I’m not a fan of Pepe the Frog, even apart from his appropriation by the alt-right, but I’m nonetheless fascinated by the blockchain-supported digital art market that’s emerged to facilitate the (surprisingly lucrative) trade in so-called “Rare Pepes.” Yes, there is a dank corner of the web where you can doodle a cartoon frog in Photoshop and sell it—as a unique item, or limited edition—to collectors. Piracy (Pepe is the intellectual property of comic artist Matt Furie) and innovation have a way of going hand-in-hand, and I’m interested to see where this goes. FiveThirtyEight is the latest mainstream news site to take notice:
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.1 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.
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 4202 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.
[continue reading at FiveThirtyEight]
See also Oliver Roeder’s follow-up piece, The Blockchain is Just Another Way to Make Art All About Money.