It’s hard to imagine a 7-foot tall bronze statue materialising overnight in Downtown New York, but suddenly, there it was. Harambe was back. The Gorilla was shot dead in Cincinnati zoo in 2016 when a three-year-old crawled through a gap and fell more than 10 feet into his enclosure. Harambe’s final moments are probably stored somewhere in your memory, the silverback pulling the toddler through shallow waters or holding his hand, fixing his clothes almost paternally, or seeming to shield him from the screaming crowd and their outstretched iPhones. Facebook petitions called for ‘Justice for Harambe’. But hysterical virtue signalling quickly gave way to online parody. “We comin’ with them dicks out to avenge harambe !!!”,1 wrote one Twitter user calling himself @sexualjumanji.

Now it was October 2021 and Harambe was revived, remade as a giant statue facing down the bronze bull on Wall street. Passers-by seemed a little bemused, not so much by the statue, but by the thousands of real bananas bunched nearby. “Why does the bull have so many bananas and the gorilla have only a few…I mean I get it…’2 one woman said, uncertainly. The gorilla statue was a publicity stunt by Sapien.Network, a blockchain start-up dedicating itself to building ‘people-centred social networks’.3 Harambe was the Sapien Network’s commentary on wealth disparity - the gulf between everyday people represented by the ape and a wealthy elite represented by the bull that widened with the 2008 crash and again with the pandemic. “It’s really this idea that we don’t like when [financial] systems become overly complex and start losing that human accountability….” the developers said, “We can’t offload our responsibility for them to make the right decision and [still] ask to be fundamentally human. If we convince enough people to … come together and make sense of the world, find their values and take collective action…that’s the only way.”4 The statue was taken down, only to briefly reappear a week later in front of Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ in California. The bananas were donated to nearby food banks.

Apes Together Strong

January 2021 saw a short squeeze driven by a meme: “Apes Together Strong”.5 A discussion was percolating on a Reddit forum known as r/WallStreetBets about the most commonly shorted stock options. Among them were the nostalgic giants of the digital millennium: Nokia, BlackBerry, AMC and GameStop, a bricks-and-mortar store known for selling used video games. Hedge funds were shorting GameStop, buying a derivative known as a call option that represented a bet on the direction the stock would take. All bets were on down. Hedge funds were borrowing the stock in the expectation that the price would fall in the future, when they would buy it back and make a profit. Led in part by discussions on Reddit, members began a coordinated action to buy and hold GameStop call options (and in some cases GameStop stock) to drive the share prices in the other direction, creating what’s known as a ‘short squeeze’. The hedge funds that initiated the squeeze in the first place were then forced to buy back the stock to avoid losing any more money. $GME stock went from less than $3 in 2020 to $483 on the morning of 28 January 2021. 

These are ‘meme stocks’. Their value emerges, not from any sensible correlation between share price and underlying asset, but from the viral contagion circulating around a bet. In the aftermath, the SEC’s October 2021 report on the GameStop incident observed that ‘it was positive sentiment… that sustained the weeks-long price appreciation of GameStop stock’6 Animal spirits. Monkey see, monkey do. The space between illegitimate gambling and legitimate investment narrowed. So did the space between taking an economic stake and posting an unsolicited opinion on the internet. On the surface, trading is all about making money, but with meme stocks, there is always something that leaks out, rhetorically speaking, around the edges of that ambition. There are dedicated threads on r/WallStreetBets for YOLOing7 (extreme all-in betting), and also for ‘Loss Porn’8 (presenting and commiserating over extreme failures and wipe-outs). The value, at some meta level, is in the bet itself. In r/WallStreetBets, bets hedge real money, but they also forge members to their tribe.

Robinhood and its associated meme channels like r/Wallstreetbets sit somewhere between investment tool and social media: ‘like 4chan found a Bloomberg terminal’, reads the Reddit banner. And like 4chan and 8chan before it, the forum positions itself in opposition to so-called ‘normie’ culture, defined in the investment space not only by transgressive memes like ‘Dicks out for Harambe’ but also by anything dispensing safe or mainstream financial advice that your boomer elders might impart. Users swap homophobic and racist slurs, and misogynistic backhanders. “Give me… insane bets, and suicide ideation.”9 is a common sentiment. “I want to see retarded bets, I want to see crazy gain and … crazy loss porn.”10

The language is macho, regressive, degenerate, as though its members have spent so much time hunched before a flickering screen they have devolved to some earlier point on the evolutionary scale.

