According to the OED, the term frog was a non-specific term of abuse as early as the 14th century. It was later applied exclusively to the Dutch and the French, shortened from "frog-lander" and "frog-eater," respectively, and has since faded from prominence as a slur, so much so that some people see it as a rather quaint term.
That's to say, words and symbols can see their meanings shift over time, as the case of Pepe the Frog shows. Created by cartoonist Matt Furie a decade ago, Pepe was copied and spread throughout the internet as a meme adopted especially by 4chan. But in the past year, as Trump's rise has emboldened the keyboard Nazis known collectively as the "alt-right," Pepe has become increasingly associated with online hate speech. This week, the meme was officially classified as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.
For most people, the story of Pepe is fairly abstract. But it's very, very real for writer and filmmaker Adam Humphreys, because he had Pepe tattooed on his hand before the campaign to make the frog racist began in earnest. Recently, VICE spoke to him about his reaction to the ADL's decision, whether he'd get that tattoo removed, and why he got it in the first place.
VICE: Tell me the story of getting the tattoo.
Adam Humphreys: On Ello, an artist I knew about named Daniel Keller dumped something like 500 images of Pepe and Wojak, the Feels guy, and I became obsessed with them. Each Pepe was kind of different, maybe showed him in a different situation, which reflected its creator, who was just somebody on the other end of a computer somewhere. The constant was the figure of Pepe, and the spirit of Pepe, which was masculine, downtrodden, somewhat pathetic, and totally relatable. I spent a couple of evenings on LSD AirPlaying images of Pepe with my wife Lauren and two friends—I felt really happy. My friend's girlfriend later made a Pepe stamp for him. The moment I saw it, I stamped myself, went to a tattoo parlor, and had the guy trace the stamp into my left hand.
When did you end up getting the tattoo?
March 2015, I think.
How did people react to the tattoo before Pepe was co-opted by the alt-right?
If they knew about Pepe, they reacted as if they'd found a new rare Pepe. Like, "Ohhhh, lemme look at that." If they didn't know the meme I tried to explain it, but I never cared to take much time doing so.
I don't think "co-optation" is the right way to speak about memes like Pepe, or, perhaps, any creative act. It implies a guardian, a cop-like attitude. Maybe some use of symbols is insensitive or tone-deaf, but we shouldn't try to take these symbols out of circulation, or police their use.
What about now? Have you had any uncomfortable exchanges about the tattoo? Are you worried people will assume you're a Trump supporter, or worse?
I've been sparring with [writer] Timothy Willis Sanders a little bit. He thinks I should get the tattoo removed or add a sombrero on it explaining that I'm not a white supremacist. I'm not opposed to removal, especially if the hate symbol meaning congeals further, which could inconvenience me more—but I think it would be only fair for the ADL to pay for the process as well as some damages. (For the pain, the lost art, potential scarring, etc.)
Are you concerned about your safety if someone gets really angry at you?
I am not concerned with my safety. I'm worried someone without context will see my hand on a bus or something and start fearing me, though, or thinking there are more white supremacists and that they are a bigger threat than they really are. A grandma, maybe.
What are your thoughts on Pepe's shifting meaning over time? Aside from those images of, like, Pepe with a Hitler mustache, the frog is still just frog—it's only a hate symbol now because of the political views of those spreading it.
The meaning is in the sharing itself, it doesn't matter who is doing it, or what they believe. You can believe whatever you want unless your beliefs cause material consequences in my life. In this case, there is a clear material consequence. Making Pepe a hate symbol means I become a hate symbol carrier. And yet, Pepe—did Pepe cause any material consequence? I don't think he did.
Who gets to say what is and isn't racist? Who defines racism? Just letting whoever take the initiative to define our moral boundaries doesn't and will not work.
I think most people would agree that there's nothing inherently racist about various "neutral" versions of Pepe, i.e., Pepe without additional racist content added to it. Would it make a difference if the ADL was saying something like Pepe "is often used for racist purposes" rather than "is a hate symbol"? Where is your anger directed? Toward the alt-right for spoiling the meme, or toward the ADL for their blanket statement? Or both?
If the ADL said, "is often used for racist purposes" there would be no media story, I would face lower probability of material consequences. I think they gain from inserting themselves into the political cycle here, they reify their institutional purpose, but I'm not angry at them, or the alt-right. Both seem to be just doing their thing.
Do you think the association of Pepe with the alt-right will fade? That the meme could go through further iterations that have nothing to do with racism, Trump, and so on?
I listened to a lecture by James Carse recently about finite and infinite games. It's a very moving argument. Finite games are games with clearly defined temporal/spatial boundaries; they are games we play to win, like sports, war, and elections. Infinite games are games we play to keep playing, games where the boundaries of the game are continuously pushed out, such that if the game approaches resolution, the rules must be changed to allow continued play. Like life, art, or Calvinball. In the podcast Carse said he didn't really believe in evil, but that if evil existed, it was about transforming an infinite game into a finite game.
The right is just using the meme as many have before; this is not to say I approve of the content of what they're making, in fact I have only seen one alt-right Pepe. I found it totally inoffensive, I saw far more offensive, distasteful Pepes in 2014.
But the left is trying to pin Pepe to the right's highly politicized usage. If this reading "settles," it will represent a collapse of an infinite game into a finite game. I'd blame the left. They're the cops, here.
I just looked through Daniel's Ello page again—there's a lot of Nazi stuff. I guess that's always been a part of it, maybe. I think this is a really compelling narrative for Trump supporters, a sort of redemption of the white American male. He goes from sad to loco, takes charge, "fuck it."
Brooks Sterritt just finished a novel about symbols and the information destruction industry.