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Is it – Or is it Not – Illegal to Draw on Dollars?

by J. Money on Thursday, April 3, 2014

smoking pipe dollar bill

[VERY interesting article by my friend Richard Anthony of MoneyGraffiti.com. IS doodling on dollars truly illegal?? And, does anyone really care? ;)]

Since childhood, society has instilled 2 truisms in me:

  1. It’s illegal to photograph money.
  2. It’s illegal to write/draw on money (i.e. deface it).

The History of My Obsession

Back in the 1980′s, behind a retail cash register, I was unprepared for the steady stream of “marked-up” bills that flowed into the till. Some folks either had not heard the same legal caveats I had or didn’t share the same respect for the law (or fear of  it) that I did–because they brazenly signed their handiwork and even wrote their street addresses and/or phone numbers. They scribbled jokes, prayers, recipes, curses, caricatures and lots more on their bills.

These curious hieroglyphs on banknotes both fascinated and amused me. Enough to set the more eye-catching masterpieces aside to photograph. I had the vague notion that one day I might interest a publisher in a “cocktail table book” of such “taboo” markings on cash.

For 30+ years after I left retail, I pursued this quirky hobby and so accumulated thousands of images of what bank tellers call “mutes”–mutilated money. Now lacking a direct source of new bills (i.e. a cash register), I badgered friends, relatives, restaurants, banks, store clerks, even doctors–anyone who handled cash–to “save any money you get with writing on it for me.” Thankfully, some did–and still do.

The Start of Money Graffiti

Along came the internet, and by 2010 it was clear that the WWW was here to stay. A cocktail table book no longer seemed the way to showcase my curious collection but rather, a website made much more sense. Thus www.moneygraffiti.com was born, with a slogan, “What’s your money telling you?”

Building a website for me was like learning to tie your shoelaces for the first time at age 3. You watch grownups do it; it looks easy. It wasn’t. Soon I was investing not only days, weeks and months to prepare images for electronic publication but as the site grew, I had to hire professional coders to efficiently process them en masse. This ran up costs into thousands of dollars and man-hours (yours truly being the main man to provide both). Please note the operative word here: investing.

Once online, I inched forward with trepidation because I thought if you’re not allowed to photograph money, I could be in serious trouble. Not just for photographing money but money that some nefarious and seditious scofflaws out there had the audacity to . . . mutilate.  A double whammy. If “the powers that be” wanted to make trouble, I could be in for plenty.

Did I need proof? Even the president of the U.S. weighed in on the issue. In 2012 I came across this troubling (to me) headline: President Obama, Asked to Sign a Dollar Bill, Declines, Noting that it would be a Crime.” Whoa!

Ben Cohen’s Stamp Stampede

Before I could blink, Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, galloped into the headlines with an announcement so over-the-top ballsy my eyes popped. He had just formed an activist group to oppose Citizens United, the 2010 law that lets corporations donate unlimited funds to politicians.

Incredibly, as a tactic to publicize his crusade, Ben’s group, called Stamp Stampede, was urging Americans to red-ink stamp their currency with bold slogans like, “Get the Money Out of Politics” and “Not to be Used for Bribing Politicians.”

stamp money out politicsBallsier still, they sold rubber stamps (“at cost”) to aid people in their protest and even rigged up a truck with a “Stamp-O-Matic” machine to go from city to city nationwide (it still does) to stamp people’s currency for them. With an impish grin, Ben proclaimed that this was all “perfectly legal;” while Stamp Stampede’s website posted a legal opinion from their lawyer to support Ben’s claim and their tweets echoed, “it’s 100% legal.”

. . . Hold on, fellas. Didn’t you hear the president? He said it’s illegal. Who should know better? He’s the President of the United States for God’s sake–and he’s a lawyer!

Trying to Get to The Bottom of It…

Ben’s radical scheme set off alarm bells for me. A farfetched fear, perhaps, but I saw a threat to my investment. If such blatant, nose-thumbing antics brought the wrath of the Feds down upon his movement, moneygraffiti.com might be tarred with the same brush. It could stir up a legal hornet’s nest with painful consequences for everybody.

As a sort of pre-emptive strike, the moneygraffiti blog published an open letter to Ben et al to express “misgivings” about their tactics and ask if they had consulted with the appropriate federal agencies responsible for overseeing currency, i.e. the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the U.S. Department of Justice, and interestingly, the U.S. Secret Service (more on them later).

Meanwhile, readers posted on our blog:

“It may be the kind of law that’s on the books but almost never enforced. . . . Has anyone been arrested for breaking it?”

