Back in April 2011, Chris Torres of Dallas was just starting a new job as an insurance claims adjuster.
But on his first day at work, he couldn’t focus — his phone was blowing up as friends tried to contact him, urging him to check YouTube. His life was about to change in a major way, and it wasn’t because of the new job.
At the time, Torres was also a digital artist with a small following on his website LOL Comics. A few weeks earlier, after a disastrous magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit Japan, unleashing a massive tsunami, he set up an impromptu charity livestream, doodling viewers’ requests while taking in donations earmarked for the American Red Cross. One fan requested a cat, while another requested a Pop-Tart. Torres decided to combine the two ideas into one doodle: a grey cat that looked like his own pet, Marty, but with a pink Pop-Tart body.
At the time, Torres was learning how to make basic pixel animations. Something about that Pop-Tart cat called to him. He had already posted some other rainbow cat GIFs on Tumblr, but the Pop-Tart changed everything. He spent six hours animating the drawing, working until the sun rose on April 2, 2011. The Pop-Tart cat smiled as it pranced through space, leaving behind a rainbow trail in its midst, as though it were a shooting star. (Some fans say the cat appears to be farting rainbows).
That morning, he posted what he then called “pop tart cat” on LOL-Comics, as well as his LiveJournal, Tumblr, and Twitter. Almost instantly, the GIF got shared around the internet, but it wasn’t until April 5 that a YouTuber named saraj00n mashed up Torres’ GIF with a song called “Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya!” by a virtual vocaloid (computerized) singer. Thus, Nyan Cat was born.
By the time Torres was starting his new insurance job, the video had been picked up by CollegeHumor and E4’s Attack of the Show. From there, his GIF became one of the most ubiquitous images on the internet.
Today, Torres says he could never have anticipated this turn of events. “It was never meant to be anything that it became,” says the now 35-year-old artist. “I posted it on the internet, the internet loved it, and it just organically took off from there. I think that's what it's all about — when the internet just kind of understands an image and chooses it as something that they want to share with others."
Cats have been long-running stars on the internet — think of Grumpy Cat, Coughing Cat, Keyboard Cat, or the Kitty Cat Dance. In 2012, Cheezburger editor Emily Huh theorized why the internet was so drawn to felines: “Cat owners don't have a ‘cat park’ or a place where they can congregate in person to talk about their cats like how dog owners have a dog park to talk about their dogs.” So, the internet became a virtual “cat park,” and the eye-popping, slightly ridiculous Nyan Cat fit right in.
By the summer of 2011, Nyan Cat was everywhere: There were cosplays and an official video game; YouTube even added a custom Nyan Cat progress bar to the video. But for Torres, being Nyan Cat Guy wasn’t always Pop-Tarts and rainbows. He was traveling the world, attending different meme conferences and cat video conventions, but it was difficult to balance the demands of being a meme creator with those of his day job.
“There came a point a year later where I just had to choose: Do I stick with this job, or do I give it a chance and see where Nyan Cat takes me?” he says. “I was like, should I just put all my time and energy into this? I did, and it was the best choice I ever made.”
At these meme conferences, like ROFLCon 2012, Torres made new friends who were on a similar rollercoaster of internet virality, including Keyboard Cat, Grumpy Cat, Tron Guy, and Scumbag Steve. But there’s a distinct difference between going viral for cat content, and going viral for a photo of yourself, like Scumbag Steve, whose actual name is Blake Boston.
(In 2011, a photo from Boston’s amateur high school rap album, of him wearing a backward snapback and oversized fur coat, was unearthed and reached the front page of Reddit. Boston became the butt of the internet’s jokes, his face associated with “scumbag” behavior, like going to a high school party when you’re 25.)
“We would go out and about, and people would be like, ‘Scumbag Steve! I need to take your photo right now!’ And I was just like, ‘I’ll be the cameraman!’” Torres recalls. “I didn’t really tell anybody who I was. Scumbag Steve would get all the attention — someone recognized him everywhere we went.”
