How Pepe the Frog was born a meme, survived the Alt-Right and became a $4 million NFT

It’s no secret to veterans and newly indoctrinated DeFi “degens” that memes are as indelible a part of the web3 as NFTs. And when it comes to anthropomorphic characters nestled across the NFT world, there’s nothing more at home than Pepe the Frog. You see this character everywhere, on Discord servers, Twitter, Telegram channels and at crypto events.

While Pepe may not be getting the kind of buzz that Bored Ape is, check out in October, a Rare Pepe NFT single called “Pepenopoulos” sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $3.6 million. It was created in 2016.


Pepe the Frog dates back to 2006 when he appeared in a Matt Furie comic called “Boy’s Club”. Several years later, due to the Cambrian explosion of social media, the character quickly evolved into a standalone meme, gaining popularity on Myspace and 4chan. It was first released as NFTs six years ago on a peer-to-peer marketplace called Counterparty. In 2015, variations of the amphibian, called Rare Pepes, began to emerge with watermarks like “RARE PEPE DO NOT SAVE” to indicate that the artists behind each design had not yet published the meme for public use. A collection of 1,200 rare images of Pepe was listed on eBay, reportedly reaching a price of $99,166 before being removed from the site. There are many dark and bizarre interpretations of Pepe smoking joint or eating animated flying pizzas. The designs also include the occasional satire of cryptographic culture. There’s a frog version of the creepy twin girls from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” called Winkelpepe.

Pepe is kidnapped by the alt-right

But Pepe also darkened in 2015, the same year Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president and the start of a toxic new chapter in US politics. Variations of Rare Pepes emerged during this period linked to Nazi Germany, the Ku Klux Klan, and the white power movement. Despite the relatively innocuous nature of Pepe himself, such associations between the meme and politics were further solidified after Trump won the election. Notable examples included a parody movie poster of “The Expendables” posted to Instagram by Donald Trump Jr. In the picture, Pepe is with Trump, Trump Jr. basket of deplorables”. Later, a blog post by Hillary Clinton criticized the use of the cartoon, calling it a “symbol associated with white supremacy”. However, Trump Jr. denied any knowledge of the frog’s dualistic cross-cultural role. In a September 2016 interview with Esquire, Matt Furie responded to Pepe’s use as a hate symbol: “It sucks, but I can’t control him any more than anyone can control frogs on the Internet.” Furie’s publisher Fantagraphics Books also issued a statement condemning the “illegal and repulsive appropriations”. That month, despite adding Pepe to its hate symbols database, the Anti-Defamation League stated that most instances of Pepe were not used in a hate-related context. In an editorial in Time in October 2016, Furie wrote, “I understand it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is what you say he is, and I, the creator, say Pepe is love.”

Pepe becomes an NFT

Pepe the Frog and its derivatives, Rare Pepes, made the transition to non-fungible tokens with an appearance on the Counterparty marketplace. Founded in 2014 by Robert Dermody, Adam Krellenstein and Evan Wagner, Counterparty was built on the openly distributed Bitcoin network and allowed users to create tokenized assets. Due to the growing demand for on-chain collectible assets, the first Rare Pepes were mined at block 428,919 on the Bitcoin blockchain in September 2016, long before the term “NFT” was in common use. In fact, it predates the revered 2017 Ethereum-based NFT collection CryptoPunks by Larva Labs. With the progression and growing market support for Ethereum in 2017, a larger community started to grow around digital collectibles, spurring developers to create more platforms to help catalog and exchange their digital images. In the burgeoning art-centric cryptocurrency market, creators can publish their work in the form of digital tokens with fixed circulation and then issue the art to collectors who sell, trade or store their collections. (And later, in September 2020, the Ethereum Emblem vault would allow traders to wrap the Rare Pepes in early 2016 inside an Ethereum ERC-721 token to transfer and sell to Ethereum-compatible wallets.) Amid this flurry of activities, which included a growing Rare Pepe telegram chat group, Jason Rosenstein – founder of the auction house portion.io – hosted the first ever live Rare Pepe auction at the inaugural Rare Digital Art Festival, selling a diptych inspired by Salvador. Dali. Peppers

Wallets, cash, cards and mini documents

Once Pepe became an NFT, Pepe crypto apps and content took off. The Rare Pepe Wallet, created by the developer Joe Looney , is an encrypted digital deposit that Counterparty merchants and collectors can use to buy, sell, gift, and destroy their Rare Pepes. The wallet also allows merchants and collectors to use PepeCash as a medium of exchange. According to the Rare Pepe directory, PepeCash was created as the currency of Pepesphere and is similar to other cards in the comprehensive collection, only with a much larger supply of approximately 700 million in circulation. PepeCash can be purchased on Counterparty DEX (decentralized exchange) or on exchanges like Zaif in Japan and TuxExchange in Canada. PepeCash is primarily used to pay fees when submitting Rare Pepes to the directory and to a wallet, but the Rare Pepe community has also integrated PepeCash into games.

All of this can understandably be opaque and intimidating to newcomers. While there are resources for first-time Pepe collectors such as the Rare Pepe Directory (a catalog of all known Rare Pepes), several enthusiasts from the Pepe community, such as Matt Garcia, took to Twitter to help with a buying guide superficial. But some buyers didn’t need help, like Peter Kell, who bought an award-winning Homer Pepe in 2018 for $39,000 at the first digital art auction of its kind in New York, RareAF. While Kell said he was aware that many considered it an odd purchase at the time, the emergence and popularity of early collections like CryptoPunks several years later helped Kell sell his Homer Pepe in March 2021 for $312,000.

And then there was Pepe’s Sundance debut. In 2020, an American documentary about the meme called “Feels Good Man” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won a Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker, as well as a Research Award at the News & Documentary Emmys. Arthur Jones’ directorial debut “Feels Good Man” follows Pepe creator Matt Furie as he tries to regain control and redeem Pepe after he was co-opted by members of the alt-right. Considering the online virality and legacy of Pepe the Frog in cryptocurrencies, it was fitting that in October 2021 Matt Furie worked with NFT marketplace chainsaw.fun to introduce the FEELSGOODMAN Rare Pepe card. In recognition of the long-standing discrepancies between Bitcoin and Ethereum maximalists, the NFT team of creators released it on both the Bitcoin blockchain (via Xchain) and Ethereum. After the announcement, Loonardo Joe Vinci the pseudonymous creator of the Rare Pepe Wallet, tweeted on the card in an almost romanticized tone, saying, “With this, the Pepe Raro Directory is complete.” Disclaimer: The text presented in this column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of CriptoFácil. Also read: Axie Infinity price rises 48% in the last two days Also read: Sylvester Stallone launches Rocky and Rambo NFT collection