Hmm. Excellent question. Our readers definitely wanted to know. Me too.

With no word from Ben and cohorts, I decided to contact the aforenamed federal agencies myself. This turned into a round-robin of emails and phone calls, with one agency passing the buck to the other. Nobody would give an official quote for publication. Requests for interviews were ignored.

After months of repeated contacts, the only response ever received was a one-liner, from the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.:

“In the past ten years, U.S. Attorneys’ offices have filed four cases involving five defendants in District Court and two defendants in Magistrate Court where 18 USC 333 was charged.”

It was a token reply that raised more questions than it gave answers. Who and where were the offenders? What were the violations? What if any penalties were imposed? My readers still are keen to know. As am I.

And to reduce my frustration to its simplest terms, I continued to wonder: could President Obama legally have signed that dollar bill? Does POTUS know his law?

I began to tweet about it, to discuss it with anyone who’d listen but feedback was tepid. General attitude? Big yawn.

So what if it’s breaking the law? Who cares? The government doesn’t even care enough to enforce the law!

Evidently Ben and his lawyers think that they’ve found a legal loophole. The law says that you cannot deface a banknote if your intent is to render it unfit for circulation. Our intent, they say, is to have the bills circulate as much as possible so clearly we’re legal.

Meanwhile, as they enter their second year, Ben and company boast that in 2014 “The Stampede is tens of thousands of Americans legally stamping messages on our Nation’s currency to #GetMoneyOut of Politics.” As the movement mushrooms and woos Americans to “Beautify Your Bucks,” no doubt about it, Ben is bucking the system big time. But we ask, where do you draw the line?

Does Anyone Care?

alpaca yawning

Recently I bemoaned all this to J. Money (aka J$), one of the nation’s top financial bloggers. [*Tips hat*]  He asked 3 questions that forced me to do some serious soul-searching and ultimately inspired me to write this piece. Specifically, he wanted to know:

“What is the point in knowing whether graffiti on money is legal or not?”

“What would it change in your world if it was vs if it wasn’t?”

“And maybe it’s better not to know?”

OK, for the record: The main point of knowing if graffiti on money is legal or not is to better understand what we are or are not permitted to do with our currency. Bottom line, I want to be a law-abiding citizen. If it is legal, I’d like to do more of it myself, and if it is illegal, I want to be able to say to people, hey, you’re breaking the law. With no ambiguity, no grey area, no arguments.

What would change in my world if it were legal? Easy. First, it would open a whole new vista of promotional opportunities for moneygraffiti.com. If we so chose, we could imprint bills with catch-phrases, slogans and a URL just as StampStampede.org now does. We could mark up every last dollar we put into circulation, give out rubber stamps to our friends and encourage them to do likewise.

Further, if it were legal we could advise clients seeking greater exposure for their own brands to design messages for their dollars, as no doubt would every other promoter of anything and everything across this great land. Surely it would be a field day for Madison Avenue. Soon enough we couldn’t pick up a buck without somebody’s “legal” imprint on it. And why not? Why should one organization and only one have exclusive rights to this vast and untapped communications medium?

If found not legal, I’d rag and nag Stamp Stampede to cease and desist and go back to the drawing board to find equally dramatic (but legal) means to tout their cause.

To be honest, the extreme scenarios described above lead me to intuit that mutilating money on a massive scale could never be legal, but who am I to say?

I’ll continue to entreat our nation’s lawmakers to clarify the law they have laid down . . . is it or is it not legal to put graffiti on money?

J. Money may have the most pragmatic view of all: Maybe it’s better not to know. One thing I know for sure: not knowing–or caring–is definitely a lot less work.

What do you think?

Richard Anthony
Webmaster, moneygraffiti.com | Twitter, @moneygraffiti

———————
EDITOR’S NOTE: While I don’t really care to know as much as my dear friend above, I will admit I’ve been curious about this for many a years as well. Not that it would probably change all the doodles or artwork or even business cards I like to make out of them (see below), but it would be nice to know the level of risk you’re taking on ;) So perhaps this article will get us closer to getting some answers? Anyone know anyone high up that can resolve this once and for all for us?

j money dollar

[Dollar bills up top courtesy of Richard Anthony. Aplaca yawning by Rob Faulkner]


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{ 75 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian @ Debt Discipline April 3, 2014 at 6:45 am

Love the Money Graffiti. I really don’t think it matters. As long as the bill is still usable, what would it matter if someone wrote a note or doodled on it? I guess from the Government’s POV it could be a principle thing, defacing a symbol of the US.

