Earlier this month, 19-year-old Michael Hargreaves walked into Chapel Street Tattoo Studio in Chorley, England, and got inked with a Pepe the Frog meme on his right wrist. The artist, Matt Daniels, posted a photo of the finished piece to his Instagram page and captioned it with the catchphrase that appears both on the meme and the tattoo: “Feels Good, Man.” It’s Hargreaves’ first tattoo.
“I chose Pepe because me and my friends are big [fans of] memes,” Hargreaves told me in an Instagram DM. “I really like the way memes allow us to make fun of everything.”
I know what you’re thinking: That Pepe? The character, created by cartoonist Matt Furie, quickly went from a lovable meme to a symbol associated with white supremacists and the “alt-right” movement during the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Pepe memes were popular for years on sites like 4chan and Tumblr before Donald Trump supporters photoshopped images of the character to look like the current president, or adorned him with Nazi symbols. The Anti-Defamation League added Pepe to its database of hate symbols (when it’s used in a certain context, it notes), and Facebook has an internal policy on banning certain images of the cartoon frog (usually, when they’re anti-Semitic).
But Pepe’s toxic associations didn’t deter Hargreaves from inking the character on his body. He said that he liked how Pepe, in the original comic, is “positive and chill.” “Feels Good, Man” was one of the early Pepe memes, before the internet created Sad Pepe. It’s taken from a panel in Furie’s comic in which Pepe explains why he pulls his pants all the way down to his ankles to urinate.
“At the end of the day, the frog existed for a decade before the election,” Hargreaves said, noting that he doesn’t associate himself “at all” with the alt-right. “Nobody has said anything about that aspect of [the tattoo], and I wouldn’t take anyone seriously who can see a cartoon frog as an offensive symbol.”
While Hargreaves’ Pepe tattoo may seem ridiculous to some, or part of a fad that will quickly die out, a growing number of people are getting tattoos of internet memes. It’s not isolated to one region; during my search (many are tagged under the hashtag #memetattoo on Instagram), I saw photos from tattoo shops around the world, from Buenos Aires to Canada to (probably unsurprisingly) Florida. The tattoo artists I interviewed for this story all reported an uptick in requests for humorous tattoos in recent years, which include memes. Their Instagram posts of meme tattoos have also received more attention than posts of other tattoos. There’s a reason for that: Most people see memes as short-lived fixations. If a meme is popular today, it may be “dead” in less than a year. Why get a tattoo of an image that people on the internet will inevitably replace with another image, ad infinitum?
For years, people have included meme tattoos under the umbrella of “tattoos you should definitely not get” or “tattoos you will regret.” But that’s changing. Tattoos are becoming more common in general, especially among young people. And while meme tattoos have yet to become popular among celebrities (who seem to favor face tattoos), they’ve found a market with Extremely Online people who love to display their fondness for memes on their sleeve (or leg, or whatever). These people aren’t only getting tattoos of older memes that they like—they’re also getting tattoos of brand new memes. The biggest memes from September and October—Bongo Cat, Gritty, moths—are already tattooed on people’s bodies. Also: “yeet”.
Unlike Hargreaves, though, the majority of the people who get meme tattoos already have several other tattoos. They are filling an empty space on their body with something they saw on the internet and thought was funny. Meme tattoos usually don’t have a greater meaning, and that’s the point. It’s all about getting a tattoo of something you like—in the present moment.
In late September, a close-up photo of a moth perched on a windowsill spread like wildfire after first appearing in the /r/creepy subreddit. People began photoshopping the moth, which had a human-like quality, into memes that joked about how much the insects like lamps. It became one of the biggest memes of the month.
Skyler Fitzgerald, a tattoo artist at No Love Lost in Ontario, Canada, was talking to her co-worker about moth memes when a friend suggested it would make a great tattoo. She volunteered to give a fellow piercer at the shop the tattoo.
“I was like, hell yeah! I’ve never gotten to do a meme tattoo before,” she told me over the phone. “That was actually my first one.”
She posted a photo of the finished meme tattoo on Instagram on Sept. 28—right when the meme was at its peak. The tattoo, which depicts the moth from the original meme in front of a lamp, received a lot of attention. The comments on the Instagram post were polarizing. Not unlike the comments that were posted on a Reddit thread about a Left Shark tattoo in 2015, people criticized the hasty decision to get a tattoo of a new meme.
