This is an entry in CoinDesk’s Most Influential in Blockchain 2017 series.
“If I talk like this, am I loud enough to be heard?”
It’s an ironic statement from a man who became famous without saying anything at all.
Steps from San Francisco’s gleaming City Hall, the internet sensation better known as “Bitcoin Sign Guy” struggles with a microphone as he tries to recall the day when he boldly thrust out a yellow legal pad behind a sitting Federal Reserve chair and became perhaps the crypto world’s most famous meme.
But whereas he made the decision to take out a pen on that now-infamous July day (going from idea to action in little more than 30 seconds, he says), he’s less natural when talking about the particulars.
What was he doing there? Who did he work for? Those are the things the Connecticut native is “trying to speak around” as his first-ever interview begins. And his caution initially shows, on camera at least, in clipped sentences and careful wording.
“I really was not prepared for this,” he says, squinting into a California sun.
Indeed, despite assurances, Bitcoin Sign Guy is still noticeably uneasy about his identity. A recent college graduate (from a university he doesn’t name) and staffer at a crypto hedge fund (that we’re told we can’t disclose), there are specifics about his life he wishes to keep behind the curtain. And he’s not without his reasons.
Given his claim to fame is interrupting a meeting between some of the world’s most powerful people, it’s safe to say it wasn’t exactly well received by all. In addition to feeling compelled to apologize to his then-employer (an undisclosed think tank), he admits he was even escorted out by staffers, an incident caught on C-SPAN, too.
“They actually did apologize, but I’m not sure it was sincere,” he recalls.
But if Bitcoin Sign Guy is unwilling to step fully into the spotlight, one topic lights a spark in the conversation. A self-described anarcho-capitalist, he’s every bit the bitcoin believer the internet could hope for, denouncing monetary policy as an oppressive “instrument of statecraft” and declaring the first and most well-known cryptocurrency destined to resign fiat money to the history books.
Asked directly if there was a larger message to his scribbled sign and its simple statement – “Buy Bitcoin” – Bitcoin Sign Guy is more assured in his answer.
He tells CoinDesk:
“I view cryptocurrencies as a new monetary paradigm that’s here to directly challenge the easy money created by the Federal Reserve. I believe this will have full political and social repercussions.”
Man of the people
But more impressive than his words, written or otherwise, is his resolve to put them to action.
Not yet 25 years old, Bitcoin Sign Guy is not only buying bitcoin, he believes he’s part of a growing number of global citizens in the midst of something that’s never been possible before the advent of cryptocurrencies – rejecting the economic system they were born into.
The Venezuelan bolivar, the Zimbabwe dollar, he believes, are already “falling away into bitcoin,” something he’s convinced will happen to the world’s weaker currencies over time. But if he seems to get carried away at times (we argue whether his perceptions of those countries are accurate), it’s because he’s already living in that future.
While he acknowledges he still uses the U.S. dollar (calling it a better “unit of account”), he estimates he now holds “99 percent” of his net worth in cryptocurrencies.
“I plan to hold my bitcoin long enough so that when I dispense with it, I won’t be converting it back into U.S. dollars,” he contends.
In this way, Bitcoin Sign Guy sees his actions in Washington, D.C. as less of a prank and more of a call to arms he hopes others will follow. A student of politics and philosophy, he places no small emphasis on choice and the ability of people to make it freely.
He tells CoinDesk:
“The sign was definitely an endorsement. Buy it, make the economic and political decision to take your money out of the monetary system.”
But if money and politics are intertwined for Bitcoin Sign Guy, we’re soon given a stark reminder of how for some, it’s a more practical concern.
Back at the car, Bitcoin Sign Guy and I are left staring dumbstruck through a hole where the right rear window of his BMW used to be – that is before someone spotted my computer bag, busted the glass and scattered sharp bits across the sidewalk.
Amongst the shards lie two books, “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” by Joseph A. Schumpeter and “Anatomy of the State” by Murray N. Rothbard. Both, it seems, attracted little interest from the thief.
“Shows you how popular my political philosophy is,” Bitcoin Sign Guy jokes.
Stuck in solace for my lost belongings, the quip hardly registers, and I barely notice when, growing alarmed, Bitcoin Sign Guy begins frantically fumbling for his own possessions.
The more than 7 BTC he received from proving his act to the Internet? It turns out the private keys to them are in an air-gapped computer in the trunk. In a twist of irony, the thief may have stolen a $1,700 laptop, but they’ve left behind a far bigger score.
But if Bitcoin Sign Guy is nervous about the brush with his financial loss, it’s only temporary.
Before long he’s on the phone with the San Francisco Police Department, pointing out nearby surveillance cameras that might be able to be tapped for evidence.