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2 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 9:15 am

Big qualifier, Brian–IF. . . The stampers claim that it’s “100% legal.” But who knows if such heavily-inked bills are 100% usable? I know that they issue a manual about how to “be a better stamper” and to “correctly” stamp bills so that the scanners won’t reject them (an admitted possibility). Would be interesting to know how many people with “incorrectly-stamped” bills had a supermarket cash machine spit out their $10 or $20 and were caught without a replacement bill to feed in? Major stress and debacle here. Has anyone had such an experience? Let us hear!

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3 Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life April 3, 2014 at 8:22 am

I know that the treasury replaces “damaged” currency, not sure about “defaced”. It might just come down to cost. If people destroy the money, it costs the government more money to replace it.

I don’t come across money “doodles” too often, but I also don’t use cash much these days.

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4 a terrible husband... April 3, 2014 at 8:55 am

FWIW here’s the law in all its glory.http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/333

And here are some relevant articles. Bottom line is you’re probably OK, but if it looks suspicious there’s certainly a law on the books where they can look into you. The response from the DOJ might just be that they don’t charge people under 18 USC 333, but they might use 18 USC 333 as a way to get a warrant or just cause to look into other suspected crimes further. Drawing a mustache on Good ‘Ol Georgie W is probably not what they have in mind…

Here’s an article on money burning that talks about 18 USC 333:
http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7148966/#.Uz1YzvldW3g

And deep in this legal brief is a reference to what I talked about first: (http://www.justice.gov/osg/briefs/2000/3mer/1ami/1999-1408.mer.ami.pdf – It’s on page 18, referencing the law as a way to expose a larger issue.

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5 J. Money April 3, 2014 at 10:40 am

Yeah, I’d imagine they’d def. want to at least look into you if you’re doing something on a massive scale relating to money. Whether it’s defacing/doodling or not :)

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6 Dee @ Color Me Frugal April 3, 2014 at 9:16 am

It’s sort of frustrating to hear about the money stamping campaign. I’m pretty sure that if the Treasury Dept has to expend more resources to take bills out of circulation and put new ones in, it’s the taxpayers who are ultimately going to lose, in one way or another…

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7 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 2:20 pm

We share your frustration and concern, Dee. Used to be we worried about runaway inflation. Now we have a new worry: runaway defacement!

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8 Kathy April 3, 2014 at 9:18 am

Interesting story about Ben about Jerry of the ice cream company. They are actually huge contributors to the democrat party so their desire to stamp money out of politics is a little dis-ingenuous.

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9 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Yes, Kathy, introducing politics into the mix is a sticky wicket. Ben’s motives aside, I have a larger problem, which is, do we want to get the money out of politics in the first place? What if a major corporation wants to donate a huge sum to a candidate we support? Or a fine but poor candidate who would otherwise be unable to run? But this shifts focus of the argument from the legality of stamping political messages on money.

Ben’s lawyer claims that, “The fact that the stamp might, indeed, make the bills unfit for reissue, is irrelevant.” Now that, to me, is truly disingenuous.

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10 Todd April 3, 2014 at 9:40 am

All fivers should be defaced to look like the 5 Dollar Bill Murray.

http://cdn29.elitedaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/bill-elite-daily.jpg

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11 J. Money April 3, 2014 at 10:36 am

Hah! Agreed :)

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12 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Some graffiti artists might disagree, Todd. Though we do have another Bill Murray likeness on Floor 59 at moneygraffiti.com (profanity alert here), there’s a Gene Simmons fiver that’s pretty neat at http://moneygraffiti.com/gallery-html/floor61-6.html

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13 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 9:50 am

Excellent point, Stefanie. Glad that someone’s minding the bottom line. If millions of bills get stamped so glaringly and have to be replaced sooner than their normal life cycle, it could impose an extra expense of millions of dollars on taxpayers. Me no likee. Just sayin’.

I don’t often come across money doodles either. My local merchants and banks must consider me a royal PITA for nagging them to set aside the good ones for me. The stampers, I’m sure, see me as a nuisance for raining on their parade.

[Note to all you bankers: Please, please, take a moment to make .jpgs for us of any noteworthy graffiti bills that come your way before you return them to the Treasury for destruction. (No Stamp Out bills, plz. ) Future historians will thank you:)]

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14 Carlton April 3, 2014 at 10:11 am

I love this topic because I am a law student and a collector so it fits right up my alley!

