How a Notorious Counterfeiter Reinvented Himself as an Artist
Arthur J. Williams Jr. seems to have finally gone legit thanks to a prison art class and a passion for painting money.
Arthur J. Williams Jr. is perhaps best known for being the counterfeiter who successfully replicated the supposedly impossible to replicate 1996 hundred-dollar bill. Secret Service agents doggedly pursued Williams as he printed what some estimate to have been as much as $10 million in fake money before he eventually landed in federal prison for six and a half years—the third time he was incarcerated for his criminal exploits.
That sounds like the biography of a career criminal, but during that last stint behind bars Art reinvented himself as a legit artist. Sticking to what he knew, Williams began by painting money, eventually branching out with a clothing line. It wasn't long before the art world took notice; late last month, the Meg Frazier Gallery in his hometown of Chicago hosted Art's first show, Creative Works Representing the Life of the Master Counterfeiter.
"When I was in prison, I never really thought much about hanging my art in a gallery," Art told me at the opening. "I was just doing it to pass the time... I like painting; it's peaceful, it grounds me."
Art didn't begin painting until the final three years of that last bid. He always had an affinity for design—which may have helped him during his days as a counterfeiter—but never picked up a paintbrush until his facility offered a class on oil painting.
"When I first took the painting class, they made you pick a picture out and then paint it, and they gave us a bunch of flowers to choose from," Art said. "I couldn't believe it. Here we are in prison, and they want us to paint flowers. I gave it a shot, but I just wasn't feeling that imagery. I wanted to do something different."
The teacher—another inmate—asked what the problem was, but when Art floated painting an 1896 dollar bill, the teacher thought he was nuts. The level of detail was too much for a beginner.
He went for it anyway.
"It was the first painting I did," Art said. "It took me a year. I just took off from there. I did the two-dollar bill, then I did the ten-dollar bill, and then I did the five-dollar bill when I was in the halfway house—which is my best one given that I was able to make it change colors."
When he hit the street, Art still had no inclination of being a professional painter—he was busy trying to get the clothing line into production. But then he met Stanley Wozniak, a longtime Chicago nightclub proprietor who founded the Red Head Piano Bar, Jilly's on Rush Street, and other well-known downtown clubs. Wozniak took an interest in Art's work, using his connections to help the just-released counterfeiter make a move. (And just in time—Wozniak was sentenced to one and a half years in prison in a corruption scheme just a couple weeks before the opening.)
"He introduced me to Meg Frazier," Art said. "Before you know it, we had a show. I never realized how much work went into showing your pieces. It's just not like throwing them on the wall. The first problem I had was that I didn't have enough pieces. For the last two months, I've been scrambling to create more. That's how the meter painting came into play." (The meter painting was the piece ultimately chosen for flyers promoting the opening.)
"The meter painting is actually one of my favorites," Art said. "It has nothing to do with money. It's a little boy resting on a meter, and it was the first crime that I ever committed. I came home one day and my mom was crying, because she couldn't feed us. I went outside and started hitting the meters. I was hearing the change in them and I found a way to break into them. I went and bought some groceries and took them home. The reason I did that painting was a representation of that memory. I wanted to express the first thing that brought me into a life of crime."
Art moved on to counterfeiting around age 15.
"An old Italian guy took me under his wing," he said. "I was stealing cars and radios, hustling little dime bags of weed—out on the streets. He felt like I was smarter then that and he started teaching me how to print the old money, like the 1985 hundred-dollar bill."
Art took to the vocation eagerly, but during his apprenticeship, his teacher disappeared.
"I spent a good nine months with him and then he just vanished," Art said. "I tried to do it on my own, but at that point I was still a novice. I hadn't learned enough. I ended up going back to the street, started doing some pretty heavy stuff, hitting drug dealers. I got into some trouble in Chicago and went down to Texas to get away from it."
Still, he couldn't avoid the law.
"I was in the joint for hitting this jewelry dealer for like two years. When I got out, my ex-wife was buying a book for me and she paid with the new hundred-dollar bill. I saw that they marked it. I didn't know what that pen was [for]. I didn't know what the big deal was about the 1996 note."
Retailers sometimes used a pen to see if a bill was a counterfeit or not. Art was intrigued.
"It was a long process, it took me years to get to that super-note quality. The first thing I had to attack was the paper, because at that time everyone was marking it with the pen. I had to find a paper that could defeat that, and that was a process in itself. I ordered paper from all over the world. Then I started to work on the hologram, the watermark that's in the paper, and the security thread. We made our own paper and embedded our own watermark and security thread within it. The last thing was the shifting color ink, which I now use on my paintings. That was the final thing. Then we just started printing. I use the same security technology in my paintings, which gives them a certain level of uniqueness."
Having mastered an illicit craft, Art didn't see much reason to go straight.
"What held me back for so many years is that I didn't have a goal besides making money," he said. "I would spend it and have to make more. With all the money I made, there were so many things that I could've done, but I had no respect for money. I knew I was going to have to make a change, especially when my son joined me in prison for the same thing. I knew that something had to give. I really started focusing heavily on what I wanted to do when I got out, which was the clothing line and my writing. I really didn't look at the art as a means of support."
But by applying himself to more legitimate pursuits, Art is hoping to reap the benefits.
"In my previous prison bids, I was always thinking of how I could beat the system and make money better," he said. "But even in those prison bids, I didn't think about what I would do with the money once I had it. I have a plan now, and the top of that plan is my clothing line, and everyday when I wake up, it's to reach that goal."
"I'm not so quick to go back to what I know and counterfeiting. I keep fighting."