Prague is a major hub when it comes to alternative cryptocurrencies. At the epicentre is a building known as Paralelní Polis, part of a project set up by the guerrilla art group Ztohoven and home to quite possibly the first café in the world where you could buy a coffee using cryptocurrency. Recently that café, Bitcoin Coffee, hosted a Do-It-Yourself market to help start-up companies and entrepreneurs of all stripes sell their products using a range of virtual currencies.
I’ve come to the rather industrial Prague neighbourhood of Holešovice to visit the first Do-It-Yourself market at Bitcoin Coffee, a street-level café that is part of Paralelní Polis and the “Institute of Cryptology”, founded by a well-known group of Czech artists and hackers, called Ztohoven.
On their website, Paralelní Polis says in order “to understand the complex issues” which it represents, “it is important to refresh [yourself] with a sip of strong coffee.” So, that’s exactly what I intend to do – with a cup of java from Bitcoin Coffee before checking out that DIY market.
But before I can do that, I actually need to get my hands on some cryptocurrency – figuratively speaking, as it’s a virtual currency. Thankfully, I have a volunteer to guide me in my purchase, Alina, who happens to be a helicopter engineer. So, I think I’m in good hands.
Alina: “So, do you actually want to buy one, or…”
So, Alina is going to walk me through my first ever cryptocurrency purchase. And then at the end of it, hopefully, I’ll get a nice cup of coffee.
“I will actually prepare it myself for you!” (laughs)
“So, first you just need to touch the screen. You can choose the language that you want – of course, English – and here you have the four cryptocurrencies that you can buy. But, because now we have the paper wallet for Litecoins, we will just buy Litecoins. You just need to tap on it.”
“Here you have the Terms and Conditions.”
Right – which nobody ever reads.
“Exactly. Especially that it’s in Czech…. And you want to buy less than 3,000 [Czech crowns worth]. Usually.”
“(laughs) Now, you have to put this – the public key, you put that here, and the machine will read it automatically. And now you need the cash, which you will insert here.”
That’s a problem. This is a cashless society – I have a card.
“Then…If you will wait a bit, I will help you with it, yeah?”
So, my first attempt to get my hands on some cryptocurrency – not to mention some coffee – has hit a minor snag. It turns out that it takes real hard currency to purchase some of the virtual stuff – at least through a Bitcoin ATM. To use a payment card means giving up your anonymity, which somewhat defeats the purpose. To use Bitcoin and Litecoin on a regular basis, you need to have a virtual wallet, which you can get in the form of a smartphone app, such as Blockchain or Coinomi.
In the meantime, I sat down with Jakub Souček, the manager of Bitcoin Coffee, here at Paralení Polis, an ethical hackers’ collective founded by a group of guerrilla artists and activists called Ztohoven. I began by asking Jakub the concept behind Paralelní Polis and the DIY market.
“Actually, Paralení Polis itself is kind of a ‘do-it-yourself’ project because the artistic group Ztohoven simply started with creating it by themselves without any company or anyone else behind it, and we were doing a flea market for a while. So, we were thinking, ‘Okay, what to do next?’ And from our point of view, a Do-it-Yourself market is more connected with our topics, with what we’re doing here – especially if it’s something like electronic stuff.”
“Like you could see cryptocurrency tickers, which are made by guys from Octopus Engine, or the guys from Makers Lab who are printing things on 3D printers… So, these are things more connected to us than say second-hand fashion.”
And these entrepreneurs who you’ve mentioned, do they sell only in cryptocurrency or do they also accept normal cash?
“Only in crypto because this whole project is based on the fact that we don’t accept any kind of state currency here. So, you simply cannot use it here. Everything sold inside is always based on cryptocurrencies.”
Some of the very first Bitcoin ATMs were in this country, isn’t that right?
“I’m not sure if it was the totally first place, but we were the first project of its kind which is based only on crypto, and it seems like we are still the only one in the whole world. This ATM is a product of General Bytes, a Czech company. I think there are the like the second-biggest one in the whole world.”
Has the government taken an interest, good or bad, in your project?
“Ah, well… They started almost a year ago when there was a new law, it’s called EET, and we totally disagree with this law, so we haven’t accepted it. And what happened is they just came, checked it, saw that we are not connected to this network. We gave them our statement why we will never connect to it, and that’s it – for now (laughs).”