I was surprised that you didn’t mention two things:

First is that, with regards to officials signing bills, the director of the BEP is a regular attendee of various national level coin and currency shows and will often times sign bills when asked. Seems like if anybody is going to know anything about whether signing a bill is defacing it to the point of not being usable for circulation, it would be the head of the BEP.

Second, Where’s George is probably one of the most prominent defacer of currency right now. (For those that don’t know, it is a website where you can put in the serial number of a note to see all the places it has been. They often stamp the bill with a web address to let you know that a particular bill is being tracked on the site and to get you to go on and put in its current location.) Anyway, back in 2000 they got investigated by the Secret Service for this and the Secret Service sent them a warning. Not for actually defacing the bills, but because the website sold rubber stamps to use on the bills and thus putting their website on the bill was considered advertising, a violation of 18 U.S.C.A. § 475 (quoted in full at the bottom.) So it seems that the Secret Service would be fine if you put a web address on a bill as long as you do not sell anything, but if you do it is a huge problem. (Also, read § 475 because it is possible a web address would come under other provisions of the section such as notice or maybe even considered a business card. Still the Secret Service doesn’t seem to care about establishing a legal precedent which would tell us if it is actually okay or not.)

I have a couple bills that I will have to submit to your site that I found when I was a clerk, but definitely a great site!

§ 475. Imitating obligations or securities; advertisements

Whoever designs, engraves, prints, makes, or executes, or utters, issues, distributes, circulates, or uses any business or professional card, notice, placard, circular, handbill, or advertisement in the likeness or similitude of any obligation or security of the United States issued under or authorized by any Act of Congress or writes, prints, or otherwise impresses upon or attaches to any such instrument, obligation, or security, or any coin of the United States, any business or professional card, notice, or advertisement, or any notice or advertisement whatever, shall be fined under this title. Nothing in this section applies to evidence of postage payment approved by the United States Postal Service. (Note that this was originally passed in 1946, so all those older coins that you see with business names stamped into them, know that it was fine for those guys, probably not so much now.)

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15 J. Money April 3, 2014 at 10:39 am

Oooh great info Carlton! Esp the “making money” vs “not to make money” discrepancy. While sites do make money via advertising/etc, it’s true they’re not selling a product or anything. Good to keep in mind for sure, thx for dropping by :)

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16 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 11:34 am

Thanks, a terrible husband . . . and Carlton . . . for such a wealth of information. It will take time to absorb all those complex facts. Would either of you be in a position to research the cases referenced by the USDOJ as having been filed in District Court and Magistrate Court where “18 USC 333 was charged”? They did not give details about the nature of the offenses or the outcomes.

As Carlton notes, back in 2000 the Secret Service put a stop to Where’s George’s selling rubber stamps. So why is Ben’s stamping movement allowed not only to sell stamps, but to urge people to use them? Seems like “selective enforcement” of a very vague law.

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17 Carlton April 3, 2014 at 5:37 pm

I would be happy to find some time and do some legal research on the subject. I did an initial search earlier and didn’t see anything that stood out. Interestingly the one case I did see that sort of dealt with this and cited 18 USC 333, it wasn’t a charge but a defense. It was where someone was accused of defacing for fraudulent purposes, but he said that since it wasn’t for fraud (in his opinion) that he could only be charged with section 333 and would have received a far smaller sentence. Let’s just say it didn’t work out for him XD

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18 Richard Anthony April 4, 2014 at 12:49 pm

If you could find time to research this subject that would be terrific, Carlton. For openers, we would love specifics re: the USDOJ’s cryptic note that, “In the past ten years, U.S. Attorneys’ offices have filed four cases involving five defendants in District Court and two defendants in Magistrate Court where 18 USC 333 was charged.”

Do “Sunshine Laws” cover a request for this information? Who were these individuals, what were their infractions, what outcomes from their trials? Jail? Fines?

Further, maybe as a student project, any publishable comments you might elicit from the U.S. Secret Service, USDOJ, BEP or related agencies vis a vis the “Stamp Stampede” movement would be a home run. Specifically, is money stamping “100 legal” as they claim?

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19 Catina Mount April 3, 2014 at 10:28 am

Interesting post and something I never have thought about…I think it would be cool to have a site dedicated to money with graffiti!

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20 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 11:44 am

Thanks, Catina, for your kind and encouraging words. Glad that you’re thinking about the issue, and when you have some time to fritter away, browse the 61 floors of graffiti bills in our gallery!

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21 Catina Mount April 3, 2014 at 11:54 am

I will definitely do that!

