Banksy Monkey Business


“They say that if you gave a thousand monkeys a thousand typewriters at some point you’d have yourself a novel. I was wondering if you gave a thousand monkeys a thousand sticks of dynamite how long would it take for them to make the city a more beautiful looking place.”

The Monkey is a recurring motif in Banksy’s oeuvre, used by the artist as a deliberately provocative character since the early 2000s. In a contemporary take on Singerie, a visual arts genre popular among French artists in the early 18th century which depicted comical scenes of monkeys aping human behavior, Banksy’s chimps too, are often presented in ironic juxtapositions that provide a tongue-in-cheek satirizing of society which so often thinks of itself as ‘above’ the animal kingdom.
Abraham Teniers, Tabakskollegium von Affen, mid-17th century
Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Monkeys and humans have historically shared a close relationship, as expounded in Charles Darwin’s mid-1800s publication, Theory of Evolution. Darwin’s book asserted that humans evolved from apes and thus although humans may have set out to create distance between our relatives by ridiculing them as savages – as popularized by French artists in the 18th century in a visual arts genre called singerie, whereby monkeys are depicted in comical scenes aping human behavior – rather, so often we see humans acting in ways that cannot be considered as ‘above’ the animal kingdom.
Antoine Watteau, The Monkey Sculptor, circa 1710
Collection of Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans
In contemporary popular culture, this is famously explored in the internationally iconic franchise, Planet of the Apes, a trilogy of science-fiction classics set on a futuristic planet where apes rule and humans are slaves. In their clash for control, complex sociological themes are explored, reflecting tensions relating to humanity and power that are also probed in Banksy’s satiric work.
Still Image from Planet of the Apes
In recent years, Banksy’s attitude has taken on an increasingly acerbic and politically charged tone. His Walled Off Hotel in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, touted by the artist as having the ‘worst view in the world’, overlooks the highly controversial Israeli West Bank barrier which separates Israel from the Palestinian territories. Contrasting its 19th century bourgeois interior are disturbing aberrations crammed into every corner, such as the life-size monkey bellboy that welcomes guests through the door. Employing zoological symbolism to further ridicule this spectacle, Banksy’s dark humor moves visitors outside of their comfort zones, drawing attention to areas of social and political struggle.


When Banksy painted his self-portrait in the 2000s, he replaced his head with that of a it a monkey. Since, of course, his identity is a highly guarded secret, it is perfectly logical that he would not paint his actual face – but Banksy never does anything “just because.” In order to understand why he might have opted for a monkey head, one needs to do a bit more research and digging about the various imagery that occurs time and time again in his work.
Self-Portrait, 2000
Oil and spray-paint on canvas laid on board
122×122 cm (48×48 inches)
Certainly anonymity is vital to Banksy because graffiti remains mostly illegal. However, with more than 10 million followers on Instagram, he is (rather ironically) among the most well-known visual artists in the world.
In that sense, one might describe him as the anti-Warhol. “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Warhol‘s “prophecy” could not have been more right with the rise of Instagram celebrities our society has created. Now, more than ever, everyone is trying to be famous – even if only for their 15 minutes.
Banksy, on the other hand, prefers anonymity.
James Pfaff, Banksy, Monkey Mask Session, 2003
As the ultimate tongue-in-cheek symbol for his LA show, Banksy created a work on canvas that played on one of the most famous and controversial images of Hollywood celebrity: Demi Moore’s iconic 1991 Vanity Fair cover. Featuring the idiosyncratic monkey mask – a disguise associated with Banksy himself and familiar to well-known images of the notoriously anonymous artist – this mischievous and brazen parody utterly encapsulates the daring humor at the heart of the artist’s breakthrough exhibition. Here an iconic image of contemporary celebrity finds subversion and a new purpose at the hands of one of the most important artistic voices of our time; its imagery standing as a perfect symbol for what is considered Banksy’s most significant exhibition to date.
Created in 2006 and used as the poster image for the artist’s landmark LA exhibition in September that year, Original Concept for Barely Legal Poster (After Demi Moore) is Banksy at his most outrageous. Featured on advertisements pasted around the city in the days leading up to the exhibition, this image was the perfect emblem for Banksy’s breakthrough US show: Barely Legal. Juxtaposed against a blue-sky backdrop of the famous Hollywood sign nestled in the iconic surrounding hills, the Barely Legal poster was billed as a “three-day vandalized warehouse extravaganza.” Taking place in one of the US’s most divisive cities – a city where glamour, wealth and celebrity is minutes away from an equal dose of crime, poverty and homelessness – this hugely ambitious and now legendary exhibition heralded the arrival of Banksy on the global stage.