“I believe you were saying something about the state?” I ask, coming to.
“Well, I was going to suggest we hire a private eye,” he retorts.
Ever the optimist
En route to a nearby police precinct, I listen to the wind rattle through the back glass while Bitcoin Sign Guy puts on a playlist to cheer me up. He’s hardly dissuaded, even as his tank hovers just barely above ‘E’.
Already, it seems, he’s found a silver lining. Though I’m less predisposed to it at the moment, before long he’s talking up bitcoin’s virtues to our cameraman, using it as an example of the cryptocurrency as a form of secure, sound money.
“If the bitcoins in my backpack were stolen, I’d spring to Best Buy, buy a new computer and install the old bitcoin software and recover my wallet,” he explains. “All wouldn’t be lost.”
Maybe it’s the droning synths, the jetlag or the thought I’ll soon have to carry out that same purchase, but as we go on, it seems like Bitcoin Sign Guy and I are in a state of constantly undermining each other’s expectations. He likes Fleet Foxes, I prefer Father John Misty. He’s seen the new “Blade Runner” four times, I hated it.
“Would you die for bitcoin?” he asks me at one point. I’m unsure exactly how to respond.
But if I’m an underwhelming anarcho-journalist, Bitcoin Sign Guy can be an excessive evangelist. Back at the hotel, we’re rearranging chairs for a second video shoot when the inquisitive visitor points out the bitcoin message scrawled on the nearby whiteboard.
Within a few sentences, Bitcoin Sign Guy is calling currency a “collective illusion,” before explaining the gold standard and the dangers of fractional reserve banking.
“Basically, it’s just the faith in the Federal Reserve not to debase the currency by printing it a lot,” Bitcoin Sign Guy tells him. “Have you ever heard of quantitative easing? They just printed a ton of money, devaluing the money that you own …”
On the B-list
But even if Bitcoin Sign Guy isn’t able to convince the hotel employee to break the chains of his current economy, the day isn’t done with its surprises.
We’re finally underway with filming when entrepreneur and author William Mougayar stumbles through the door. There to host the second annual Token Summit, an event focusing on crypto tokens and ICOs, Mougayar initially seems taken aback by the scene.
Nominated in two categories of our “Most Influential,” I have to break the news he wasn’t a winner. And as I talk up the series, I can sense Mougayar, who meets Bitcoin Sign Guy under his real name, seems confused (and maybe a bit offended) by the selection.
We carry on small talk about the conference, its speakers and sponsors, as Bitcoin Sign Guy takes out a piece of yellow paper and begins recreating his big moment for the cameras. And it’s not until then that Mougayar’s attitude seems to change.
“Is that?” he says, putting his hand to his mouth, craning his neck and motioning to his friend. “Ooh. That’s him.”
Smiling and laughing, it seems, Mougayar finally understands, his changing expression an acknowledgement of what made the Bitcoin Sign Guy prank such a rare, uniting moment in a year otherwise defined by hostility, in-fighting and successes that still largely confound industry insiders.
“Nobody cared who I was until I put on the mask, til I held up the sign,” Bitcoin Sign Guy jokes later on. A play on a line from “The Dark Knight Rises,” it seems curiously apt.
Behind the mask
But as we continue, it seems there’s tension between the man and his mask, between a young idealist who wants to make a mark and the symbol that will forever bear his likeness.
Since the hearing, Bitcoin Sign Guy has donned that July day’s outfit (complete with seersucker blazer and pink tie) a few times, helping raise money for what he considers worthy causes (advocacy group Coin Center and ICO project Tezos).
But still, he remains anonymous, in name. And because of that, there are downsides, like Mougayar’s rebuff for one. It cuts to the core of one of the struggles of the day: whether or when Bitcoin Sign Guy will ever reveal himself.
He even seems to go back and forth on the interview we’re conducting, and how it will boost the profile of his already plentiful online persona.
“I just am cautious,” he says. “I should have prepared more for this interview, but I guess my main concern is that I would share these views, and they would be ridiculous.”
It’s a rare moment of self-doubt for someone who throughout the day has remained consistent in espousing and affirming his ideals. But then again, reflection seems on tap as the wind whines again through the window glass.
“I just don’t want to be cornered for the rest of my life as the guy,” he says.
That’s the trade-off, it seems, for the artist and his creation.
But as we trade goodbyes, there’s one thing I’m convinced of – if Bitcoin Sign Guy is conflicted about his past, he’s also the living symbol of its bright future, the embodiment of an audacious next generation of crypto enthusiasts just now emerging and a reminder of the struggles and sacrifices yet in store.
Want more? Hear Bitcoin Sign Guy’s story in his own words:
Video by Ali Powell at 40 Thieves Films