“It’s always a good meme until someone gets a tattoo of it,” read one comment on Fitzgerald’s post.
“Who gets tattoos of memes lmao,” read another.
She said her co-worker brushed off the criticism. “He said, ‘Memes die fast but so do we. We all die eventually.’”
“The reason why I did that one on a co-worker is we enjoy tattoos in general, no matter what it’s for,” she added. “You have to have such an open mind and enjoy tattoo culture to get something like that.”
When asked if she’s received requests for tattoos of memes since she posted the moth meme tattoo, she said no, though the moth meme tattoo isn’t unique.
- What is a meme in 2018?
- Moth memes are taking over the internet
- 4chan’s Pepe the Frog is bigger than ever—and his creator feels good, man
- The strange appeal of Gritty, the hockey mascot turned viral sensation
AK Alexander, a tattoo artist in Essex, England, gave a friend a moth meme tattoo during the same week. He designed one that shows a moth behind a heart with a “lamp” banner—similar to the classic “mom” tattoos.
It’s not the first meme tattoo that Alexander designed. He’s done several Simpsons memes—including Steamed Hams—the “Oust every weekend” Vine, and “You’re a Lizard, Harry!”
“The work I do is all quite standard,” said Alexander. “But I always try to think outside the box a little bit.”
Alexander, who has many tattoos himself, also has a meme tattoo on his foot: “Netflix and Chill.”
The practice of tattooing is thousands of years old. Internet memes have only been around for a couple of decades. But the two distinct cultures now share an audience on Instagram. There are accounts that display new trends in tattooing. There are accounts not just for tattoo artists, but for companies that make tattoo cartridges, needles, and other equipment. You can easily find them, because the artists who work at tattoo shops will tag these other accounts. Tattoo artists also use several hashtags in their posts, which helps attract attention to their work. If you’re a person who’s new to tattoos and you’re looking for a tattoo artist, you don’t need to rely on recommendations and word of mouth. You can find out if an artist is your style simply by looking at Instagram. (All of the tattoo artists featured in this story have active Instagram accounts.)
On Instagram, there’s a growing community of meme pages, both public and private. They post memes about astrology, depression, and even Sex & the City outfits. You’ll also see versions of the latest popular meme, like moths, appear on Instagram meme pages. And then there are the memes about tattoo culture. Accounts like @monday_malarkey post jokes about what it’s like working as a tattoo artist. (One recent posts shows an image of an exaggerated increased heartbeat for “thinking you misspelled a tattoo half way through tattooing it.”) Another account, @snake___pit, offers “daily tattoo inspiration,” but the majority of the tattoos featured are extremely NSFW and some amount to an inked shitpost. (One post shows a tattoo of a unicorn with a penis in place of a horn.)
All of these accounts, though, are influencing tattoo culture as a whole. You can get a “joke” tattoo or a design that is funny. It doesn’t have to be particularly meaningful, although there’s definitely still a market for those kinds of tattoos. Meme tattoos are all about what you think is funny now. You can’t worry if you’ll still think the meme is funny in the future.
Erin O’Dea’s work is colorful, vibrant, and very pop-culture heavy. If you peruse the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based tattoo artist’s Instagram page, you’ll see tattoos of niche Disney characters, like the Tightrope Walker from a portrait on the Haunted Mansion ride and Star Wars’ K-2SO. You’ll also see a tattoo of a meme that has become a popular reaction to our crazy and often unbelievable news cycle over the last couple of years—This Is Fine. The meme, which is based on the first two panels of KC Green’s 2013 webcomic, depicts a cartoon dog sitting in a house being engulfed by flames. “This is fine,” he says before taking a sip of coffee. In the last panel, the dog is melting from the heat. It’s a grim comic about being in denial about the current reality.
Last year, one of O’Dea’s regular clients—who comes in about once a month and has several other “nerdy” tattoos—requested a tattoo of the meme. “It wasn’t a huge surprise that he wanted that one,” she told me over the phone.
