The Bristol-born Street Art legend is well-known for his anarchic and satirical interventions in public space. Banksy has incorporated several recurrent motifs into his enormous and thematically diverse œuvre.
On the one hand, their small size mean that monkeys are easily reproducible on the street. Simple to paint quickly, the humble ape has allowed Banksy to avoid detection and worse – arrest by the police.
Secondly, and more importantly, however: monkeys are the perfect way for Banksy to communicate his scathing satires of humanity, and the diverse social and political mores for which he sees it directly responsible.
Here we unpack the meaning of some of Banksy’s most famous monkey-based artworks.
Banksy’s Devolved Parliament is an oil-on-canvas painting from 2009, depicting the Chamber of the House of Commons – one of the two chambers that make up the UK Parliament.
The main ‘difference’ between the painting’s portrayal and reality? The chamber is occupied not by MPs but by primates.
The work sold for an outstanding £9.9 million in 2019, becoming Banksy’s most expensive work at that time. The following year, in 2020, Devolved Parliament was quickly beaten to the title of record highest ever price for a Banksy artwork. Game Changer, a piece created on the one-year anniversary of the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown, sold for £16.8 million. All proceeds were gifted to NHS charities. Read more about Game Changer's sale in our article about it here.
As recent political events in the United Kingdom and beyond only confirm, Banksy’s iconic Laugh Now has proved somewhat prophetic.
A thinly veiled reference to the politicians who, for better or worse, run the country, this instantly recognisable piece features a monkey wearing a ‘sandwich board’. Displayed on it are the words ‘Laugh Now But One Day We’ll Be In Charge’.
Referencing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which proved that humans and monkeys share a common ancestor, Laugh Now is proof of Banksy’s sardonic wit and erudite treatment of contemporary culture.
Darwin’s face appeared alongside that of the late Diana Princess of Wales in the 2004 work, Di-Faced Tenners.
An iconic work from the Banksy canon, his Monkey Detonator painting, sees the artist combine his tongue-in-cheek sensibilities with a dazzling proficiency for simple, captivating imagery and composition.
Accompanying a monkey – ready to plunge its arms downwards and spark an explosion – is a bunch of bananas. Strapped together with a timer, they are connected to the monkey via a simple line of yellow paint.
Like many other Banksy works, the Monkey Detonator painting has appeared in situ and was printed as an official print in 2002. In 2006, it appeared in a back alley in London’s Waterloo.
Melding classical and contemporary traditions, Monkey Poison (2004) sees Banksy stencil a gas guzzling monkey over the top of a Dutch Old Master reproduction. It is part of the artist’s Crude Oils series.
The striking contrast between the pointedly satirical primate and the bucolic, rural scene asks a difficult question: have we become mindless consumers of art unable to appreciate a work for its immaterial qualities? For how it makes us feel?
Monkey Poison isn’t the first time Banksy has confronted the capitalist logics of the contemporary art market. Many have interpreted the artist’s self-directed 2010 film Exit Through The Gift Shop as a complex publicity stunt designed to cast aspersions upon current market trends, which have seen art become a valuable material commodity.
Ironically, in 2020, Monkey Poison was sold by the owners of Amsterdam’s Moco Museum as a means to avoid sacking staff during the Covid-19 pandemic. It realised a staggering £1.5 million at auction.
Originally painted to mark the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, Monkey Queen ‘takes aim’ at the reigning monarch. Likening the continued existence of the British Royal Family to a ‘primitive’ institution, this is one of Banksy’s more controversial pieces.
Depicting a monkey wearing the crown jewels, Monkey Queen has been composed in several variations.
In one version of the work, a monkey’s face is positioned against a gesturally painted Union Flag: a symbol of Britishness which, for many, has negative connotations.
This version once adorned the walls of The Chill Out Zone - a youth club in Newent, Gloucestershire, where it sparked complaints and a national scandal dubbed ‘Banksygate’.
Another version, which features the dartboard-like sphere used as a logo by ‘60s rock band The Who, satirises another key element of contemporary British culture – music – and its graphic, hard-edged iconography.
Simple Intelligence Testing is a 5-part canvas-based work that recounts the travails of a chimpanzee. Subjected to a behavioural experiment, the chimpanzee seeks out an edible reward, hidden in one of several green boxes.
In the painting’s final panel — and having found and eaten a banana — the chimpanzee arranges each of the three boxes on top of each other. In a final show of its intelligence, the chimpanzee then uses the boxes to escape through a ventilation shaft in the ceiling. Don’t underestimate the monkey, Banksy tells us.
An early Banksy work, Simple Intelligence Testing was exhibited in 2000 at Bristol’s Severnshed, in what was the artist’s first ever solo exhibition. In 2008, it sold for £635,000 at Sotheby’s auction house in London.
As we have seen, Banksy cleverly uses monkeys to make political points from all angles; they are not always a symbol of the political establishments slovenliness, as in Devolved Parliament, though that is often the final takeaway message. Monkeys are, in Banksy's artwork, at times an allegation of humanity as backwards, unevolved, and at times, a reminder of our proximity to those 'below' us on the ladder—whether that is in relation to class, or our actual treatment of animals.
Above all else, monkeys are an instantly recognisable signature of Banksy's oeuvre.