true identity details — but all that information was written in illegible white font. Other artists have used this to toy with the concepts of traditional copyright, from things like copying Damien Hirst’s famous polka dots to selling images of Olive Gardens. (Disclaimer: This reporter owns one of those Olive Garden NFTs.)
Artistic value aside, the people behind BAYC are courting investors and running a business that is potentially worth billions.
As NFTs continue to expand into popular culture and Web3 goes mainstream, the issue of pseudonymously run companies 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, executives must be named in Securities and Exchange Commission disclosures and reports. For even smaller private companies, there are banking regulations and “know your customer” laws that require real names for banks lending money or holding accounts for companies. These laws are in part to prevent terrorists, criminals, or sanctioned nations from doing business in the US.
Solano and Aronow don’t appear to have any particular red flags (apart from Aronow domain name squatting). But what if in a different 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 should not be difficult to know who you are dealing with,” Gary Kalman, director of the US office of the advocacy group Transparency International, told BuzzFeed News. “This is a pretty basic thing.” While a fancy VC firm might be able to find out more about who is really behind a company, the average NFT holder can’t. “Without transparency and openness, then everyday people that can’t do the due diligence that major corporations are doing, then that can create problems — and there’s no reason for it.”
“It will meaningfully open up opportunities for people who otherwise have the odds against them.”
Some believe that the blockchain heralds a new and improved form of corporate transparency. “Yes, there can be accountability,” said Mark Cuban, entrepreneur and owner of two Bored Apes. “The reason is that all transactions are based on smart contracts and written to the blockchain, which is the antithesis of traditional business. What other collectibles business publishes all their sales and business processes?”
It’s possible that pseudonymous companies could become our new reality. Soona Amhaz, a partner at crypto-focused venture capital firm Volt Capital, believes there might be some benefit in that. Unlike the traditional startup world, it frees founders from judgments of their physical appearance, where they went to school, and their social class, gender, or race. “It will meaningfully open up opportunities for people who otherwise have the odds against them because they didn’t come from the right school, right corporations, or because they live in a place where unstealthing yourself could mean becoming a target,” she told BuzzFeed News.
According to Amhaz, it’s possible for investors to learn how to do due diligence with pseudonymous founders; they just need to adjust and adapt. In the recent case of a founder of a decentralized finance protocol being revealed to be someone 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 truly believe it will be a meaningful part of the future of work.” ●
Emily Baker-White contributed reporting to this story.