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22 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Your comments will always be welcome:)

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23 Andrew@LivingRichCheaply April 3, 2014 at 11:26 am

Laws are always a little vague and somewhat open to interpretation sometimes. If it says you cannot deface a banknote if your intent is to render it unfit for circulation…it seems more like you can’t make it so that it’s unusable which is not the “intent.” But really…how do you determine one’s intent and what’s the definition of “unusable?” It seems like one of the obscure laws that are rarely if ever enforced…reminds me of the federal laws about flags: can’t fly another country’s flag above the US flag, shouldn’t touch the ground, can’t step on it. Though the difference is that the courts have ruled that while these are stated in the federal code, there is no penalty for not abiding by it. I think there is penalty for defacing money…though it’s probably not enforced…the feds have better things to do with their time. But you never know…

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24 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 12:32 pm

This “intent” provision of the law disturbs me, Andrew. So if it’s not your intent to render a bill unusable but your actions do just that, does that make it OK? Do ya think?

As for the feds having better things to do, the StampStampede legal brief published on their website says, “It is conceivable, but unlikely (given limited government resources) that the Secret Service could “stake-out” such public stampings in order to identify the stampers.” Bottom line, the stampers imply that the government would have a hard time prosecuting anybody, even though it may be a crime.

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25 A Noonan Moose April 3, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Ben Cohen’s reasoning seems sound.

Under 18 USC sec. 333, an essential element of the crime is the “intent to render [the dollar bill] unfit to be reissued.” In any criminal prosecution, then, the government would have the burden to prove the existence of this essential element “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Given this, it seems extremely unlikely that Ben will ever be mixing up his high-caloric concoctions in the kitchen of a federal penal institution.

Here’s the complete text of 18 USC sec. 333:

“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.”

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26 R. Anthony @moneygraffiti April 3, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Again, as Ben’s lawyer opines, “The fact that the stamp might, indeed, make the bills unfit for reissue, is irrelevant.” By this logic, even if the action in question (stamping money) clearly renders the bill unfit for circulation, it is permissible by law? Makes no sense. If any law should be changed, start with that one.

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27 Retire Before Dad April 3, 2014 at 3:25 pm

J$,
Interesting story and strange hobby. Seems like no one would care since they shred those $1 bills after nine months of circulation. I wished they’d just go with a coin. Reminds me of an old story about an ugly and mangled dollar bill… Maybe I’ll turn it into a post!
-RBD

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28 R. Anthony @moneygraffiti April 3, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Coins can be mutilated and defaced too–though not as easily as with pen and ink. Please let’s hear your “old and mangled dollar bill” story or let us know when you post it.:)

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29 J. Money April 3, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Yes! I’d love to read about it too! And if you still have it, I’d like to own it :) Perhaps a trade for a beer at the next happy hour?

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30 Retire Before Dad April 4, 2014 at 8:07 am

The dollar bill is long gone, but that’s part of the story. I do have some foreign coins you might be interested in next HH. I missed the last one. The post is taking shape.
-RBD

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31 J. Money April 4, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Rock on.

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32 Helen Hrinczenko April 3, 2014 at 3:46 pm

I’m not sure if it is legal or not. Regardless, I think it’s disrespectful. It doesn’t look very nice to see someone’s doodles on GW. Find a piece of scrap paper if you need to doodle.

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33 R. Anthony @moneygraffiti April 3, 2014 at 4:52 pm

Thanks for your comment, Helen. From all we see it seems that no one is really sure if it’s legal or not. It might take a “test case” to decide. The question here is, where do you draw the line? If Ben Cohen can “legally” stamp banknotes by the millions, why shouldn’t other organizations be allowed? Furthermore, I find the implication that all politicians are corrupt and that’s why we need to “get the money out of politics” highly disrespectful to our notions of democracy and our electoral system.

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34 John @ Sprout Wealth April 3, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Very interesting to say the least. I worked in a bank right out of college and knew it was illegal, but always wondered at what level it was enforced and assumed it was very little. As stated in a previous comment, my concern would go back to what the intent is behind the law.

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35 J. Money April 3, 2014 at 8:19 pm

I want to work at a bank SOOOO bad just to have first access to all these bills and coins. As soon as I’m independently wealthy I’m totally applying to work at one :) Perhaps sooner if I can’t find my patient pants…

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36 Richard Anthony April 3, 2014 at 10:19 pm

As soon as you’re independently wealthy, you can start your own bank, J$;)

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37 J. Money April 4, 2014 at 4:35 pm

I’ve already thought about that, believe me :) Not sure I’m so good at the details that it would require though, haha… I’ll just have to hire YOU to run it.