The struggle with replicating a meme that is taken from something like a webcomic is making it look technically good as a tattoo, said O’Dea, and that might mean editing or removing aspects of the image. In the end, though, the This Is Fine tattoo came out looking nearly identical to Green’s illustration. The dog’s zoned-out expression, the cup of coffee, the flames—it’s all there. The caption at the bottom of the tattoo really sells it: This Is Fine.
Unlike Fitzgerald’s moth meme tattoo, O’Dea’s meme tattoo was well-received on Instagram. The majority of the comments praise the tattoo. Perhaps it’s because the meme is still deeply and painfully relatable in 2018. (On the platform, I saw at least two other versions of this tattoo.)
O’Dea, who recently opened her own studio, Crossed Keys Society, said that she’s noticed a trend of more people getting inked with humorous tattoos. “In the last three years, I’ve been getting requests for more things that are pretty ridiculous.”
“I think you have to be a very relaxed person who doesn’t take themselves too seriously in order to let it be maybe not relevant later,” she added.
O’Dea said that three different people have chickened out on getting inked with the same meme. Fittingly, it was Evil Kermit, a meme about your subconscious telling you to make a bad decision.
Even if you’re barely on the internet—or watch TV—you’re still probably familiar with Gritty. After the Philadelphia Flyers unveiled the mascot in late September, the orange hairy monster became a lovable meme (and, weirdly but not unsurprising for 2018, an antifa symbol). John Oliver even discussed Gritty briefly on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. During the episode, Oliver shows us a photo of a Gritty tattoo on someone (whom he jokes is Jimmy Carter). That tattoo was the work of Steve Fawley, a tattoo artist at Havertown Electric—which is located about nine miles west of Philadelphia. Fawley said that his friend, Jim Lardani, requested the tattoo “almost as soon as the mascot was released.”
“He contacted me right away and said, ‘I need a tattoo of this thing,’” Fawley told me over the phone. “I spent the whole week waiting to see if someone else would beat him to it.”
No one did. So Fawley spent a few hours sketching the design for Gritty, which says, “Chaos Reigns,” at the bottom of the tattoo. Fawley also designed another Gritty tattoo for someone, which shows the mascot throwing his hands up in the air. Both tattoos give great attention to detail—Gritty’s wispy hair, his crazy eyes, his black helmet. Fawley said he’s since had more inquiries for Gritty tattoos. It’s not exactly unusual for Philadelphia residents to want tattoos of something they’re a fan of—especially when it’s related to sports. Fawley said he did about 30 Eagles tattoos earlier this year after the team’s Super Bowl win. He’s also done at least one other meme tattoo—Picolas Cage, an image that depicts the actor Nicolas Cage as a pickle. “File this under ‘silly stuff people find on the internet and want tattooed on them,’” he wrote in the Instagram post displaying the tattoo.
Like other tattoo artists interviewed for this story, Fawley said that the customers who request humorous tattoos usually already have a lot of tattoos on their body. “Gone are the days where people were like, this tattoo means this, this has this certain importance to it,” he said.
While people get meme tattoos because they are funny, and because they like the meme, that doesn’t mean that the tattoos completely lack meaning. Like any tattoo, a meme tattoo is symbolic of a certain time and place. If the internet changes in the future, or somehow the social sites that we share memes on are shut down, you can still look down and see a meme on your body. In a way, you are preserving part of the internet.
“You can always look at your tattoos and think about the time that you got them and what was going on,” Fawley said. “That’s how I think of the tattoos I have. I have some I don’t necessarily love or are a little dated, but you look at them and think about what was going on, it’s almost like a waypoint in time.”
Michael Hargreaves, who got the Pepe tattoo, said that his friends and girlfriend “love it.” (His mother? Not so much.) Hargreaves’ choice can be seen as almost safe for a meme tattoo. We’ve seen Pepe go from an innocent cartoon frog to an image appropriated by racist bad actors. There aren’t any surprises with Pepe. Everyone is familiar with the character and his history. With a new meme, you don’t really know what the internet will do with it in the future. That’s the risk. Still, people will continue getting meme tattoos as long as memes exist.
Hargreaves doesn’t have current plans for a second tattoo, but if he gets another one, he said it would be of a meme, cartoon, or an illustration that he drew. He isn’t interested in tattoos that are “generic or serious.”
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