From Mockery to Mastery: Banksy’s Laugh Now and the Power of the Monkey

“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 it would take for them to make the city a more beautiful looking place.” – Banksy

Banksy, the enigmatic and provocative street artist, has long captivated the public’s imagination with incisive and often humorous social critiques. One of the most iconic works, Laugh Now from 2003, features a forlorn-looking monkey, depicted wearing a sandwich board with the ominous words, Laugh Now, but one day we’ll be in charge. This screenprint, like many of Banksy’s pieces, uses stark imagery and dark humour to convey a deeper message about power dynamics, societal structures, and the often-absurd nature of human behavior. Renowned for anarchic and satirical interventions in public spaces. Banksy’s motifs, such as the forlorn monkey of Laugh Now, have become central icons in an extensive and thematically diverse oeuvre.

Lot 26A. Banksy (British, born 1974) Laugh Now 2003
screenprint in colours on wove paper, ed. 488/600
accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from Pest Control

Like many of Banksy’s compositions, Laugh Now is minimalist yet impactful. The palette draws immediate attention to the central figure, the monkey, whose detailed features, and body language are meticulously crafted. The slumped shoulders and downcast eyes of the monkey evoke a sense of sadness and burden, amplifying the emotional weight of the piece. The expression contrasts sharply with the bold, assertive text on the sandwich board, creating a juxtaposition that is both visually and conceptually engaging.

Laugh Now was originally commissioned by the now-defunct Ocean Rooms nightclub in London. The motif first appeared as a six-meter-long spray-painted mural behind the venue’s bar. In this mural, the figure of the monkey was repeated ten times in a row, each wearing a similar sandwich board, forming a haunting and repetitive backdrop. In 2013, the original mural was sold at Phillips New York, where it fetched nearly half a million USD. Today, Laugh Now is internationally recognised as a quintessential Banksy work and remains one of the artist’s most collected and popular prints.

Alongside the rat, the monkey is one of Banksy’s most frequently seen across Banksy’s oeuvre, serving as powerful symbols to satirize human nature and highlight issues of animal rights. Laugh Now critiques the treatment of animals, echoing concerns over poaching, captivity for entertainment, and medical testing. By humanizing these creatures, Banksy compels viewers to reconsider their ethical stance and relationships towards animals.

Banksy (British, born 1974) Devolved Parliament 2009, oil on canvas. Sold for $10,522,473 USD ($15,927,814 AUD) Sotheby’s, London, 3 October 2019, lot 28

In 2009, seven years after creating Laugh Now, Banksy unveiled Devolved Parliament. This monumental painting depicts the House of Commons populated entirely by chimpanzees, a biting commentary on the state of contemporary politics. The work not only fulfils the Laugh Now prophecy but also underscores the absurdity and incompetence often associated with political institutions. Devolved Parliament made headlines when it sold for $12 million USD at Sotheby’s London in 2019, becoming one of the most expensive Banksy paintings to be sold at auction.

From Laugh Now to the simian legislators of Devolved Parliament, the recurring motif of monkeys serves as a rhetorical device, allowing Banksy to deliver astute political commentary. These works highlight the thinly veiled reference to politicians and the chaotic nature of governance, using humour and satire to elevate the discourse around societal issues.

Simultaneously at the centre of the art world and apart from it, Banksy remains an anonymous outsider, yet the influence is undeniable. Laugh Now epitomizes the ability to distill complex social and political commentary into a single, powerful image. As a master of visual rhetoric, Banksy continues to challenge, inspire, and provoke thought through art, leaving an indelible mark on contemporary culture.

By Hannah Ryan, Art Specialist

Top Image: Banksy (British, born 1974) Laugh Now 2002, Stencil spray paint on painted board, in 3 parts. Sold for $400,000 USD ($605,478 AUD) Phillips, New York, 12 November 2013, lot 161

June 2024