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38 R. Anthony @moneygraffiti April 4, 2014 at 6:26 pm

Details are not my strong suit . . . but strategy and concept are. When you’re independently wealthy, you can put me in charge of keeping your detail people on track;)

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39 Teresa S April 4, 2014 at 12:03 am

I’ve tried to find a site to tell me whether it is legal or not to deface money. I’m not having much luck. I grew up believing it was illegal to write on bank notes.
I’m surprised corporations don’t have advertising printed them. If they thought they could, they would.
I’ve never seen artwork on a dollar bill. It’s usually scribble. I don’t see the point in defacing money. Just because you can? Find another excuse.

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40 Richard Anthony April 4, 2014 at 12:15 pm

One site now vigorously promotes the idea that defacing money is legal, Teresa–and they’ll even sell you a rubber stamp to do it! Guess who? In reality, the fact that they SAY it’s legal doesn’t make it legal. The U.S. Secret Service, The U.S.Treasury, the U.S. Department of Justice et al, need to clarify the issue. Till then, I suspect that we’ll see a lot more “100% legal” defacement. If it’s legal, why don’t more corporations do it? Excellent question.

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41 Debt and the Girl April 4, 2014 at 1:28 am

We have the same hobby when I was still a child. Every time my Uncle gives me a piece of dollar bill, I automatically take out my coloring pens and start doodling it. Of course then I didn’t find it as an issue, but now, as a teenager, I think doodling to dollar bills is showing a disrespectful attitude against the Government. Consequently, it is not pleasant to the eyes of the one who will receive a doodled dollar bill. Generally speaking, it’s just a matter of respect (even for the money)

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42 Richard Anthony April 4, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Did you ever spend any of the dollar bills that you doodled on? If so, you may find one or two featured in our gallery at http://www.moneygraffiti.com. We would love to learn the stories behind some of our exhibits, so if you spot one of yours, please let us know:)

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43 Christine @ ThePursuitofGreen April 5, 2014 at 12:56 am

Interesting topic I’ve never really thought about before. At most I’ve come across bills that have been doodled on with a phone number or “art” and been amused. I’ve never seen bills entirely covered though and stores have always taken the cash. As long as it’s usable it really doesn’t bother me much.

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44 Richard Anthony April 5, 2014 at 7:48 pm

No doubt that few people give much thought to this issue, Christine. But you’re right; it’s interesting. “Amused” is a good description of the charge I get when I find a new doodle or message on a bill that I’m handed in change. Maybe even closer to fascination.

However, this mass money-stamping is a whole ‘nother animal. Something about it just screams, “TOO MUCH!” Some official commentary from “the powers that be” would certainly help to clarify it for us all. Your feedback is significant, and please keep the situation on your radar:)

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45 RJ Noyes April 6, 2014 at 12:40 pm

More good information on important subjects from Richard Anthony As with all Anthony’s work, the articles are both hard-hitting and amusing. I’m looking forward to the next one. Follow Richard @moneygraffiti

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46 Richard Anthony April 6, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Thank you, sir, for the kind words:)

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47 Michael @ Financial Ramblings April 7, 2014 at 5:30 pm

I may have already shared this with you, but:

http://www.mcguiresirishpub.com/

The interior of this place (in Pensacola and Destin) is covered with drawn-on dollar bills that have been stapled to the walls, ceiling, etc. I’ve seen estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands to over a million.

Bonus: We went there for lunch today and added two bills to their collection. :-)

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48 Richard Anthony April 8, 2014 at 12:47 am

Thanks, Michael. I have seen photos online of their interior showing a vast panorama of bills on their ceiling, etc. Are there any such shots at the link you sent? Couldn’t find any.

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49 J. Money April 8, 2014 at 4:57 pm

NICE! I want to go!!!

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50 Patzilla April 8, 2014 at 6:27 am

Not to fret, Richard. Soon we will revert to a one world currency rendering the dollar bill a relic of the past. You’ll either be independently wealthy with your collection – or required to relinquish the collection into the hands of the government for shredding. Stay in touch if it’s the former. Very interesting article.

