The iconic image of Pepe, a downtrodden frog who first appeared in artist Matt Furie’s web comic Boy’s Club, has become one of the internet’s favorite ways to represent failure, depression, and other sub-optimal circumstances. The denizens of 4chan adopted the character as their own in 2009, and since then, Pepe has proven himself a durable meme, endlessly mutable and pliable. When the sad frog caught on with “normies” outside the insular world of 4chan, however, some users decided to retaliate by humorously declaring certain Pepe images to be rare and valuable works of art. But can memes, GIFs, and other internet-based images ever command actual money in the real-life art world? BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos decided to investigate the matter, and her findings are more complicated than one might guess.
“Net art and digital art are real,” Notopoulos assures her readers, “and there are real working digital artists and pieces that are bought and sold for real money.” But are Pepe The Frog images from 4chan worth anything? The digital art aficionados Notopoulos consulted are unsure. Certainly, says one expert, Matt Furie’s original sketches are potentially worth several hundred dollars apiece. And other artists can paint pictures of Pepe and sell them on eBay. Both of these scenarios have, in fact, already happened. But what of the digital images themselves, such as Pepe as Squidward Tentacles from SpongeBob SquarePants? Michael Duca, CEO of a digital art sharing site called NeonMob, admits that the issue is murky at best, due to the fact that digital images are so easily and quickly disseminated. “Completely preventing people from sharing digital art is close to impossible,” he admits. And yet, like most of the experts in the article, Duca does see profit potential for digital art. As he explains:
In short, yes, it is possible to have a rare Pepe that is actually worth money. You’d want for the original work to be sold on a platform that recorded the buyer and allowed for future transactions of that digital work (e.g., via trade or resale). You would want to authenticate the work was original and ideally the artist would be the one selling the work. You would have to be OK with assuming the image would be shared more widely.