“So much intrigue surrounds the man: about his identity, for sure (for we all love a mystery), but also around his art, and a sharp strain of humour within it that speaks to people quickly and crisply.”
— Steve Wright
Globally revered as one of the most prolific creators of the 21st Century, British-born Banksy has amassed an unparalleled, legendary reputation as an artist-provocateur-phenomenon that far precedes his anonymous identity. Celebrated for pushing the boundaries with his street art interventions and distinctive studio practice, his oeuvre is characterised by dark humour, satire, and subversive epigrams that provide tongue-in-cheek yet poignant commentaries on social or political aspects of contemporary society. Rendered in his signature monochrome stenciled style, Laugh Now Panel A is immediately recognisable as one of Banksy’s most iconic motifs, featuring a forlorn monkey with slumped shoulders wearing a sandwich board that bears the foreboding pledge, ‘Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.’ As a culturally formidable image that conveys more than it initially may suggest, the present work masterfully encapsulates Banksy’s ability to distil complex statements into a powerful means of artistic expression.
Laugh Now Panel A is a quintessential Banksy picture that shares its imagery with Laugh Now, a different work that also created in the watershed year of 2002 which marked the first public appearance of the chimpanzee in Banksy’s oeuvre. Instead of cropping up unexpectedly in public like the majority of his stenciled renderings, Laugh Now was unusual in that it was commissioned by the Ocean Rooms nightclub on Morley Street, Brighton, designed to form the backdrop of their bar. The six meter work portrayed the repeated depiction of ten monkeys who confront the viewer with boards strapped to their bodies, six of which are emblazoned with the same slogan as in the present work, ‘Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.’ Executed in the artist’s signature graphic aesthetic with compositionally simplistic yet visually striking imagery, Banksy used Laugh Now as his starting point to disseminate his message to a wider population.
This is important, as since its inception, this motif of the monkey with his placard has since become one of Banksy’s most iconic, cherished, and instantly recognisable images. The composition has been recreated by the artist himself repeatedly in the years to follow, but also replicated and imitated countless times, with a simple Google search of ‘Banksy – Laugh Now’ producing over 660,000 image results. Indisputably, Banksy’s Laugh Now motif has helped to cement his position as a key figure in the art historical canon, and when the original work from Ocean Rooms l sold at auction in 2008, it broke the record for the artist at that time.
“You paint 100 chimpanzees and they still call you a guerrilla artist” — Banksy
The present work is thus rare, not only because it was also created in the year 2002, making it one of Banksy’s first Laugh Now creations, but also because this specific iteration – Laugh Now Panel A– boasts the historical significance of having been unveiled at the artist’s first Los Angeles show (and fourth ever solo show in a formal exhibition space), which was hosted at 33 1/3 Gallery between 19 July – 18 August 2002. Titled Existencilism, the exhibition debuted works including Queen Victoria and Love is in the air, which along with his Laugh Now chimps, are now considered icons of our times.
Laugh Now Panel A also comprised part of the major exhibition War, Capitalism & Liberty at the prestigious Palazzo Cipolla Museum in Rome, which ran between 24 May – 4 September 2016. Visited by thousands, the museum show was highly praised as a thought-provoking display of his most well-known pieces, providing an insightful survey into Banksy’s contextual exploration into the globally prevalent issues the exhibition title lays out.
Although Banksy’s identity remains anonymous, the impact of his upbringing in Bristol on his work has been well documented. It was here that he initiated his distinctive stenciled spray paint technique, which was largely developed out of a need for efficiency and consistency to avoid being caught by police, but also to protect his anonymity as his popularity grew. Another approach he took was to disguise himself with a hoodie and idiosyncratic monkey mask, thereby directly taking on the persona of his mischievous, rule-bending chimpanzee protagonist in a more parody-driven, brazen way.
In their book Banksy’s Bristol Home Sweet Home, Steve Wright and Richard Jones highlight the significance the southern British city as a lively art scene with a diverse cultural make-up and strong American influences, tracing its history of graffiti back to the early 1980s where artists like 3D, Nick Walker, and Inkie served as crucial influence for Banksy from his early career.
“I grew up seeing spray paint on the streets way before I ever saw it in a magazine or on a computer...Graffiti was the thing we all loved at school - we all did it on the bus on the way home from school. Everyone was doing it.”
Elaborating on this, the photographer Wright explains, ‘[Bristol] is the European leader in this form of art. Graffiti is by nature temporary. Taking the pictures for my book, I found I couldn’t walk fast enough to keep up with the changes. Even the best is soon lost under fresh paint or to a demolition gang and some wears out and is replaced.’ Indeed, Bristol’s street walls offered a vibrant canvas for Banksy on which to paint his visual commentary on issues and ideas important to both him, but also society as a whole. And as his work began to crop up from 1993 around the city—outside bars, on the sides of bus stops and on numerous street corners—it caught the eye of builders, office workers, and the press alike, generating a buzz for this boisterous voice of anonymity who clearly had a lot to say.
