• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Meme Streets

When a meme goes viral it spreads and mutates at fiber-optic speed. This is the case with last week's inaugural Bermeme Sanders, introduced by doc filmmaker Nicolas Heller, aka New York Nico, and illustrator/art director Naomi Otsu. Together they created a memetic tribute to the former presidential candidate and Vermont's favorite son, Senator Bernie Sanders. Bundled up and socially distanced on the Capitol reviewing stand, he is the proverbial grumpy uncle with the heart of gold. Since the meme's first appearance, it has been snowballing and catching fire at equal speed—at once cool and hot. So before it inevitably loses its momentum and melts into meme-memory, I asked Nick and Naomi …

When and why did you decide to make the Bernie meme?

Nick: We were watching the inauguration live and simultaneously checking Instagram and Twitter for updates. A few people I follow posted the image of Bernie sitting on the chair, and I immediately could see him in various scenarios. The first idea I had was to put him at a newsstand, but couldn’t find the right image online. So then I figured I could put him at a hot dog cart. My friend @newyorkcityvibe has photographed a ton of food carts, so I asked him if we could use any of them. I sent the background image over to Naomi, and she whipped it up along with Bernie feeding pigeons and Bernie on the subway. We knew time was of the essence so we had to act fast.



How long did it take to get some traction the the web? Nick: Literally five minutes. But I’m sure other concepts were already in the works before we posted. It’s super low hanging fruit.

You made a number of variations. How many? Nick: More than enough.

Naomi: Three.


Others have riffed on the concept—is that what a meme is meant to do? Nick: Yes, memes are meant to have other people create their own. However, they tend to get old after 24 hours. It’s been three days and I cringe every time I see someone post a new version.


Which one is your favorite?

Nick: There were some really good ones. My favorite was Bernie in front of a green screen set-up. There were also good "Sopranos" crossovers. Naomi: Bernie with the green screen was very funny. I like this meme (below).


Is this particular photo of Bernie packed with a particular meaning? Naomi: I think something about him sitting in the cold, alone, far away from everyone with giant mittens resonated with my emotional state (especially after this past year) and probably resonated with a lot of people. Not sure if this particular meme had a deeper meaning, or if memes ever have a deep meaning. Memes to me are relatable emotional states depicted and wrapped in a joke (at least the ones I seem to like).

Are you surprised by how popular it has become? Nick: I am not surprised at all. I can’t confirm we were the first to do it, but had we not done it, someone else would have. It was just too easy. Naomi: I'm surprised how long it has lasted!




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