An abstract digital image made of pale gray blocks against a black background
ASCII art by Casey Rodarmor


Breaking Protocol

by Brian Droitcour

The Ordinals protocol allows art to be inscribed on the Bitcoin blockchain—but it’s also an artwork in itself.

A photograph of a small assemblage of shells, rocks, wood, and coins, sitting on a desk among markers, books, and tools
Scultpure from Casey Rodarmor’s “Woodland Katamari” series, 2011

The Ordinals protocol is a work of art. It can be used to inscribe works of art onto the Bitcoin blockchain, putting the data of media files directly into the code of a block. This functionality partly masks its nature—it’s not only a vehicle for the storage, distribution, and exchange of art, but also an artistic intervention that opens up new ways of seeing a data structure designed for transacting cryptocurrency.

The protocol was developed by an artist for use by other artists.

A digital abstraction of think pink, green, and yellows, crumpling and crinkling against each other
FAR: Early Echo, 2023

Calling a protocol an artwork is, of course, a provocation, especially when there’s truth behind the words. It runs the risk of delegitimizing the protocol, making its effects appear less serious or concrete. Art’s value is not a hard fact—it’s established by social consensus. But this reliance on agreement is arguably true in the case of Ordinals. The protocol takes advantage of a 2021 upgrade to the Bitcoin blockchain that allows for data storage. It operates by marking as special segments of Bitcoin that have been inscribed, though not all nodes and operators recognize these differences. If you’re not using the right software, you might accidentally lose the artwork in your Ordinals collection when spending Bitcoin on an unrelated transaction. This is a security weakness, and a potential headache for conservators who may be charged with preserving Ordinals art in the future, but I think it’s also a conceptual strength, the thing that makes Ordinals interesting. The protocol was developed by an artist for use by other artists. It is maintained through the collective creation of art and value. It augments Bitcoin by creating a new use for it. And it’s a mimicry of Bitcoin, a parasitic twin that sharpens people’s understanding of what the blockchain is and is for.

A digital abstraction of a yellow grid, interlocking with blue and red stepwise lines, interrupted by irregular lines and warping patterns
Sample output from FAR’s Flares, 2024

The website of Casey Rodarmor, the developer who launched the Ordinals protocol in January 2023, is full of other art projects, a record of his efforts to do cool stuff with code. He staged a performance in his garage, with lights bouncing off the door. He made a website that simulates the forces of gravity with lines and fields that visitors can toggle on and off to test the effects. He kept a funny, hand-coded photodiary of his experience studying abroad in Sweden. The projects in the top row are more ambitious, with links to Github and other codebases, but they aren’t differentiated in the style of presentation from what came before. The Ordinals protocol is listed among these, without any particular fanfare.

A digital illustration of a cartoon cat against a starry black sky. The cat is composed of many iridiscent bubbles, some of which contain cartoon cats of their own
FAR for Taproot Wizards: Genesis Cat, 2024

All this suggests that I’m not the only one who sees Ordinals as an artwork. Rodarmor does, too—or at least he sees it in the lineage of his various artistic projects. The detractors of Ordinals have also use art metaphors to describe what it does. “Would you like the pyramids of Egypt more if they were covered in graffiti?” asks e-commerce entrepreneur Daniele Servadei in an op-ed for Cointelegraph. “That’s the kind of blight the Ordinals Protocol brought to Bitcoin.” Servadei protests exterior additions to a structure that would otherwise remain pure and unadorned. He doesn’t acknowledge that, according to ancient account, the pyramids were covered with hieroglyphs before the facades were stripped by invaders. Nor does he note that the graffiti in the Colosseum (another monument he mentions) is a valuable trove of insights into Roman life. In his critique, Servadei inadvertently reminds us that Ordinals enrich Bitcoin with cultural information. In an essay for Outland, Kevin Buist makes a similar connection, albeit with more positive connotations, placing Ordinals within the context of other “Bitcoin graffiti”—the jokes, poems, and ASCII art that have been recorded in blocks since the earliest years of the chain. Buist describes these as a “creative misuse of technology.”

Ordinals enrich Bitcoin with cultural information.

A digital image of a wizard casting a spell, drawn with hasty strokes and collaged into a background of a virtual city
Taproot Wizard #8, 2023

So far, most of the art inscribed as Ordinals consists of PFPs and collectibles—remakes of popular Ethereum collections like CryptoPunks and Bored Apes. This first rush to put stuff on Bitcoin did not create the most encouraging environment for artists. Francisco Alarcon, aka FAR, is one artist who has been experimenting with Ordinals as a creative environment. He made the art for the 2023 PFP collection Taproot Wizards, which plays with Bitcoin lore and maxes out the block size. He has also released projects like Flares (2024), which uses recursive code to connect Bitcoin blocks in order to store more complex media that evolves over time. In January, he curated the first auction of Ordinals at Sotheby’s, with works by artists including Claudia Hart, Ana Maria Caballero, and Jennifer & Kevin McCoy. Now he’s continuing his leadership in the space by serving as guest editor for the new issue of Outland, advising us as we look at Ordinals within the context of the history of art on Bitcoin—a history that, as we’ll see, has always entailed creative interventions and clever misuses of technology.

Brian Droitcour is Outland’s editor-in-chief.


Essays produced in a writing workshop hosted by Outland and Art Blocks offer new perspectives on art, code, and web3. The Generative Art Issue

A softly blurred and glowing digital image evoking braided threads, folding over each other in swirling patterns
Read more