Editor’s note: This article includes depictions of a cartoon character that many deem offensive due to its association with white supremacist groups. Some links in this story lead to offensive material.
Pepe the Frog started as just a chilled-out amphibian with a chilled-out catchphrase: “Feels good man.” That was back in 2005, when he first appeared in a comic series called “Boy’s Club.” When the comic debuted, Pepe and his cartoon roommates dabbled in “laconic psychedelia, childlike enchantment, drug-fueled hedonism, and impish mischief,” according the publisher of a book compiling the strip.
But even cartoon amphibians can go through a metamorphosis. Pepe soon took on a life of his own, and his mischief became much less impish. The image board 4chan.org — a sort of twisted, anarchic incubator for memes ranging from wholesome to hateful — adopted Pepe and relentlessly remixed and repurposed him for far different purposes than the character’s creator, Matt Furie, had intended. Users depicted Pepe as a crudely drawn, bright-green frog with enormous eyes and a wide mouth, often shown looking vaguely sad or slightly sly. He became so broadly popular that he even started showing up in celebrities’ Twitter feeds.
But soon those remixes included hateful messages. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the frog was co-opted by the so-called alt-right, a loose collection of conservative, populist, white supremacist, neo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups. Pepe became an unofficial mascot of a racist and anti-Semitic campaign in support of the candidacy of Donald Trump. The frog had long since lost its aura of childlike enchantment and had donned MAGA hats and SS insignia. Pepe is now listed as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Furie lawyered up, trying to wrench his creation back to its original status, but the alt-right fought back. When Richard Spencer, the white supremacist and alt-right figurehead, was famously punched in the face on a D.C. street on President Trump’s Inauguration Day, Spencer was explaining his frog lapel pin, saying, “It’s Pepe. He’s become kind of a symbol —” before being cut off as the punch landed.
Now one group of people wants to make Pepe symbolize something else: the future. Artists and speculators are building a new way to make and sell art, trying to repurpose a cartoon popularized by a message board so lawless that it scared away advertisers and turn it into a viable commercial enterprise.
Gathering in a digital bazaar for Pepe-related images, they’re trying to use the blockchain to create a new kind of art market, one that uses crypto technology and allows anyone to submit their work to be bought, sold and traded. The people involved hope to prove that crypto can be used to shift the art world’s balance of power, putting control into the hands of artists, rather than galleries or commercial third parties. The art that they’re selling, though, depicts that same frog that was featured in so many racist and anti-Semitic memes. But that hasn’t deterred the artists, many of whom believe they’re returning Pepe to his original, chilled-out roots. And they’ve sold over $1.2 million worth of his image in the process. That’s about 100 million in Pepe Cash. Yes, Pepe Cash.
DANK PEPENo. issued: 420
Most of this Pepe buying and selling happens through a website called Rare Pepe Wallet. The site features about 1,600 “Rare Pepes,” with more added regularly. They depict Pepe in all manner of memetic mashups and aesthetic forms. Many, but not all, look like trading cards. There’s smiling blonde Trump Pepe. There’s Pepe as Super Mario. Pepe as the Pope on the cover of Time. Warhol Pepe. Dalí Pepe. Kardashian Pepe. “Futurama” Pepe. Run-DMC Pepe. The Pepe Sistine Chapel. And on and on and on.
The absurdity of this project is not lost on its participants. “We’re using the most secure financial computer application ever known to man to swap cartoon frog pics,” Steffen Cope, a Web developer who creates and trades Rare Pepes, told me.
There’s such a thing as a Rare Pepe market only because of what the blockchain can do: It makes digital assets that are provably scarce. The blockchain’s decentralized record of transactions — a digital ledger — can’t be altered without leaving a public record. That allows for a more reliable accounting of who really owns digital art. Each Rare Pepe carries a finite number of digital tokens, and these tokens are what you really buy or sell when you buy a Rare Pepe. The blockchain guarantees, for example, that there are precisely 420 tokens associated with the image “Dank Pepe” — never more, never less.
This is the same technology that drives cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, and, in fact, the Rare Pepe tokens live on the Bitcoin blockchain, making the frog meme tokens as provably rare and as secure as Bitcoin itself.
Rare Pepes are even purchased with a cryptocurrency named after the frog — Pepe Cash — a unit of which is, as of Monday afternoon, trading for about 5 cents. Pepe Cash, which has been around since 2016, is, itself, a Rare Pepe — though there are 701,884,009 units of Pepe Cash in circulation. The currency has a market cap of roughly $37 million.
That’s a lot of money that could potentially be spent on something that doesn’t tangibly exist. So why in the world would anyone buy a Rare Pepe? After all, the only thing you really own when you buy a Rare Pepe is a digital token; the images themselves are freely available and infinitely reproducible. You can copy them, paste them, email them or tweet them for nothing. So why part with your hard-earned Pepe Cash?
“I think the image isn’t the most important thing,” Joe Looney, the co-founder of the Rare Pepe Foundation and a developer of Rare Pepe Wallet, told me. “It’s not the image so much as it’s the whole legend of it.”
By “legend,” Looney meant not the frog’s fraught past but the origin story of the each card’s creation — its artist, its creation date, its ineffable memetic appeal. Sure, the image associated with the token you buy may float around the Web or find its way onto FiveThirtyEight, but you and provably few others are its owners, for whatever that’s worth. (Right now, it appears to be worth a lot — more than 75 individual Pepes have sold for over $1,000, and over 25,000 in all have changed hands.)
