UK- There is no questioning the impact of the Internet on our ability to rapidly share and present information. Within a fraction of a second, virtually anyone has the ability to post whatever they so desire with an almost limitless reach, fueling social media platforms with an abundance of opinions, status updates, photographs, jokes, and ‘memes’. 

Pepe breathing meme oxygen.

Coined by author Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, the word ‘meme’ refers to the method in which ideas can evolve and replicate from one individual to another within a culture. Nowadays, memes are a common facet of most people’s online experience. Most of us have either shared or created humorous images and videos with the intent of entertaining our friends and followers. We have quoted them in everyday life, stumbled upon them in our favorite films and television series, and watched them evolve and change shape through the involvement of different creative individuals on the Internet.

Boy’s Club poster by artist Matt Furie

Much like art, memes can be an outlet for self-expression and many often involve the depiction of exaggerated emotional states and responses. Instead of typing out phrases to express an idea, memes can function as a visual shorthand and due to their constantly evolving nature and simplistic format can be altered at will to fit most any situation. To further observe this overlap between internet meme and art, one can look no further than the now infamous Pepe the Frog cartoon. 

Dating back to 2005, Pepe the Frog originally sprung from the mind of cartoonist Matt Furie as a supporting character in his comic series Boy’s Club. The series follows a group of humanoids in their early adulthood as they take on mundane activities and indulge in drugs, alcohol, junk food, and childlike entertainment. The comic grew in popularity on Myspace and before long Pepe’s face was plastered on Internet forums and chatrooms along with his signature catchphrase, ‘feels good, man’. Furie’s artwork eventually reached the boards of social media platform 4chan, where its users resonated with the character’s humorous features and moody disposition. Aided by the simplistic drawing style Pepe is drawn in, internet users began creating their own versions of the frog, combining him with other internet memes and drawing him in various positions and scenarios.

Pepe relaxing in loungewear meme

Eventually, Pepe and the many memes inspired by him garnered mainstream appeal, with celebrities like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj posting variations on their social media profiles. Displeased by the co-opting of their beloved figure by the general public, disempowered 4chan users began creating outlandish Pepe memes in retaliation. The memes grew offensive and antisocial in nature, appropriating the image of the frog to include Nazi symbolism and anti-Semitic statements. Some even depicted Pepe side by side with mass murderer Elliott Rodger, glorifying the killer’s misogyny. Slowly, Pepe’s image as a kooky comic book character melted away and what was left was this grim racist caricature, a mask donned by white supremacists and the emerging alt-right movement. 

Pepe’s demise finally came with the Anti-Defamation League’s categorization of the frog as a hate symbol, prompting Furie to push against the warped image of his cartoon. He urged fans to create memes using Pepe with peaceful intentions to counteract the hatred, but it was too late. The hateful memes appropriating Pepe’s image had now overshadowed the character’s innocent origins, and Furie was left with no choice but to kill the character off of his comic series. Still, the circulation of hateful Pepe memes continued. Furie’s Pepe is dead, but the many reproductions of him live on.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q, 1919, Colored reproduction, heightened with pencil and white gouache, Edition of 38, 30.3 x 23 cm.

This appropriation and parody of popular images is a phenomenon we often see in the art world. Many artists have incorporated pre-existing images and objects into their work, recontextualizing them and injecting them with new meaning. For example, Duchamp famously parodied Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in 1919, vandalizing a postcard reproduction of the painting with a mustache and goatee. At the bottom, Duchamp inscribes the letters L.H.O.O.Q, a play on words which roughly translates to ‘she has a hot arse’ in French. Duchamp went on to make multiples of L.H.O.O.Q, inspiring fellow artists to create their own parodies of Da Vinci’s portrait. In 1954, Salvador Dali collaborated with American photographer Phillippe Halsman to create Self Portrait as Mona Lisa which featured Dali’s face and iconic mustache on the woman’s body. Today, thanks to advancements in technology, parodies of the Mona Lisa continue to be created and circulated online by contemporary artists including Syrian pop artist Saint Hoax.

Philippe Halsman, Dali as a Mona Lisa, 1954, Silver gelatin print, 20.3 × 25.4 cm

A more recent example of appropriation is Banksy’s Dismaland. In 2015, the artist unveiled a theme park in Somerset, England containing a series of sculptural works satirizing popular Disneyland characters and attractions. The art project featured well-known Disney princesses including a warped Ariel from the Little Mermaid, and a horrifying scene of Cinderella dangling lifeless out of a wrecked coach. The exhibit inspired American artist Jeff Gillette to create landscapes detailing his own dystopian theme parks, further distorting the happy carefree image Disney portrays through its enterprises.

Banksy, Cinderella, 2015, Dismaland.

The appropriation of these familiar images often involves a minimal amount of transformation from the original, prompting a further examination of the concepts of originality and authorship. They allow us to view the original work through a different lens, whether that be for the sake of mockery in Duchamp’s case or for the encouragement of wider social discussion in Banksy’s. Thus, the reproduction gives the viewer a new set of meanings that take on a life of their own, disrupting their previous perceptions of those images in their original context.

In the same manner that internet memes do, art constantly evolves and borrows from itself, producing and recirculating ideas until the reproduction carries the same weight as the original it refers to. With internet memes, this is a cycle accelerated by the urgency of online trends and the rapid rate of involvement of minds from all over the world. For better or worse, the ability to view and alter a piece of work is as accessible as it could possibly get, making memes and their evolution just as insightful as they are entertaining.