Sapien.Network adopted Harambe as their mascot. For the start-up, the hulking greyback was a symbol, not of apes, but of what dumb humans could do if they were only willing to come together and cooperate. But WallStreetBets was rarely a space for cooperation or coordinated action. There might be a network of some kind at play, but there was little in the way of  real solidarity in the original Reddit forum. “There is no We”, said one OG board member: “trading is not a team sport”.11 On the ‘loss porn’ thread, someone posts that they have invested their entire student loan in one meme stock and now have nothing to show for it. They have not slept in days. In response, someone else links to a rope for sale on Amazon and suggests that the OP buys it to hang themselves. Do it, the forum agrees. It’s what evolution would want. KYS. For the good of the species.  The original members of the WallStreetBets community largely styled themselves as fellow ‘degens’. (Other popular terms of address before GameStop were retards/’regards’ or ‘autists’). Their shared humanity could be glimpsed less in how the members treated one another in their day to day interactions and more in an undercurrent of desperation or ‘copium’ that dragged the channel. Members passed the time dreaming of a little bit of financial security, or home ownership, or less student debt. In that way they were all just a bunch of guys, hanging out online, trying to survive.

‘Apes’ dawned onto the crypto scene in the summer of 2020. Traders named it the “DEFI Summer”,12 [decentralised finance] so-called for the issuance of spurious meme tokens, many with food related names like SUSHI and TACOS. When one of these tokens launched without fanfare in the Summer of 2020, a few lucky investors made money by buying into the token very soon after its launch. Other traders followed suit, seeking out new tokens and buying in early in an attempt to make a profit, often without any kind of due diligence, or discretion, or anything resembling higher cognitive engagement. This ‘act now think later’ mentality, was dubbed ‘aping’, and later ‘aping in’. Talk of ‘aping in’ reared its head on the WallStreetBets Reddit around the GameStop Short squeeze in 2021, as new members flooded into the channel. 

The rise of the apes marked a shift in the culture of the WallStreetBets community. Arguably, this was part of a shift in the overall culture of retail investment during the pandemic, as zero interest trading platforms like Robinhood became popular with young college students and unemployed people or those on furlough. 

Unlike their forebears - lone wolves often with some background in finance playing the markets in their downtime - many of these traders had no background in stocks or day trading but used the apps to while away time they might have otherwise spent watching sports or gambling on sports or playing video games with friends. 

The ape didn’t trade on individual expertise, but on a mindless frenzy that might produce its own swarm intelligence. The apes were not selling themselves as experts or canny investors, in other words. If anything, they tended to play up their own idiocy, calling themselves ‘apetards’, speaking fondly of themselves as ‘stupid apes – love you all’. To be an ape meant strength in numbers. Apes might undo the system through brute force if they just held the line.  They styled themselves as ‘weak divided. together strong’, as ‘fellow apes’, their joint endeavours as an ‘ape power engage’. And just for a moment, the GameStop incident appeared to invoke the power of a disenfranchised 99%, a swarm of Harambes facing down the mighty bull on Wall Street. The old timers of WSBs, small day traders who argued  that trading was not a team sport, were confronted by the collective power of the hold. One popular meme showed an image of a lowering Harambe overdrawn by the sky rocketing trendlines of the GameStop stocks in the weeks of January 2021.  ‘Dicks out for Harambe” the apes chorused “It’s our time.”  ‘Harambe held until the end and we will too…fuck bears, fuck bulls too, we in a monkey market.”13

Whether in earnest or not, the apes also made use of a kind of class-conscious motif of Wall Street vs the 99%, invoking a sense of collectivity and ‘sticking it to the man’ in their posts to the forum. OG members were bemused. WallStreetBets was not an anti-capitalist collective. The first investors were not apes. This was a forum for crazy investments and loss porn. And where previously, as one poster put it, the forum was full of actual traders larping at being idiots in their spare time, now it felt as though it was full of actual idiots shilling rug pulls in some misguided lip service to sticking it to the man. As one trader described it:

“This is not a bunch of masked individuals here to help you get out of the hole you dug by betting your rent money or your fucking aunt may’s entire pocket book on stocks that rise and fall by the swing of your dick! We are all here to make money”.