Simple Intelligence Testing, made of 5 parts painted on canvases, tells the story of a chimpanzee undergoing an intelligence testing and opening safes in order to find its bananas.
The story ends by this especially clever chimpanzee stacking all the safes on top of each other and escaping the laboratory through the ventilation opening on the ceiling.. The 91.5 cm × 91.5 cm paintings, painted in oil on canvas, date from the year 2000 and are reminiscent of a comic strip.
This incredible work sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2008 for what was, at the time, a record sum of$1.3 million.
Simple Intelligence Testing, made of 5 parts painted on canvases, tells the story of a chimpanzee undergoing an intelligence testing and opening safes in order to find its bananas.
The story ends by this especially clever chimpanzee stacking all the safes on top of each other and escaping the laboratory through the ventilation opening on the ceiling.. The 91.5 cm × 91.5 cm paintings, painted in oil on canvas, date from the year 2000 and are reminiscent of a comic strip.
The first three pictures show that the monkey opens the three safes at will without assigning any meaning to the three symbols on the safes. The instinct-driven animal is unable to recognize that the bananas are in the right vault with the pyramid.
The monkey has to open all the cupboards to find the bananas. In the fourth picture we see the monkey holding two bananas in his hands. He has achieved his goal and found the bananas. After the fourth picture, the animal experiment would be over.
During Banksy’s series of experiments, however, the chimpanzee becomes aware that it is trapped in a laboratory. He finally breaks with his behavior and goes through a development.

While the monkey in the first pictures is primarily a symbol for the primitive in general, in the fifth picture, paradoxically, the positive connotations appear cunning and cheeky. Here the monkey manages to break out of its prison by stacking the safes on top of each other and slipping through the ceiling. The fifth picture serves as an alternative end to the test series. Unlike conventional animal experiments, Banksy gives the monkey the chance to escape the laboratory by using intelligence and available resources.

At Banksy, the monkey functions as a symbol for humans. He criticizes the kind of person who acts according to norms and rules without evaluating them and making their own decisions. Individual behaviors are subjected to social and political constraints. The series of images Simple Intelligence Testing in Dumb Animals is therefore to be understood as a system criticism. Banksy gives the solution in the last picture – this can be undermined by intelligent use of the tools provided by the system. Banksy’s books “ Banging your head against a brick wall ” and “ Wall and Peace ” with the quote next to the series of images “A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to” consolidate this interpretation.


“Laugh Now, but one day we’ll be in charge”


Laugh Now first appeared in 2002, and was commissioned by the Oceans Room nightclub on Morley Street in Brighton. When it was originally executed, it was a 6-meter spray-painted mural depicting the now famous monkey repeated 10 times.
Banksy’s work over the past two decades has generated tremendous amounts of both praise and criticism, and nowhere is his simultaneous appeal and disdain more present than it is in Laugh Now. Comprised of his signature means of urban expression, it perfectly encapsulates Banksy’s modus operandi while conjuring the dark thematic elements that underlie such a comic piece. Ten monkeys stand side-by-side, full frontal and unashamed to display their sandwich-board messages: “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.”
The spare black spray paint upon the bleached white board lends the normally mischievous primates a sinister air, their expressions eliminated in a hyper-saturation of darkness.
Laugh Now portrays a forlorn monkey, wearing a sandwich board suggesting that he is oppressed or enslaved. Along with the rat, the monkey is one of Banksy’s most frequently used animal characters, to satirize the nature of humankind. Laugh Now could well be a criticism of the way humans have been treating animals, our primate cousins, whether poaching or capturing them for entertainment or medical testing. The provocative text on the board is equal parts ominous and menacing, suggesting that these characters are preparing for an uprising – as if Banksy is warning of an imminent revolution. It is also the artist’s humorous take on Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Banksy released Laugh Now as a screen-print on paper in 2003, with a brown background.
Laugh Now, 2003
Screen-print in colors on paper
Edition: 150 signed, 600 unsigned
Banksy created numerous originals in various sizes and on various media with the Laugh Now stencil.


