Monday October 31, 2016

How Pepe the Frog went from a symbol of idleness to a symbol of hate

The internet meme has taken on a life of its own, away from its creator Matt Furie.

The internet meme has taken on a life of its own, away from its creator Matt Furie. (Louie Cordero)

Listen 6:35

"The fact that I created Pepe is just a sidenote," artist and illustrator Matt Furie says. "I was pretty much obsolete — until now." 

Furie is the man behind the green frog meme that you've probably seen someone you know share online in recent years. But for Furie, Pepe was simply a character in a comic he drew to entertain his friends at work. 

Matt Furie

Artist and illustrator Matt Furie created Pepe the Frog in 2005. (Betty Udesen)

The frog is "all eyes and lips," admits its creator. "You can make him emote into whatever kind of expression you want: sad, excited, totally stoned..."

That's exactly what the Internet did with it, use its blank canvas ("He's a symbol for idleness, he doesn't do anything," Furie explains) to convey a number of different moods and meanings. That, though, led to a dark turn for Pepe. 

Thanks to the U.S. presidential election and Pepe's image linked to republican candidate Donald Trump, Pepe was recently added to the Anti-Defamation League's list of hate symbols...next to the swastika. 

"I thought it was just him trying to appeal to a younger voting demographic," Furie says. "But it's actually some kind of mascot for these fringe and supremacist groups.

"The fact that people were using him to channel hate is devastating to me on a spiritual level, on a philosophical level."

So, to combat the negative connotations, Furie is attempting to take Pepe back by putting out positive images of the beloved frog. As Furie puts it, "to infiltrate the Internet with positive Pepe memes."

Pepe the Frog

A positive rendition of Pepe the Frog by illustrator Travis Millard. (Travis Millard)

"If you're in a dark room, the only way to make it light is to flip the switch and add light," Furie continues. "If someone's going to speak on Pepe's behalf, it's got to be his creator." 

Save Pepe

Ryan Berkley's colourful rendition of Pepe the Frog as part of the #SavePepe campaign. (Ryan Berkley)