Seventeen years ago, Steve Ibsen was getting ready to leave his house when he noticed his cat, Kayla, sprawled on the bed. Amused at her dance-like pose, Ibsen snapped a series of photographs of the cat.
The aspiring animator, who was 17 at the time, stitched the images together and wrote and performed a short song to create a simple video that he uploaded to his high school blog, G-shack.com. In the time since, “Kitty Cat Dance” has become a well-known part of the internet’s vast meme culture. And it’s been stolen, copied, uploaded and profited on by lots of people who were not Ibsen.
That all changes Wednesday as Ibsen, who lives in Seattle’s White Center neighborhood, is auctioning off the original digital file to try to immortalize his work, and capitalize in some way off the wave of interest around digital art and collectibles, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and blockchain technology.
“I don’t know a lot about blockchain technology,” Ibsen said Tuesday, laughing and rattling off what he called his “art school understanding” of the phenomenon.
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NFTs use blockchain technology — similar to bitcoin — that tracks ownership of unique digital assets such as art, sports highlights, songs, and more. People can own verified, limited edition digital assets and buy, sell, or trade them on marketplaces. NFTs tap into the same interests and habits of traditional collectors, but in a modern version. It’s based on the idea of digital scarcity — a new take on trading and collecting baseball or Pokémon cards, for example.
The “Kitty Cat Dance” auction is part of a recent movement started under the hashtag #memeconomy by Chris Torres, creator of another viral cat artwork, “Nyan Cat.” That animated flying cat with a Pop-Tart body leaving a rainbow trail sold for about $600,000 last month.
Several of the auctions, including Ibsen’s, are happening on the platform Foundation this week. The meme “Bad Luck Brian” sold on Tuesday for 20 ETH, or Ether, the cryptocurrency for the platform Ethereum. The U.S. dollar equivalent of the sale was $38,850.20.
After creating his cat video in 2004, Ibsen went on to study art at both the University of Washington and the Art Institute of Seattle. Skilled in animation, video production, graphic design, audio/video editing and more, he spent time at Google and at his own creative studio before landing at Seattle’s Big Fish Games for eight years. Ibsen, a father to two young children, was laid off from Big Fish last fall because of the ongoing pandemic.
To prep for a potential crypto windfall, Ibsen found his original “Kitty Cat Dance” files on old hard drives. Three years before the first iPhone was released, the images were shot on a 3.2MP Sony Cyber-shot digital camera.
“I had just bought that camera for a photography class in high school,” Ibsen said. “I was just taking pictures of [Kayla], laying on her back, exposing her wonderful belly. When I was flipping through the pictures on the camera, just back and forth, it literally looked like she was dancing and it just kind of snapped together.”
Ibsen recorded the song in one take on his four-track, with lyrics including “Cat. I’m a kitty cat. And I dance dance dance and I dance dance dance.”
The blog where he uploaded it doesn’t exist anymore. Ibsen has a version on YouTube (above) that has been viewed 18 million times, but that’s a small fraction of the meme’s reach.
“This has been uploaded and it’s deprecated millions of times over the internet in all sorts of different formats with all sorts of different watermarks and everything,” Ibsen said.
The retail chain Hot Topic once sold T-shirts featuring the cat without Ibsen’s permission. The song and a knock-off cat appear in a popular level of the video game “Roblox” and “Fortnite” created a parody, too.
Ibsen graduated from art school into a recession and worked less-than-minimum-wage jobs in Seattle while trying to figure out how to pay rent. He’s tried to cement his ownership of the meme over the years and make a buck where he can, selling his own T-shirts on Amazon and this dedicated store. And he’s attracted more than 40,000 followers on TikTok where he’s discussed the meme and now randomly does doodles of his followers’ pets.
But he’s frustrated by 17 years of his original creation basically being treated like public domain.
“Putting it in an NFT format is just a great way to kind of put a flag down for myself,” Ibsen said. “I don’t know if other artists feel the same way. It’s a huge honor. It feels like it’s being put in a digital museum, almost.”
Torres, the #memeconomy creator, told Know Your Meme News that the NFT space is a perfect place to bring back the power of memes to the artists who have struggled to get recognition for their contributions to internet culture.
“Growing up in the memeverse, I’ve seen so many good artists lose out because their memes just get so big that they get stolen by large corporations,” Torres told Know Your Meme. “These artists never see a dime for their work, and it’s always just resonated with me.”
Ibsen’s auction on Foundation goes live Wednesday at noon PT. He said he’ll list “Kitty Cat Dance” at 3 ETH, meaning someone will have to put up about $5,600 to get the bidding started.
Kayla, the star of “Kitty Cat Dance,” won’t be around to see what her moves sell for on the crypto art market. She died around 2011 at age 14 or 15, Ibsen said. He has two 18-year-old cats now, which he adopted when they were abandoned by the previous tenant of an apartment he rented in Seattle.
Neither of those cats is a meme star — yet.