“As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.”
Like much of Banksy’s work, Laugh Now Panel A is ambiguous in nature yet carries discernible subversive undertones. 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 popularised by French artists in the 18th century in a visual arts genre called singerie, whereby monkeys are depicted in comical scenes aping human behaviour – rather, so often we see humans acting in ways that cannot be considered as ‘above’ the animal kingdom. 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.
By using the form of a solitary chimpanzee, who seems powerless, slumped with dejected eyes with their mouth set in a grim line, the viewer immediately feels sympathy for this creature, enticed to help the chimp out of its predicament. Whilst similar motifs arise in his oeuvre, this iteration of Banksy’s is a rare, unique rendering, spray painted in black and white onto the rusting-red surface of a drywall. This distinctiveness is heighted due to the dripping paint that cascades down in the lower half of the composition, with the element of chance thus making the stenciled painting a one of a kind. Indeed, this dripping effect only appears sporadically throughout Banksy’s overall series of Laugh Now works, contributing even more so to this work’s uniqueness. Falling from the chimp’s hands and feet, the white trails of paint recalls the image of heavy chains weighing the chimp down, working in tandem with the board strapped to his body.
Hunched over the weight of their placard, the composition strikes a sense of despondency that many in the workforce have felt, quipping at ideas of social unrest. But through the text ‘Laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge’, Banksy disrupts the somber scene with his dark humour, and feelings of sadness for the chimp are replaced with the prospect that these symbols of the downtrodden will rise to become the figures in charge. Although not referring to a specific group or situation, Laugh Now Panel A allows the viewer to interpret the image how they please, and relate it to personal or general issues faced in contemporary society. As such, rendered in a clean aesthetic that is instantly digestible with a graphic bang, Banksy succeeds in giving form to a poignant message with maximum force.
It is the simplicity of the composition that renders its message most effective, a fine balance only few can strike so well. Whilst image and text have largely been considered as distinct forms, here, Banksy’s inclusion of an engaging slogan perfectly showcases his ability to capture the attention of his audience through his navigation of the space between the two. Just as American artist Jenny Holzer’s text-based public installations tackle important issues outside of the realm of traditional art spaces, Banksy too, follows a similar approach as when art is situated on the streets, it builds a more intimate relationship with viewers as it simply cannot be ignored. However, whereas both artists employ a minimalist aesthetic in their public space interventions which blur the line between art and activism, Banksy’s motif symbolism introduces added layers of interpretation as language and form merge together with thought-provoking dialogue in the same pictorial space.
Similarly, Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara is also well-known to incorporate language in with his drawn pieces, with the inclusion song titles, lyrics, and turns of phrase, frequently found across his body of works. Lot 18 - Missing in Action 2, 2002, provides an interesting comparison to Laugh Now Panel A, as both present the viewer with the protagonist behind a slogan sign. In Nara’s piece the words ‘GO FOR BROKE’ are plastered across the little child’s board: a motto deriving from 1940s Hawaiian gamblers slang that meant to ‘risk it all’ that was popularised in World War II by the United States’ 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of segregated Japanese-American soldiers. Like Banksy, Nara is vocally anti-war, and in having a young child offer such a charged statement, a stronger emotive response is evoked in the viewer when we consider the unfortunate juxtaposition that we are presented with.
Both Missing in Action 2 and Laugh Now Panel A were created in 2002, in the wake of 9/11 amid escalating tensions as the US government began publicly setting out the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq supported by key allies. At the same time, however, an anti-war social movement was rapidly emerging in both the United States and United Kingdom, which culminated in the largest demonstration in British history on 15 February 2003, where almost two million demonstrators took to the streets.
When viewed in this light, the placard the monkey dons in Laugh Now Panel A is also reminiscent of the image of protestors who too, utilise bold slogans to voice their expressions. Seeking to interfere and disrupt the status-quo through his defiant and anti-establishmentarian practice, the present composition can thus be regarded as a biting social commentary by Banksy on global issues that are still as poignant today as in 2002 when the work was created. As such, the monkey’s motto ‘Laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge’ acts as both a foreboding warning, but also a signifier of hope for change in the future to come, powerfully illustrating the artist’s ability to relay messages of social importance that are universally understood, creating a new model of resistance through his art.
"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."
Now placed at the forefront of an artistic movement that has inspired generations to come, works by Banksy form part of prestigious public collections including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. From his graffiti renderings which still cause a media frenzy when they appear in locations around the world, to his art-world stunts such as the ‘Walled Off Hotel’ of monkey bell-boys that overlooks the highly controversial Israeli West Bank barrier, tooted by the artist as having the ‘worst view in the world’ - Banksy’s iconoclast status as a vandal turned mythic hero has extended the genre to a new horizon as he continues to redefine to many what ‘art’ is.