A Meme Art Show? Translating a Digital Form to I.R.L.

Baltimore-based memer and musician Lilperc666 performing at Group Chat: A Meme Art Show

It’s Saturday night at Chewing Foil, an interdisciplinary art space in Koreatown, Los Angeles. There’s a sense that something new is happening, but no one is sure what to make of it yet.

It’s a meme art show — and believe it or not, it’s not the first.

There have been others, like Bottom Text in Atlanta, which evolved into a weekly online show for Adult Swim, and at least one other in New York. It is also not the first in Los Angeles, but unlike prior shows in Southern California this D.I.Y. event grew from organic relationships between the artists and their respective fanbases, without a brand partnership in sight. Fans are excited to meet the creators whose work they’ve been liking and sharing, but even the organizers don’t know what to expect.

The spirit of the night was captured in a piece by Bay Area memer and math tutor alt.vista, 24, a print on metal reflecting the anticipation of being featured in a real-life gallery space. It reads, “Wow, never thought I’d have the opportunity to work on a physical piece. Can you believe it? Me, alt.vista, skewing text on a metal print I ordered at a modest price a few weeks out from the show […] Oh god oh god don’t fuck this up.”

The artist, an admittedly “terrible” drawer, who gets his inspiration from Windows 95 and early Internet graphics, speaks excitedly about his preparation and the opportunity to experiment. “I just knew I wanted a long piece, because on Instagram traditionally you have these aspect ratio limitations, and since I was making a piece for a physical space, I thought I should just kind of go with something as extreme as possible to break that ratio.”

A print on metal by Bay Area memer alt.vista captures the uncertainty of featuring in a real-life art show

His other piece, “Meme Square,” a lampoon of over-explained modern art in traditional gallery spaces, was printed on gator board, a sturdy material to survive the bus trip down to Los Angeles.

Like most of the featured artists, he first heard the idea for the event when he was added to a (wait for it…) group chat between memers Bubble Punk, Todaywasmybirthday, Wahhhhmmunism and Shittynspicy (a.k.a. Sexual Paradox). What began as a plan to showcase lesser-known memers grew into a more ambitious project to represent a cross-section of a particular variety of alternative meme culture. These artists, with notable followings on Instagram, form a sort of subgenre marked by analogue nostalgia, leftism, vulnerability, sexual humor, and an inclination towards the uplifting in what for many can be an alienating time.

All of these themes were encapsulated in an interactive Garfield photo stand-in created by prominent memer and multi-hyphenate Aiden Arata which reads “I performed emotional vulnerability online and all I got was this stupid attention,” recontextualizing the dour cartoon cat for millennial culture. Arata’s t-shirts screen-printed at home were also a hit of the night.

Event poster via Instagram

What is meme culture?

Existing somewhere between a joke and visual art and constantly evolving, it’s hard to pin down exactly what a meme is. Local memer and performer Trashpupdotcom, 28, describes them as a “specific kind of linguistics. The way that language works in general is ultimately that we create structures of references, and by being within the linguistic structure, you ultimately are able to understand the references as they come up. That’s how we can talk to each other. And memes are just sort of one level up from language. It becomes almost like a graded series of reference, that the further you are into weird net humor and online culture, the more you can understand and the more easily shorthands can sort of represent to you and create meaning.”

Some of the artists say they would describe it to a grandparent as being like a “comic strip,” if they could describe it at all. But mostly, memes are a quick and effective way to communicate ideas, which is open to anyone with Internet access.

This is not lost on memer and visual artist Todaywasmybirthday, one of the event’s key organizers, who says “the digital frontier allows for people who don’t have the income to get exposure. It’s people that don’t have money necessarily. But the Internet is free… to a degree. It’s still a commodity in some ways. But if you have access to the Internet you can make a meme, and that’s critical.”

While she continues to make physical art, she states that she never felt like part of an artistic community until she found memes. Her own memes use images of unsettling dolls and figurines to convey her frequently laugh-out-loud funny inner thoughts.

Bay Area musician and memer Sexters Laboratory points out that this accessibility extends to skill and social ties: you don’t need an art degree or an “in” with the gallery community to be a successful memer, just to connect.

The quick, communicative nature of the meme allows artists to build a fanbase akin to those of comedians and musicians, more than those of traditional visual artists. However, this engagement also makes a conventional gallery showing an awkward fit. So how exactly can the artists bring their work outside of the digital realm?

Bubble Punk, a memer from South Bend, Indiana and one of the event’s masterminds wrestled with these questions. “Is there an appetite for a show? Is there an appetite for consumable items, merch — or, do people even want to know the stories of the people behind the scenes of this? I don’t know the answers to those things, and so I thought let’s put together a show and see what happens.”

Local memer and performer Trashpopdotcom, 28, and friend pose in front of original works by Bubblepunk. “If you have a crush on me DM me, I’d love to hear about it,” he says.

Changes in Content

Unlike the other featured makers, memes found Welsh taxidermist Adele Morse, not the other way around, when a photograph of her wild-eyed fox went viral on Russian social media. Since then her work has been sold and written about globally.

“I used to be what I would consider an in real life artist,” says Morse, who studied at the Royal Academy of the Arts. “I wasn’t online at all. When I made the fox, I didn’t have social media or anything.”

Morse first connected with Bubble Punk when he created a meme of her chef d’oeuvre. Since then, she has incorporated more of digital culture into her work.

“It seems like now there’s a change in meme culture as well. There’s much more of a push towards original content. I think pretty much all of the memers are like artists in this show, because from what I saw loads of the stuff translated really well onto canvass or zines or prints. It feels like that underground [atmosphere].”

