Rainbow Puke, A Meme Analysis

Working with memes is an essential tool in graphics and social media. What are then and how to use them is covered in this post.

Due to modern technology it is now possible for images to be reproduced in many ways quickly and cheaply. While most people might not be aware of this influence, Berger (1971) says the technology to reproduce images has changed society profoundly. Ewen (1999) talks about style in fashion and design, and he connects it to our identities and how we express whom we are. For example, in my case, mass reproduced rainbow puke images were everywhere and I was attracted to them for some unknown reason.

I am on the computer every day, and I see so many digital images that I can not remember them all. The rainbow puke meme, in particular, captured my attention and I noticed it everywhere. A meme is defined as “an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)” (“Meme,” n.d., para. 1).

I noticed rainbow puke, as seen in Figure 1, many times and in different variations, most recently in a social media application that turned faces into puking rainbows. Being able to become a puking rainbow with a click of a camera phone makes it easy for anyone to puke rainbows. The mechanical reproduction of desirable styles, or identities, is historically a cause for concern because Ewen (1999) says while “the symbolic province of elegance had been democratized. . . the quality suffered” (p. 38).


Figure 1. Rainbow collection samples (Cline, 2016)

Figure 1. Rainbow collection samples (Cline, 2016)

My interest in puking rainbows led me to online research to know the history of the image and, thereby, understanding its meaning (Howells & Negreiros, 2012). It turns out research on this popular meme already exists and the origin of it is confirmed. It all started with this blogger’s post:

The packaging on Japanese snacks is probably some of the most colorful stuff you’ll ever see . . . In all seriousness, it looks like a rainbow threw-up all over their snack section and forever stained the packages with a million bright colors.

Hmm, a rainbow throwing up a rainbow of colors . . . Tell ya what. To any of you who draw me picture of a rainbow throwing up a rainbow of colors: I will post your pictures here in the blog. (RoG, 2006, August 6, para. 3)

A blogger might have started the meme, but that meme gave birth to child memes of its  own. This multiplicity of image illustrates its power. Images can grow in number and influence, seemingly all on their own. When I Googled the keyword rainbow puke, I received almost half a million results. There are also related keywords. For example, in searching for one of the related keywords, unicorn puke, I received about 350,000 additional Google results. Clearly, there is something in rainbow puke that many people relate to.

The definition of a meme is similar to the definition of an archetype. Archetype is a psychological term that refers to both an image and a behavior pattern (Rowland, 2012). In this theory, the puking rainbow image is not just a picture, it is also a pattern of behavior. What behavior pattern is associated with rainbow puke? I do not think that it is vital to agree on a single interpretation, but I will share my thinking.

In the real world, barfing is a violent muscle spasm and rainbows are a light spectrum. While I cannot explore all rainbow and vomit associations in this short paper, it is clear that rainbow puke is a contradiction. Adding rainbow to puke makes puke light. Adding vomit to rainbows makes rainbows nauseating. Another important aspect of the meme is its comical or cartoon visual style. Comedy can make tragedy less offensive and also make happiness seem cynical. Perhaps the behavior of puking rainbows is laughter, but not everyone finds the same things funny.

To gain a deeper understanding on this image I painted a version. My version of the meme is titled Rainbow Bird, seen in Figure 2. Its form is 11 x 22 inches and made with mixed media on stretched canvas. It features a glittery cartoon bird on the left-hand side, spewing a prism shaped glittery rainbow across the right two thirds of the canvas. The background is stripes, like abstracted grass, and it has a thin rainbow thread that crosses over the top of the main one and circles around back. You see a photographic form and not a painting in this paper.

Figure 2. Rainbow bird (Cline, 2016).

Figure 2. Rainbow bird (Cline, 2016).

There are different ways of interpreting image. One theory is to focus on the icons (Howells & Negreiros, 2012). One icon is the bird, associated with many things like a free spirit. Another is the rainbow, associated with myths like Noah’s Ark. Birds sing to communicate. The bird in my image looks like it is singing a rainbow rather than puking. Laughter, like puke, is normally an involuntary bodily function that can be violent and uncontrollable. Singing is almost the opposite; it is a form of communication that requires self-control and is often very soft.

As an artist, creative languages are a priority in my life. I mix colors all the time, and the perception of color can change a lot depending on what it is next to. In Gestalt theory, objects placed near each other form relationships in the mind (Zakia, 2013). In my image, the alignment of the rainbow, centered horizontally to the bird, and in connection relates the element’s spirit, light, sound, and communication. I gave this painting to my mother because it reminded me of how she is a powerful advocate in creating joyful life experiences, especially for me in my childhood.

In conclusion, the volume and diversity of digital rainbow puke images available on the Internet is fascinating to me. The superficial visual similarities are easy to spot, but the behavior patterns and personal associations are more difficult to perceive. Not all rainbow puke images are equal. It takes careful observation and thoughtful reflection, leveraging appropriate visual theories, to read a picture. Personally, by engaging creatively with the image I was able to gain deeper insight into my personal identity, perspective, and beliefs about the world.