2021 in Review Wall Street Finally Learns It Can't Ignore Crypto and NFTs

We look back at our defining events of the year and the photos that captured them.

If you had asked people at the beginning of the year what cartoons of apes and the U.S. Constitution had in common, the result would have probably been a lot of blank stares. The answer is now clear: crypto.

Digital currencies have been around for a while, but 2021 was the year the wider crypto world made its mark. Its “memeification” and pop culture normalization happened at a pace that detractors found baffling and that true believers argued was still too slow. As it gained another raft of high-profile supporters, it also captured the attention of Wall Street as a force that could no longer be ignored—and of regulators.

Those in the know sometimes divide crypto into several different categories. There are the coins (of which Bitcoin remains the most known; it was even adopted amid controversy as legal tender in El Salvador) and the tokens (including the non-fungible ones—or NFTs—that have attracted the attention of celebrities and artists ranging from Martha Stewart to Paris Hilton).

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Then there's the technology called the blockchain, which acts as a tamper-proof ledger for storing and retrieving digital files. That leaves the miners: techies overseeing giant “farms” of computer hardware that solve mathematical problems to generate coins.

Star quarterback Tom Brady signaled his debut as a Bitcoin believer by changing his Twitter avatar to a picture that included glowing, red eyes, a visual trait shared by another high-profile crypto fan, Senator Cynthia Loomis, a Wyoming Republican. In June, Brady and his wife, Gisele Bündchen, acquired a stake in FTX, a high-profile crypto firm founded by Sam Bankman-Fried.

Brady also co-founded a company called Autograph, which is a platform for digital sports collectibles. These include NFTs, which are representations of assets that live on the blockchain. Offerings include animated videos of gymnast Simone Biles vaulting through the air and digital representations of Tiger Woods’s autograph. Some of the higher-priced ones also grant VIP access to real events.

Above: Hong Kong, Oct. 3. At the Digital Art Fair Asia, visitors experienced an immersive installation entitled “Machine Hallucinations—Space: Metaverse.” Lam Yik/Bloomberg
Pablo Heman, a virtual currency promoter who goes by a pseudonym, in Sydney, Australia, on Monday, May 17, 2021. In Heman's selfie-style, animated videos on TikTok, where he has amassed over 370,000 followers, the former investment bank trader explains how to turn $1,000 into $1 million in a year trading cryptocurrencies.
Sydney, May 17. A former investment bank trader who goes by the TikTok nom de guerre Pablo Heman has amassed more than 370,000 followers. He promotes videos like how to turn $1,000 into $1 million by trading cryptocurrencies. Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Perhaps the best-known NFTs take the form of pictures of apes. These simians, some of which are depicted smoking cigarettes or wearing Hawaiian shirts or leather jackets, have made multimillionaires of their creators, known collectively as the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Owning an NFT of one of these apes, which these days sell for a minimum of $200,000, signals that you belong to an exclusive internet society that counts Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Fallon among its members.

Apes aren’t the only animal popular with the crypto set: In 2021, dogs were everywhere, too. The SHIB token launched last August as a joke, a riff on so-called Dogecoin—which itself started as a parody based on a popular meme featuring a Shiba Inu.

A single SHIB trades for about $0.000037, meaning you could buy a million of them for less than $50. These “dog coins” have attracted significant attention from retail investors, despite (or perhaps because of) their inherent volatility and tendency to swing wildly in price on the basis of cryptic tweets from Elon Musk.

The crossover between digital assets and the real world isn’t limited to animals or athletes. Not even the U.S. Constitution is safe from digital disruption. Over the course of a week in November, a group of investors raised the equivalent of nearly $50 million to bid on a print of the Constitution that was up for auction at Sotheby’s.

The crypto team lost the auction to billionaire hedge fund manager and Bitcoin skeptic Ken Griffin. Perhaps the lesson of 2021, then, is that while crypto talks, fiat still walks.

A customer uses a bitcoin automated teller machine (ATM) in a kiosk Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Bitcoin climbed, aided by supportive comments from Ark Investment Management’s Cathie Wood and news that Square Inc. boosted its stake in the cryptocurrency.
Barcelona, Feb. 23. Bitcoin, the world’s largest digital currency, soared to its latest record in November before a recent drop. Angel Garcia/Bloomberg
Vignesh Sundaresan, also known as MetaKovan, founder of Metapurse, speaks during the Annual Non-Fungible Token (NFT) Event in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. NFT.NYC brings together over 500 speakers from the crypto, blockchain, and NFT communities for a three-day event of discussions and workshops.
New York, Nov. 2. Vignesh Sundaresan, also known as MetaKovan, spent $69.3 million on a Beeple non-fungible token, or NFT, earlier this year. The sale helped bring attention to the burgeoning market. Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest against President Nayib Bukele and bitcoin on Bicentennial Independence Day in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. This month, El Salvador became the first to adopt bitcoin as legal tender alongside the US dollar, which has been the official currency for two decades.
San Salvador, El Salvador, Sept. 15. The Latin American country became the first nation to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender. Anti-government protesters feared it would bring instability and risk. Camilo Freedman/Bloomberg
Engineers on a cherry picker inspect mining rigs at the CryptoUniverse cryptocurrency mining farm in Nadvoitsy, Russia, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. The rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has prompted the greatest push yet among central banks to develop their own digital currencies.
Nadvoitsy, Russia, March 18. The Bitcoin network consumes a lot of electricity. By the end of this year, it looks set to have used as much as Pakistan. Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
Eric Hackney works at his a cryptocurrency office set up in a spare bedroom of his house in Safety Harbor, Florida, U.S., on Monday, May 17, 2021. Meet the thrill-seeking traders who are prowling for profits in the wildest corners of the market, all in search of the next big coin.
Safety Harbor, Florida, May 17. This year saw the rise of the thrill-seeking amateur trader, goaded by social media and prowling for profits. Zack Wittman/Bloomberg
Gary Gensler, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), at the SEC headquarters office in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 22, 2021. In his first extensive interview about the digital money craze, Gensler signaled that his deep interest in the subject doesn't mean he's simpatico with the hands-off oversight approach that many enthusiasts would like to see.
Washington, D.C., July 22. Gary Gensler was sworn in as the chairman of the SEC on April 17. He signaled that his deep interest in crypto doesn’t mean the hands-off oversight that many enthusiasts would like to see. Melissa Lyttle/Bloomberg
Attendees arrive for the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami, Florida, U.S., on Friday, June 4, 2021. The biggest Bitcoin event in the world brings a sold-out crowd of 12,000 attendees and thousands more to Miami for a two-day conference.
Miami, June 4. Billed as the biggest Bitcoin event in the world, the two-day conference brought a sell-out crowd of over 12,000 attendees. Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg
A health worker takes a blood sample from a person an ITI Ltd. and Thalamus Irwine demonstration of smart Covid-19 testing at Vidya Ankur in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, March 25, 2021. The proof of concept event to store medical data on a blockchain network in real-time was undertaken by the Indian government's ITI in collaboration with Thalamus's Garuda healthcare platform.
New Delhi, March 25. A health worker takes a blood sample to demonstrate smart Covid-19 testing. The storage of medical data on a blockchain network in real-time was undertaken by the Indian government. Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg
A bitcoin logo sign protrudes from a cryptocurrency exchange kiosk in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Bitcoin and Ether hit all-time highs in a cryptocurrency rally that some analysts attributed partly to the search for a hedge against inflation.
Istanbul, Nov. 8. Bitcoin has succumbed to the risk aversion sweeping across financial markets in the wake of the omicron Covid-19 variant. Moe Zoyari/Bloomberg

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