Your_BoyRoy on r/wallstreetbets

In some ways, this clash between a new class of member who understood their actions in quasi political or moralistic terms with an older class of member of the WSB community who understood their activities in nihilistic terms is similar to conflicts that also occurred in 4chan. At the height of Anonymous, these spaces were also divided by members who understood their online activities as politically significant versus those who were in it “for the lulz” (or, in the harsh terminology of the space itself, moralf*gs vs lulzf*gs).14

Unman’d Unsoul’d

The ape of Wall Street lumbers into the channel, a mindless trickster, here to mess with the market. He might get weird, get bored, get wrecked. He will buy the dip and never sell. He might be a bit sick, ready to spread the virus, screeching and biting and making a mess. But all in all, he’s presented as outside of any racial, political or historical context, and we’re not really ‘supposed’ to think of him in these contexts if we think of him at all.  But what does the ape signify? What racial and political associations does he carry with him? And how do these continue to haunt the apes of WallStreetBets and crypto culture.

Throughout history, ‘simianisation’15 was a tactic to make the case that some race or ethnic group was less than human – weaponised at various moments in history against Jewish, Asian, and Irish groups, but, most persistently, against black people. The ape wore the mask of a human on the outside, the Comte de Buffon, author of the 18th century Histoire Naturelle16 wrote, but was less than human on the inside, ‘internally destitute of thought, and every other attribute which constitutes man’.17

Drawing the line between the human and the ape was a major preoccupation for Enlightenment science. Scientific man looked to the ape in order to say who modern man was, but also what gender was, and what was and was not ‘natural’. The line was a path back to our essential ‘nature’, then, but it also showed the way forward, how far we had come from our brute origins. By looking to the ape, enlightened man could distinguish the homo economicus who walked upright with the market economy from his irrational, non-human predecessor.

In the nineteenth century, as Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution gained traction, evolutionary science was also used to fix racial hierarchies according to how close or far away a particular race was from their simian forebears, in the set of a jaw or the slope of a forehead. By drawing correlations between African slaves and apes in physiognomy, for example, Europeans felt empowered to pronounce that while the African might carry some of the outwards appearances of manhood, they were not ‘true’ men. The negro was, as the Anglican Clergyman Morgan Godwyn put it ‘[u]nman’d and unsoul’d’; accounted and even ranked with Brutes’.18 Kinship with apes could justify the morality of treating the African slave as less than human, then, deserving less than human rights. The dehumanisation of Africans, and, to a lesser extent, other colonial subjects, was an outcome of the Enlightenment clash between the doctrine of natural rights and the growth of capitalism. Seeking out the ape within the man gave a scientific solution to a range of moral, political and economic problems that emerged alongside global capitalism.19

But apes came off badly in European culture well before Darwin and the Enlightenment. In mythology they featured as sly and untrustworthy - as inchoate tricksters. Aristotle, who in fairness had probably not met all that many, described them as vicious and stupid. Like the apes on Wall Street, apes in fables often mimicked humans, but in a mindless sort of way. There were stories of hunters capturing apes by tricking them into copying foolish behaviours – lured into putting on lead boots so they could be chased down and killed in the forest or to washing their faces with quicklime so they could be blinded and killed.20 In contrast to rational man the ape was a dupe - a mindless follower.21 It was ‘monkey see, monkey do’.

Global capitalism was built on dehumanising some groups and classing them as ‘apes’. In doing so these people became less than people – less than human – the other. Simianisation has been used as a tactic to classify groups as less than human, to justify colonial violence, to justify slavery. But when the ape returns in cryptocurrency it’s supposedly divorced from this racialised history. This ape is closer to the trickster, the mindless follower. But that racial, violent history might be closer than it first seems. The crypto ape is not a slave, but he is still the fall guy. He is still the other, the subject that makes financial capitalism possible, the one that keeps the wheels turning. He’s the one who is left shouldering all the desperation. He’s left holding the bag, eating the risk.