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51 J. Money April 8, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Hah! I’m sure that’s what Bitcoin lovers are hoping for :)

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52 Richard Anthony April 9, 2014 at 12:13 am

Thanks, Pat, for your kind words and interesting analysis. In the words of the prophet, “I should live so long!” :)

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53 Lew April 23, 2014 at 9:44 am

Richard:
I read it. I’m inclined to agree with you, but it doesn’t really get me fired up. (I’d guess that your most potent enemy in this crusade is apathy.)
Lew

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54 J B April 29, 2014 at 4:42 pm

What’s the fuss? My 3 year old loves the caudally guy on the ice cram container. Maybe you have this ax to grind because the Madison Avenue advertising agencies didn’t think of it first and all the free publicity they could have gotten by having their client’s logo in every wallet and pocket. Now that the NSA is reading all our e-mails, let me ask the secret service, why did you make the ‘where is George’ guy stop his bill stamping and not the ice cream guy, is it because all those fatties at the agency fear the discontinuation of cherry Garcia!!!

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55 Richard Anthony April 30, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Good point, JB. Why IS it OK for one company to sell rubber stamps for the express purpose of imprinting messages on money, while it’s a crime for all others? Or is this just a case of what lawyers call “selective enforcement”? BTW, I have no ax to grind here, other than wanting to know whether or not the money stampers’ claim that “it’s 100% legal” is true or false, and whether president Obama did or did not know what he was talking about when he told someone that signing a dollar for them would be “a federal crime.”

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56 Lew May 6, 2014 at 2:18 pm

The question, “Does anyone really care?” appears to be the crux of the issue. The evidence strongly suggests that precious few Americans, including those nominally charged with enforcing the law against defacing currency, care. Given the “So What!” attitude that seems to prevail as the marvel that was our nation as most of us were growing up is being flushed, a bit at a time, down the potty, why should any of us be surprised?

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57 Richard Anthony May 6, 2014 at 5:34 pm

Not surprised, Lew, although saddened. . . . But not resigned. I disagree with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s oft-quoted pessimism that, “As soon as one man says of the affairs of state, ‘what does it matter to me?’ the state may be given up for lost.” In reality, as long as one man (or woman) says, ‘this is wrong, and here’s how we can change it,” it has a chance of being changed, i.e. “Where there’s life there’s hope.”

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58 JC May 8, 2014 at 4:55 pm

JC,

Somehow I don’t see the point of wasting the amount of time and energy for something that does not amount to a bag of Beans! I think Mr. Anthony is a very talented person and should use his “GOD GIVEN” talent writing things that will bring in BIG BUCKS!!

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59 Richard Anthony May 9, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Thanks so much for your kind remarks about me, JC, but I’m concerned about the bigger picture. Evidently you don’t see how serious this matter is and its potential impact on our nation’s money flow. Does anybody? If stamping whatever you want on U.S. currency (short of profanity) is “100% legal,” it opens the floodgate to a Wild-West scenario of “anything goes.” But I’ll grant you that the silence of our legislators and regulators on Capitol Hill suggests that they also feel that the issue doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. The saddest part seems to be that not only does nobody care, but the public officials being paid to care don’t care.

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60 J. Money May 9, 2014 at 4:49 pm

I don’t see how any of this will “open up the floodgates” considering no one cares or pays attention to the rules anyways – whether defined or not :) People are already doodling over everything and stamping whatever they want, haha…

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61 Mr Loner May 9, 2014 at 9:07 pm

StampStampede.org has just begun selling an acrylic “see thru” stamper that they say can work with bill scanning machines. They always include a booklet on how to “correctly” place the stamp so that your stamping does not make the money get rejected by these machines.

I started stamping all my bills once a week on April First. The bills worked fine at the car wash and a coke machine, but then I had problems with a BART machine in San Francisco. I needed a ticket to get home and all my bills were stamped. It was a 3 dollar ride and 20 one dollar bills did not work. I had to use a 5 dollar bill to print a ticket. It took 15 minutes, and I felt like apologizing to the 6 people who ended up waiting behind me. I missed my connection and had to wait 20 minutes for the next one.

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62 Richard Anthony May 10, 2014 at 2:33 am

J Money — it’s a question of scale. Your occasional barroom doodler or moustache-on-George artiste is one thing; but to have 15,000 people (and growing) mass-stamp political messages on millions of bills, to sell them the rubber stamps and ink to do it–to aid and abet and encourage them–is a whole different ballgame for me. The floodgates will open when every Tom, Dick and Harry business gets the idea of using bills as billboards. What an ugly mess that is going to be.

Mr Loner — Thank you, thank you, for sharing your BART experience. It’s a perfect example of what I had feared and questioned the stampers about in an open letter to them on the http://www.moneygraffiti.com blog back in 2012. Although you are the first to say so, my guess is that many people have had similar problems. I hope that more will speak out and possibly help others to avoid such inconvenience, frustration, embarrassment and extra expense in the future. There has to be a better way to voice political opposition.