RARE PEPENo. issued: 300
But, of course, that legend doesn’t necessarily undo Pepe’s legacy. While the Rare Pepe project is exploiting the blockchain for its digital immutability, it’s also attempting to overcome the nature of the internet itself, which can preserve posts for decades, serving as a kind of fossil record for what would once have been cultural ephemera. Regardless of what the cartoon comes to mean in the coming years, the internet is and likely always will be rife with references to the racist Pepe, the Nazi Pepe, and the Pepe lapel decorations of cold-cocked white supremacists.
The people who trade Rare Pepes are familiar with that tension, though they don’t see it as a reason they should stay away from the frog. I recently found them on Telegram, a messaging app and favorite hangout of the crypto set. I was lurking in a channel called Rare Pepe Blockchain Trading, which at the time had more than 1,500 participants, and I had private chats with about 20 members of the Rare Pepe community. I asked them about what they thought they were creating — and its politics.
One user I spoke with, Steve from Los Angeles, who goes by CryptoChainer, refused to share his full real name. He explained, “Having the first search result of my name come up with Rare Pepe isn’t entirely exciting, but I wish it was.” He added: “Most Americans still probably associate it with alt-right or some crap — 4chan, Nazis, what have you.” But for Steve and other Rare Pepe enthusiasts, Pepe’s appeal lies in part in his versatility — it’s a recognizable meme that allows endless artistic expression while also serving as a rallying point for their crypto community.
Like Steve, many in the Rare Pepe world — including a sizable percentage of the community who don’t live in the U.S. — aren’t very concerned about the frog’s popular connotations. They rejected its racist associations, or were barely aware of them, or were sick of being asked about them, viewing the troubling link as either passé or irrelevant — the artifact of a specific and fleeting moment in U.S. political history. But even when Pepe isn’t partisan, it can still have politics of a certain kind. “I think Pepe best represents the world’s pivot from P.C. and identity politics back to a more inclusive politics and open exchange of ideas,” someone with the username BuddhaNeedPepecash72 said.
JESUSPEPENo. issued: 10
Indeed, most in the Rare Pepe community see the frog as the future of art and art commerce. One Pepe enthusiast said he hoped to create “the first eternal digital open museum.” Jason Rosenstein told me that he’s able to pay his New York City rent with the money he’s made from Rare Pepes. Christine Lewis, who, at almost 60, jokingly called herself “crypto grandma,” came to the community because her friend told her that Pepe Cash was a good investment and that “it’s supposed to be a big deal … in five years, lol.” Another user, PimpingKek, claimed to be the world’s only Rare Pepe agent, identifying hot talent around the globe, getting them set up on the blockchain, and advising them on how to price their work and roll it out to the market. (Kek, of course, is the Egyptian god of darkness of whom Pepe is said to be a present-day avatar.)
Sometimes Pepe’s darkness creeps into the submissions to Rare Pepe Wallet. Anyone can create a Rare Pepe, which means that anything can be submitted as a Rare Pepe. Which is why the Rare Pepe Foundation — whose website tagline is “Blockchain Revolution” — says it takes pains to filter out offensive Rare Pepe submissions before they make it to the Rare Pepe Wallet gallery. (“Trying to be keep it light for now,” the site says in its submission guidelines. “Pepe has alot of bad press.”) Looney said that organizers have blocked the submission of offensive Pepes before, but that they hadn’t needed to recently. “That probably coincided with when it was more in the media as a Nazi frog,” he said.
Even among the Rare Pepes approved for display in the online gallery, it’s difficult to judge how many people might find them offensive, or even whether they’re intended to offend. One work, titled “Trump Wall,” depicts a crude Mexican frog caricature, but Looney said it was created by a Mexican artist, and it has a description that reads, “Pepe not impressed by Trump Wall.” Many others explicitly address politics. There is one titled “Killary Pepe” that features the caption “circumvent any law” under an image of a Hillary Clinton frog sending an email. There is an entire series of Putin-themed Pepes. There are a handful of Trump-themed ones. There is a Pepe take on Clinton’s “I’m With Her” campaign slogan. But many Rare Pepes are so tongue-in-cheek, so caked with alternating layers of irony and truth and absurdity that it’s hard to hear any definite political signal through the noise. “There isn’t a ‘no political Pepes’ rule, so you’ll certainly find them if you’re looking through the directory,” Looney said. “Some definitely toe the line.”
MODERN PEPENo. issued: 100
Art is often political, and good art nearly always provokes. But the specter of Pepe’s past remains. Can the project navigate the tightrope between the perfect memory of the blockchain and the long memory of the internet? The topic comes up in the Rare Pepe Blockchain Trading group from time to time. A representative exchange: “Pepe is a symbol for Nazis,” someone said. “Lol no,” came a response. “Did you know that since racists drive cars that cars are racist?” someone else added sarcastically.
Rare Pepes are now catching the eyes of the art world’s old guard, as well. In January, a digital art festival in New York City hosted an in-person auction of a one-of-a-kind Rare Pepe called “Homer Pepe.” It sold for $39,200. Vice reported that, during the auction, “staff from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Sotheby’s Institute of Art sat silently.”
But for how long?
Coming this later week: How crypto-art and the blockchain could shape the future of art.
Additional development by Justin McCraw.