Seneca is a digital artist with a sidehustle in graphic design. Her creative agent connected her with a finance company looking to develop an NFT project. They were looking for designers to develop concept art. The brief was “existential boredom”. The final result was stoned-looking apes wearing clothes.22 In version one of Seneca’s drawings, the apes look sad. Alongside the skinny, vaguely new-wave, ape that would take precedence, there’s a bored orang-utan. A squat lady ape. An ape with soft, rounded ears, like a teddy bear. They don’t evolve into full ennui until later. In version two, the apes are rake thin, elongated. These apes have stoned, sleepy, half-closed eyes. Their ears are delicate and pointed at the end and protrude, Peter pan style, from their hair. Their mouths are slack or sullen.  Some of them are yawning, showing huge, threatening teeth. Others are smoking rollies, looking like students in the summer of ’69. In version three, the apes are more animated. Almost angry.  Their lips are pulled back from their teeth, exaggerating the underbite. Seneca is not the project’s only illustrator, though she did create, line for line, the apes’ body and many of the trademark characteristics, the grinning lolling mouth, the rolling eyes, the beanie hats. Her monetary compensation for the project was, in her own words, ‘fine, if not great’.

Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs were created for the blockchain company Yuga Labs. The project was realised in April 2021 at the height of the NFT craze by Miami based duo Gordon Goner (an artist) and Gargamel (a writer). The pair, who bonded over a shared love of David Foster Wallace, had no coding skills. Instead, they partnered with two programmers called No Sass and Emperor tomato ketchup to get the smart contract up and running, taking the coordinates of designs of artists like Seneca’s and using them as attributes for a smart contract that would issue ten thousand of the Bored Apes with distinct features for sale as Non-Fungible Tokens. 

The duo imagined a whole back (or future) story for the Apes. The club would be an imaginary meetup for future billionaires in their native Miami. Early investors who had ‘aped in’ would gather together as the world burned to get wrecked. Crypto-wealthy investors are rich beyond their wildest dreams; but now they are bored and degenerate, devolved to something less than human. What do they do next but ‘hang out in a swamp club with a bunch of [other] apes and get weird.’23

The hangout is modelled on a swamp club in the Florida everglades.24 The interior mashes together sly winks to crypto culture - the mutant apes’ game console in the corner of the bar, the neon sign in the window proclaiming FOMO, the Shibu Inu sleeping at a bored ape’s feet on the docks, the loot crate of bananas on the boardwalk – with the detritus of African diaspora and vodou culture strewn throughout the bar’s murky interior: monkey’s paws, African masks, totem figurines, a space at once haunted by the spectre of the African slave trade and the future ghosts of crypto. Everything is washed by the same halogen glow, like a monitor screen, or a fridge left open in the dead of night. Everything is hard to place like a broken future where nothing quite works like it should - not the internet, not gold, not money, what else is there to do but go fish?

The Bored ape tokens were launched for sale on the Ethereum blockchain on April 30th 2021 for approximately $200 a piece and sold out within 24 hours. Two months later, even the cheapest of these apes were worth $14,000 on the resale market. Celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Steph Curry, Madonna, Snoop Dogg, Justin Bieber and Jimmy Fallon all had apes and proudly displayed them as their Twitter avatars. At a moment when NFTs signalled excessive wealth, Bored Apes were the ultimate Veblen good, valuable because they were so stupidly expensive. The holders of these tokens might be described as degenerate, but in a different way to the desperate grifters of WallStreetBets. They were depraved not for want of money but because they had too much of the stuff. 

The average consumer was supposed to think that Paltrow and Curry and Bieber were apes just like them and wanted in on the action. These celebrities were shills in the original use of the word, then, actors posing as would-be consumers of a shady deal to draw in unsuspecting followers. Monkey see monkey do.

