I’ve been seeing a lot of memes recently about the little mermaid trailer controversy: some people are upset that Disney’s new live action Ariel will be black – and have used arguments like “mermaids have always historically been white” or “it makes no sense for people under the sea to have more melonin!”
But the truth is, most deep sea creatures have black or red skin, and you could argue that white people in history had more time to devote to writing or illustration, which means stereotypically white mermaids are just another symptom of systemic racism.
So I used AI to generate a bunch of black mermaid art illustrations, so that people can used to being able to picture diverse mermaids (and all fantasy creatures). In my opinion AI is an opportunity for marginalized groups to rapidly become a larger part of the fantasy landscape, because pictures speak louder than words. So next time anybody says mermaids can’t be black… for reasons… show them one of these.
I made these nearly a year ago when midjourney was fun and new, but not great. I updated it recently with midjourney 5, so the top gallery is much higher quality.
Not that it matters, but the earliest mermaid story is the Syrian goddess Atargatis, who was rebranded by Venus/Aphrodite – and then made famous by renaissance Italian painters; and then taken further by English painters like Waterhouse (whose painting graces the Wikipedia definition of mermaid.) I’d like to spam my own versions out to a bunch of image sites so they start to show up in image results as the normative/default.
Because – and here is the important part – the history of traditional mermaid art has been dominated by cultural elitists and racial bias through exclusion and oppression for hundreds of years; and also through simple things like *black people being slaves* or more recently, possibly being less income secure, which means less time and resources to devote to their art. Which is why the internet is flooded with derivative, pale-skinned mermaid illustrations that seems to give the appearance that everybody agrees mermaids are white. And that therefore *this* is somehow wrong:
The Little Mermaid controversy
I’m making black mermaid art because there should be more beautiful examples of supernatural creatures; this isn’t just a commentary or reaction to the drama around the Little Mermaid’s recasting. But…
There’s probably an argument to be made about how this “white-presenting” façade of fair-skinned fantasy excludes the black experience in a traumatic way – that dreams and fantasies, and even just pretty imaginative fantasy art – always feels exclusive; an otherness of fantasy expression which hasn’t included them. The thrill and mystique of the supernatural, the forbidden needs or fears of our subconscious, has always been a universal part of the human condition, but most representations of it in art, literature or modern media have been limited in scope and unfairly selective.
The whole AI art controversy is a big thing, and yes it’s scary for people who have trained for years to suddenly be surpassed by AI illustration tools. But generally when technology allows freedom of expression, with less cost to entry for tools and education, marginalized and minority voices get the benefit of being able to produce work that typically can only be produced by someone with a larger budget and commercial intent. The best artists tend to be paid artists who can afford to go professional, but this means accepting creative direction.
Revolutions have always started by giving powerful tools to those without a voice, which allows for new forms of expression, awareness and visibility. They can be messy and even violent, but this issue is not limited to artwork: many roles are being erased, displaced or transformed by new AI technologies that are only starting to work right now for the first time ever. We are going through massive systemic change: which is not always pleasant for everyone, but those with the most to win will fight the hardest to be seen.
Because I used midjourney, a lot of them look similar and the faces and hands aren’t great – I thought about cleaning them up in Photoshop but I think allowing this project to be about quantity and visible representation of imaginative potential is more important than making each one as striking as possible. If you’d like to clean these up though, that’s fine! Just please ask before you use them commercially (if you want one for a mermaid novel book cover, the answer is probably yes…). Feel free to put them in blog posts, headers or social media posts.
PS. I wish I had a better a better site to host all these, but I don’t yet. This is a personal art blog where I sometimes talk about deep issues facing creative entrepreneurs, and I also write mermaid novels, but I’d love to see these get featured on bigger, more relevant sites.
Link back here so people can grab their own images.
Lick here to see more midjourney prompts
Best Mermaid books
The little mermaid was originally a fairy tale, and something that’s inspired me as I write my own dark fantasy mermaid novels. I also keep a list of best classic and bestelling books about mermaids you should probably read if you love mythology:
Mary Sue also has a great list of 9 black mermaid books.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.