Though Morse, who lives in East London, did not attend in-person, she contributed a delicate creature, a rock ‘n roll dog dressed in a denim vest, posed in front of a “Hang In There!” poster background.

Asked about sending her work across the world she says, “It was exciting! I’ll be honest with you; it was very nerve-wracking because so many things can go wrong…and some did [laughs]. He was quite fragile and he sustained some damage, and because I’m not there to fix it, it was a bit panicky … but it’s really cool. I kind of wish I could have gone in person because everyone was having so much fun.”

Left: Welsh taxidermist and memer Adele Morse’s little pup had a difficult journey from London. Right: original textile pieces by Todaywasmybirthday

Community and Intentionality

Invites first extended to friends, but the group was adamant that the roster of artists be representative of the diversity within the meme community. This meant limiting the number of artists who were straight white men and platforming artists of color.

“I think the meme world is very white, I think it’s very apparent that it’s very white,” laughs Nick Lovett, 22, (handle @Nickthelovett) a queer African-American memer from Oakland, whose work was featured at the event. “At least the niche meme community that I’m in.”

Lovett started their page partially because, while they found they resonated with many accounts, they didn’t see lives like their own represented. They hope their work inspires other black people to be more vulnerable and creative.

“This nice kind of humor, this way of being weird and witty, I don’t think the world has given People of Color a lot of space to be that, even though we have the capacity and we are that in a lot of ways. In every culture there’s a lot of wit, there’s a lot weirdness, there’s a lot of, you know, uniqueness, but white people have kind of made a monopoly on it, [laughs] a monopoly on everything really, and I think that reflects in the meme world as well.”

Prints by Oakland-based musician and memer Sexters Laboratory lampoon millennial hang-ups and consumer culture

Lovett’s work is exemplary of a specific strain within the subgenre, which is confessional and directly confrontational. They share their experiences with mental health, economic precarity, and sex work with the honesty of a journal entry and sharp humor of a Twitter comedian. In addition to meming, Lovett is a singer and poet, who published their collection “Twenty One: A Story of Survival and Heartbreak Told in Essays and Poems” in September.

“It was really important for me to write because I think that as I neared the age 22, I realized that I didn’t want to let those experiences just stay with me. I knew how impactful they could be for other people. I knew that my words would let other people feel less alone. I knew that if I could release it to the world that I would feel a lot lighter, and that’s exactly what happened.”

The artist known as Todaywasmybirthday emphasizes another decisive factor in who they sought for the show, “We chose people that showed a genuine kindness for others. And I think that was almost the exclusive defining factor: kindness. Are you a person who fosters a sense of community? That was the priority.”

Meme Themes

“I grew up in the Midwest on a large farm without access to friends or family,” says artist Bubble Punk. “It was just me and my mom and my dad and my sister on a 20-acre farm My escape was the media of the time, whether it be comic books, or television or movies.”

Bubble Punk’s work, which remixes elements from ’80s and ’90s analogue culture, is exemplary of the nostalgic streak in millennial meme culture. Like alt.vista, who similarly draws on older technology in his work, he describes his childhood as a happy one.

“Now that I’m an adult and I’m happy with where I’m at and I can consume or pursue things at my leisure, I really like to revisit the parts of my childhood that were life-giving to me, like the TGIFs, and the Kurt Russell movies, and the comic book ads, and just bringing new life to those things, and making something that brought me so much joy into the contemporary space — not a parody of it, but almost like a love letter with an injection of dark comedy.” He is adamant that he does not take any of it too seriously.

While memes thrive on silliness and sometimes crude humor, some explore more serious themes. LilPerc666, who was also one of the event’s music coordinators, jokingly describes her work as “a lot of very purple self-help memes.”

The musician and record label founder’s memes display biting social commentary but also earnest advice to people who are struggling.

“I feel like I’ve found a modicum of peace that a lot of people will never experience. I don’t think I’m perfect, and I don’t think that my belief system is necessarily perfect, but I think that it’s something special, and I think that it’s something a lot of people can relate to and grab on to.”

Works by memer Wahhhhmmunism reference Nintendo and Looney Toons with an anti-capitalist bent

Other memers have also used the format to explore Left political ideology, with much work harkening back to earlier punk zine culture. Some artists contributed zines to the event, like Trashpupdotcom’s re-appropriation of a Rush Limbaugh book into poetry.

Asked if he thinks meme art shows can be a step towards real life organizing, he says, “no. I think art is useless [laughs] but in a good way. That’s what’s so nice about art, is it’s not useful. I don’t believe that art can actually be political, but the communities we build around art can. And in that way maybe it is, but [meme shows] specifically, I don’t think so.”

What’s next?

Buzz abounds around repeating the idea in L.A. and elsewhere. Sexters Laboratory is planning for a Bay Area show this Spring, where three of the artists in the show are based. Bubble Punk has added Portland to the list of potential cities.

He notes potential areas of improvement. The Koreatown space, while conducive to community, has lighting that does not showcase the art well. Though admittedly, community is the biggest draw when most of the art has already been posted on Instagram. He would also like to add a meme-themed drink menu next time.

What is still unclear is whether such events are enjoyable one-offs, or a step towards building a more IRL subculture. Participants came from cities as far-flung as Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. But covering such distance is not always sustainable offline. Todaywasmybirthday says, “sometimes it is hard to meet those people in real life that you mesh with so well. I think that human nature is very much to seek a physical connection. A face-to-face, you’re looking another human being in the eyes. I think we’ll seek that in the end.”