GET MONEY: If Chris Estlow were to sell his drawings on U.S. paper currency, it would be breaking the law. At least, technically.
Imagine the currency of a country ruled by heavy metal: The usual dull greens and grays of paper bills exploding with vivid colors, heads of state transformed into decaying zombies and demon skeletons. That’s what Chris Estlow’s work looks like, drawn and painted on paper bills with Micron pens and brushes. One hitch: Drawing on (or defacing, as the law puts it) currency is technically illegal, according to Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code:
“Whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.”
The law as it pertains to currency mutilation is actually more stringent about coins, which are more expensive to make; the parts involving paper currency are mostly invoked in the cases of someone altering a $1 bill to look like a $20, not someone altering President Lincoln to look like a zombie. Still, the powers that be don’t exactly smile on it.
“U.S. currency is printed at the expense of the government and is a form of government property,” says Patricia Hartman of the U.S. District Attorney’s office. “Currency destroyed means that more currency has to be made for the public to use — also at the public’s expense.”
The majority of the money Estlow draws on is American bills, but he sometimes gets strange denominations or international currencies from his friends and the patrons at the Old City bar where he works. On one two dollar bill, Thomas Jefferson has been carefully transformed into a blood-dripping, skull-faced Native American wielding a tomahawk with tepees in the background and fiery lava flowing out of them. On a five-pound note from Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth II has been altered into a skeletal, scaled creature with yellowed demon eyes, a slightly gaudier crown on her head and, to her left, a mini-demon Elizabeth, sans crown.
“American money is boring, foreign currency looks cooler and more interesting. The most interesting one was the Indian rupees, because Gandhi already looks like a skeleton. But foreign money is more challenging than American dollars because they’re not what we’re used to seeing.
“I really started drawing them at work because I was bored,” says Estlow. He put his first one up on his fridge four years ago; in the space of one year, he produced 127 more. Estlow’s aim now is to sell his art, with his first solo exhibition opening this Friday at Fishtown’s Black Vulture Gallery. However, there was a bit of a problem with that.
“Manufacturing counterfeit United States currency or altering genuine currency to increase its value is a violation of Title 18, Section 471 of the United States Code and is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, or 15 years imprisonment, or both,” according to the U.S. Department of Treasury. The language is obviously meant to be used against counterfeiters, but catch that “altering genuine currency to increase its value” part? Painting demons on a dollar bill and selling it for $20 is just as much an increase in value as trying to tamper with a $1 so it can be passed off as a $20. If Estlow were to sell the bills he draws on for more than their face value, he’d technically be breaking the law — though Hartman says it’s unlikely that anyone would prosecute on it. She can’t recall any similar cases having been brought before the U.S. attorney in this district, and in fact sounds a little confused as to why she is being asked such ridiculous questions.
Still, Estlow wants no trouble with the law, so he’s found a work-around: He holds on to his money.
“The originals are enlarged to various sizes and then digitally printed, signed and serially numbered (50 in a series). We are showing digital images of international currency of exaggerated sizes. We are not showing or selling defaced actual worldwide currency,” says Pattie Meyer, Estlow’s manager.
“If the government came looking for me, I would just tell them that I had Photoshopped it all,” shrugs Estlow. But even though his artwork has a hint of questionable legality, he says that the creative escape he gets from art actually keeps him out of far more trouble than it could ever get him into: “If I didn’t have art, I would be in jail by now.”
Dirty Money series, through September, opening Sept. 6, 6 p.m., Black Vulture, 208 E. Girard Ave., 215-423-3666, blackvulturegallery.com.