Though Torres enjoyed the ability to remain anonymous in public, he shared a common hurdle with all the meme creators: maintaining ownership of their work. Within two weeks of posting Nyan Cat, Torres was already fighting to prove his copyright. “I started noticing that several people had filed forms to copyright my image, like official U.S. government copyright,” he says. “It took like two years to prove ownership of my work, and it wasn’t an easy time.”
This problem became public in November 2012, when Warner Bros. and 5th Cell released the video game Scribblenauts Unlimited. The game included Nyan Cat and Keyboard Cat as characters without asking permission from Torres and Charlie Schmidt, the person behind Keyboard Cat. So the two cat creators sued for violation of copy and trademark rights. They received a settlement for an undisclosed sum in 2013. (Torres says he’s not at liberty to discuss the settlement.)
Internet librarian and meme expert Amanda Brennan, the senior director of trends at social media marketing agency XX Artists, says that this moment marked a shift in how meme makers took ownership over their work. “I am firmly in the camp that meme culture is an art form, and this brought it more to mainstream culture, saying, ‘No, memes are serious, this art is something that we own copyright for, and you can’t just iterate on it like that,’” she says.
Nyan Cat never really left the cultural zeitgeist – even on Google Docs, you can be an anonymous Nyan Cat (this is one of Torres’ favorite adaptations of the artwork). Over the years, Torres continued to iterate on Nyan Cat; between 2012 and 2016, he made Nyan Cat GIFs with New Years glasses. In November 2019, the game Nyan Cat: Lost in Space, originally created in 2011 as an app, was rereleased for the Nintendo Switch.
And now, Nyan Cat is, of course, an NFT. “It was such a breath of fresh air coming into the NFT space, because it’s just proof of ownership almost immediately,” Torres says. Earlier this year, he decided to post a “remastered” Nyan Cat as an NFT on Foundation, a highly exclusive platform for NFT artists. On February 19, the GIF sold for 300 ETH, worth about $574,536 at the time of the high-profile sale. “I still can’t believe that happened,” he says weeks later.
The buyer has chosen to remain anonymous, but Torres has developed a rapport with him. “He’s offered a lot of insight into the NFT space, and I’ve learned a lot from him,” Torres says. “I think this is the best case scenario for me because when that auction was taken down, I just had no idea where it was going to go.
“The buyer is really happy to have it,” he adds, “and I’m really happy for them to trust and invest in my artwork in such a way that would change my life.” Torres still lives in Dallas, where he’s a self-employed digital artist. His cat Marty, who inspired the look of Nyan Cat, died in 2012, though his legacy clearly lives on. For now, Torres is spending some of his Ethereum fortune on other artists’ NFTs.
After Torres’ landmark sale, other meme makers who never got proper attribution for their work started reaching out. “Within days, I was getting emails from dozens of creators,” Torres says. “They all had the same story where they made something big, and it got away from them, and they wanted some way to get it back and have proper attribution for their work.”
“Old memes are becoming hip and fresh again.”
In March, Torres collaborated with Foundation to host a week of auctions dubbed #Memeconomy. He worked with meme creators, many of whom he first met at places like ROFLCon, and helped them understand the process of selling their work as NFTs. The #Memeconomy sales auctioned off NFTs of Bad Luck Brian, Coughing Cat, Scumbag Steve, Keyboard Cat, Grumpy Cat, and Kitty Cat Dance.
Each meme maker got a nice payday. Scumbag Steve sold his image for 30 ETH (about $57,000). Now a father, Boston tweeted, “Whoever this [buyer] is, thank you. You have no idea what this meant to me and my two boys,” adding, “Meme life just got sweet as fuck.”
Torres sees such sales as part of a larger trend. “Old memes are becoming hip and fresh again, kind of like the whole cycle with ’80s or ’90s fashion coming back,” he says. “It’s cool to see lots of new people coming out of the woodwork, trying to tie themselves to old things of the past to get proper attribution. And I do think that memes are just going to get more valuable as time goes on, because they're just so easy to understand and so easy to share around the world.”
It’s hard to tell where digital art will be 10 years from now. But Torres has a pretty good idea of what he’ll be up to in 2031. “I can easily see myself being that much older,” he says, “but still drawing cats any chance I get.”