This article originally appeared on VICE US.
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 parlour, 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.)