Nobody wants to be the ape. The ape is less than human after all, he’s the dupe, he’s the rich man’s whipping boy. Simianisation is usually something the powerful do to the marginalised. But here these apes were, apparently, doing it to themselves. They marked themselves out as something less than human - degenerate even - as a point of pride. Yuga Labs, currently valued at $4 billion, was not pretending that what they were doing was art, in good taste, or even all that interesting (A Guardian article described the aesthetic as ‘stylishly moronic’), Yuga Labs were called out for alleged ‘Nazi dog whistles’ in the iconography of the Apes series.25

The joke was that apes were clearly dumb – ‘bored, emptied out, wrecked, and proud of it’26 – and yet people were still buying the token. 

Or maybe the joke was that they were shilling something so stupid – so in bad taste – and people were still ‘aping in’.

Bored apes have become a symbol of the worst excesses of the crypto bubble. Not the power of the 99% but the mutilated excess of the 1%, the Davos ape. Celebrities placed their Bored Apes on their Twitter profiles. Others endorsed FTX and LeBron James spoke of crypto as a pathway to generational wealth for black Americans who had struggled historically to build wealth in the face of systemic racial discrimination and inequality. At the very height of the market, more and more poor and disenfranchised Americans were buying into crypto than ever before. Crypto was framed as a possible pathway out of poverty, a solution for the 99%. But these rich spokespeople were never really apes. They were shills. They were well-paid hunters, handsomely rewarded to endorse a meme.

Bitcoin reared its head in the aftermath of the global financial crash. It promised the dream of a different kind of money as so many ordinary people lost their trust in the global financial system along with their homes. In the early 2010s, Bitcoin was still predominantly owned by affluent white men. But by the height of the bubble, black first-time investors were more likely to hold cryptocurrency.27

Advocates like James were shilling cryptocurrency as a pathway to generational wealth for marginalised and underbanked Black communities.  Historically, people of colour in America have struggled to build intergenerational wealth. Centuries of economic practices, from slavery to redlining, made it impossible to hold property, to own homes, to build and transfer wealth from generation to generation. Black Americans still have the lowest rate of home ownership of any racial group in the United States. These rates have only declined since the financial crash, falling as low in 2019 as they were in the 1960s when race-based discrimination was still legal.28 In the absence of a clear pathway to financial security, crypto was framed as a way out of financial distress. Phrases like financial inclusion, and economic empowerment were liberally thrown about, not only by LeBron James, but by other black ambassadors, among them JayZ, Kim Kardashian, Mike Tyson. 

So too, by 2021 more poor Americans held crypto than affluent investors and it was these vulnerable communities who were ultimately left exposed.29  The phrase ‘Bitcoin investor’ might still conjure someone from a Brett Easton Ellis novel: white, educated, effete, monied, functionally sociopathic, but the accounts told a different story; crypto was the token of broken dreams. Young people, black folk, the poor and indebted, were scrambling into the latest scheme in the hope of winning a secure future. Buying in at the height of the market, most were left holding the bag. It did not level the playing field. It exposed the poor to fraud and scams. It offloaded risk onto the worst off in society, all while paying lip service to financial inclusion.

From the outside, apes were figured as a collective force against capitalism rising up to take back power. In the aftermath, GameStop was spoken about as David versus Goliath. It was a feel-good meme, “Apes Together Strong”. GameStop was a nice flex on the power of the swarm, but it wasn’t a story about the little guy. In the long run, the apes didn’t unsettle Wall Street. Some individual retail investors made money, and some traders lost, but most of the money was made by Citadel Services, the main market maker behind the Robinhood app and by Ryan Cohen, The GameStop CEO who tearfully egged on the Apes to support his company before quickly selling out when the shares were high, leaving them holding the bag. For the OG WallStreetBets trader, however, as for the Bored Ape Yacht Club, “apes are just what shills call marks”.30

The figure of the ape was always what had made global financial capitalism possible. The ape was the slave, the capitalist whipping boy. And now he was the crypto bag holder.

  2. ​​
  19. ibid.
  20. ibid.
  25. On a website named after one of the founders, artist Ryder Ripps details a number of alleged fascist references in the Bored Ape series and marketing materials.
  30. While a shill is usually an accomplice of a con-man who pretends to be a real customer in order to encourage others, a mark, on the other hand is colloquial for the intended victim of a scam or a con.