Keep It Real features one of Banksy’s most iconic and popular images, the chimpanzee appearing here in one of its many incarnations as the loveable underdog wearing a sandwich board – underestimated and presently viewed as “less than,” but has the potential to flip the script.
Banksy, Existencilism
Standing upright like a human being with their signature look of slouched shoulders and downturned eyes, Banksy’s monkeys often popped up overnight on streets, walls and bridges of cities throughout the world. The text written on their boards are often times foreboding, warning of a future that looks different than it is today, while other times the text was less ominous – as was the case with Keep It Real.


Monkey Detonator, one of Banksy’s most famed and coveted images, perfectly exemplifies the Bristol-born artist’s irreverent wit in its portrayal of a cheerful monkey jumping directly onto a detonator to ignite an explosion. Caught mid-leap with hands already grasped around the plunger, ready to push down, a curious juxtaposition is presented between the dangerousness of the device and the chimp’s determination, despite the obvious risk of being fatally harmed himself.
As a captivating example from Banksy’s visually striking oeuvre, Monkey Detonator invites viewers to both laugh at the absurdity of the composition while also reflecting on the distinct socio-political undercurrents.
Monkey Detonator (Diptych), 2002
Stencil spray-paint and emulsion on canvas
Each 76×76 cm (30×30 inches)
As a vocal anti-war activist, protesting modern warfare is a theme Banksy often explores in his work, appreciating how “it takes a lot of guts to stand up anonymously in a western democracy and call for things no-one else believes in – like peace and justice and freedom.”
Executed in the wake of 9/11, in the midst of escalating tensions as the US government began publicly setting out the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq supported by key allies, the present composition offers a biting social commentary on global issues that are still as poignant today as they were in 2002 when Banksy first created the work. Subversive yet with an ostensibly light-hearted tone, Monkey Detonator powerfully illustrates the artist’s ability to use art to relay messages of social importance that are universally understood.
In the case of Monkey Detonator, the mischievous protagonist appears mere seconds away from causing a violent explosion, bringing to mind the idea of reckless action leading to disaster. Though one may argue that the wild primate is blissfully unaware of the impending consequences of his actions, the radio on his ear reveals otherwise. Used in warfare to trigger a wireless detonation from a distance away, Banksy’s inclusion of this detail confronts viewers with the subject’s alarmingly strong sense of determination that drives this perilous course of action. He is taking orders from someone, but who might that someone be? And what might they be seeking to explode?


Monkey Queen portrays a monkey wearing all the ornamentation of a Queen in front of a background made of red, white, blue, clearly evocative of the Union Jack. Painted on the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee to honor her 60 years on the throne, Monkey Queen superimposes the black and white stenciled face of a monkey onto Queen Elizabeth II’s iconic bust image.
Monkey Queen, 2003
Oil and emulsion on canvas, 92×92 cm (36 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches)
Banksy prophesizes a society run by our primate cousins, having a Monkey Queen would be the final step in a world where monkeys took over. This print raises issues regarding the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and also questions the actual power of world’s leaders throughout various times in history. Monkey Queen was first displayed publicly in a London youth club, The Chill Out Zone. It made headlines when the government asked that the picture be removed from the front window during the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

Deride and Conquer

Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall
Monkey Queen, 2003
Screen-print on paper, 50×35 cm
Edition: 750 (of which 150 signed)


Potent and poignant, bold and brash, Banksy’s monumental oil painting of the House of Commons offers a premonitory insight into the increasingly tumultuous face of politics in contemporary Britain. Spanning an impressive thirteen feet in length, this is the largest known canvas ever created by the anonymous street artist whose subversive practice has earned him world renown. Bitingly satirical in nature, the painting depicts the inner sanctum of British politics; yet instead of debating MPs, the House of Commons is here filled with chimpanzees in a scene of mayhem and madness. The work was created more than a decade ago, and was first exhibited in the ground-breaking Banksy vs. Bristol Museum exhibition. This took place at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery in 2009, famously attracting over 300,000 visitors.
Photo Credit:  TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images


Entitled Question Time at the time of the show, the painting has since been reworked by the artist and more recently retitled. Once glowing, the Commons’ lamps have been snuffed-out by Banksy, while the upturned banana of an ape in the foreground now faces downwards; atop these and other subtle adjustments, the painting also bears a new name: Devolved Parliament. Exhibited under this title, the present work returned to the spotlight in a timely exhibition at the Bristol museum which debuted just prior to March 29, 2019: the date originally intended to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union. Dubbed as Brexit Day, the repeated delay of this date, (later pushed to October 31, 2019, and later to January 31, 2020) makes Banksy’s prophetic and sardonically humorous Devolved Parliament ever more pertinent.