And there was absolutely no follow-up after that?
“Really none. I think it’s because we are not accepting state currency. So, they actually don’t know what to do with us, I believe (laughs).”
At the DIY market, I meet one of crypto vendors who Jakub mentioned, Honza founder of Octopus Engine. A self-described “visionary and creative geek”, he was quick to show me the level of his commitment to new technologies – in the form of a chip he has embedded in his hand – which serves as his virtual wallet.
I began by asking Honza and a colleague, Petr, about the name of the start-up company, which among other things is working on virtual reality projects and developing a simplified Bitcoin/Litecoin terminal, and some of the products they are selling here at Paralení Polis.
Honza: “I’m a diver, and I’m fascinated by this animal, the octopus – it’s fascinating. So, I put together the word ‘octopus’ and ‘engine’. And ‘engine’ is especially for engineers…”
So, this is something that a cryptocurrency enthusiast might want on their desk, for example?
I’m looking at a rocket – that one is clear – but what is this one? What’s the concept?
Petr: “It’s the same as the rocket only just a simple wooden box. It’s called a Tickernator.”
It says ‘crypto-ticker’ here. So, this will tell me how much my Bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies are worth, yeah?
Petr: “Exactly. Most of these things are used for showing the price of the Bitcoin. And we support a lot of cryptocurrencies from CoinMarketCap, for example. So, it can be customised to the needs of the customer.”
What is your preferred cryptocurrency, personally?
Honza: “Bitcoin, Litecoin… and maybe RedCoin.”
And how can you use them in daily life, here in the Czech Republic?
Honza: “This place – Paralelní Polis – is one possibility, so we use it here. I’m here one or two times a week.”
“I’m Denis. I’m presenting D63, this is a concept room where we have our wooden speakers, which we make by ourselves. Also, D63 is a place for any kind of art. It can be interior design, an ecological theme, I mean some recyclable things. Our speakers are made of wood, and it’s somehow recyclable, because nowadays is important.”
And D63 is a kind of collective?
“We call it a concept room. Mostly, it’s a showroom for our speakers. We also do some events, DJ selections, flea markets, pop-up vinyl stores, some exhibitions of paintings… Things like that.”
Are you a cryptocurrency enthusiast?
“Yes, of course. We also accept cryptocurrencies, and we are into this thing.”
What was the first cryptocurrency that you personally had?
“Well, it was Litecoin. It was in Paralelní Polis, because there was a flea market where he had some stuff and needed just to pay for this event, you know. And in this way, it started… and we’ll continue to use it.”
But if someone comes in off the street, knows nothing about cryptocurrency, and so obviously doesn’t own any, how do they buy a cup of coffee here? Bitcoin Coffee manager Jakub Souček explains.
“That’s really easy. That’s actually why we exist. We have a special ATM right behind the doors and here you can buy – and even sell – cryptocurrencies. There are four of them right now: Bitcoin, Litecoin, Monero and Dash. So, you simply come with your state currency – here it’s Czech crowns and euros – put the cash into the ATM and it will give you the cryptocurrency.”
And it gives you the cryptocurrency in what form, actually? Do you have to create an account?
“With crypto, it works as if you have a wallet. And there are various types of wallets. The easiest one is a paper wallet. The ATM is able to print it for you. Also, we have special cards; it’s also like a paper wallet but looks… nicer. Or you can download the application. We are basically an education centre, so we will help you with all this stuff. So even someone who is totally new to this can simply come inside and we’ll really help you from the very beginning to the end when you’re paying for the coffee and leaving.”
In my case, that someone, once again, is Alina, herself an engineer and Paralelní Polis regular, who has graciously lent me some Czech crowns until I can get to an ATM.
“So, I can help you with 200 crowns. You just have to insert the money here and automatically it’s taken. Then you have to press ‘buy alt coins’. And usually it’s good to print the receipt.”
And that’s it.
“Yes. You just go to the barista and request what you want. And I will also walk you through the payment process. You press ‘checkout’. You need to choose – here we have only three cryptocurrencies to choose from.”
‘Only’ three? Oh, well.
“And if you want to pay a tip…”
“Yeah? Okay, so you can press it – I’m not looking.”
Alright. I pressed the highest one.
“For the record! (laughs) And then you touch the QR code. And then you put this here. [beep] And it is paid.”