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63 J. Money May 10, 2014 at 1:09 pm

I think we’re arguing different things here. Yes, if people started doing large scales of this stuff it could certainly become problematic over time. My point though is that anyone can do it right NOW and they’re not – except for the company you’re going after right now. So I doubt things would change even if you get your answer down the road. Unless they broadcast it in the news and all over that “Hey! It’s perfectly legal to do whatever you want with bills now!” and you have hundreds of people now massively stamping everything. So in a way, all your searching and prodding can end up causing more people to do stuff you may not seem fit, whereas now there’s only one or two main players in the game stirring it up.

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64 Richard Anthony May 11, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Not arguing, J$, just continuing to ask what the headline to this piece does: IS what the money-stampers are doing “100% legal”? We taxpayers deserve an answer from somebody in authority. Why do I seem to be the only one asking?

If one is not concerned that 15,000+ people (and growing) now rubber-stamp currency with indelible red ink to crusade for some nebulous political agenda, I don’t know what it will take to sound the alarm.

You’re right, on a large scale it “could certainly become problematic.” But over time? I see a problem right now. How many consumers are having experiences similar to Mr. Loner’s? How many banks have already returned these defaced bills to the Federal Reserve Bank? What will be the eventual cost to taxpayers if it continues? I just want some facts, not opinions.

To anyone who feels it’s not that big a deal and that we should wait till it gums up the works more, it’s like reporting a fire and being told by the fire department, “only your kitchen is engulfed in flames? Sorry, call us when it reaches the upstairs bedrooms.”

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65 Bruce June 21, 2014 at 4:47 am

Face it – we’re living in a country of laws designed by lunatics. It isn’t that it hasn’t always been that way but, in today’s distorted economy, it’s difficult to ignore. Justice is supposed to be blind but I think she peeks a bit out of her left eye. Otherwise, how could the perps of the Wall Street mugging have escaped any kind of meaningful legal repercussion and judicial restraint? Things are back to just the way they were before the Great Recession and that doesn’t bode well for the future.

So, anyway, my view on the laws against writing on currency is that it’s a law of convenience. It won’t be enforced unless and until it’s useful for someone in power to do so. Laws like it should be cleaned out of the system or clarified so that they make sense but, like vacuuming the car, it’s a thankless chore that is best postponed for another day.

Of course, this is probably obvious but I thought I’d add my 2 cents anyway. Speaking of cents, I remember vending machines at the Jersey shore that would take a penny, crush it, and engrave it with words from the Constitution or Gettysburg Address. The machines were around when I was a kid in the 1950′s. Were those things legal? Are they still around?

By the way, Richard Anthony has done excellent work creating the http://www.moneygraffiti.com website. It’s the most complete collection of currency graffiti that I’ve seen anywhere.

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66 J. Money June 21, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Yeah, those penny things are still around! There’s a lot of coin collectors who specialize in them as well – some are worth quite a bit from back in the day :) No idea if they are legal or not, but as you mentioned no one’s going around doing anything about it so guess it doesn’t matter. Mr. Anthony will disagree with me on that though ;)

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67 Richard Anthony July 20, 2014 at 12:04 pm

J$, we both have short memories! Just found this info in my archives, which you and I had exchanged tweets about on March 14, 2014 (@CoinThrill’s birthday!;):

It’s the letter of the law regarding squashing pennies:

http://www.parkpennies.com/pressed-penny/penny-pressing-legal.htm

“. . . the mere act of compressing coins into souvenirs is not illegal, without other factors being present.”

So said a letter from the U.S. Treasury’s legal department in 1980. Too bad we can’t get a similar statement from the Federal Reserve Board, the U.S. Secret Service and the USDOJ about banknote-stamping! I’m still trying . . .

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68 J. Money July 21, 2014 at 11:35 am

you do what you have to to sleep better, my friend ;)

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69 R. Anthony @moneygraffiti June 29, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Bruce, thanks for your kind words about moneygraffiti.com. We try to serve a useful purpose.

Your analysis of stamping money is sad but true. There seems to be a general distortion of what matters in our society. Mix in politics for a real witch’s brew. Saw this tweet today:
“‏@jeremarketer I love that everyone cares more about Mila Kunis being pregnant than Putin & Ukraine. Says a lot about us, no?”
@moneygraffiti, replied:
“. . . A sick zeitgeist but how to cure it? Like the film: “a marvel of…fuzzy thinking.”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitgeist:_The_Movie …”
(Zeitgeist is now on my “to view” list.)

What it will take for those in power to see that these laws are “cleaned out of the system or clarified”? Two words: Public pressure.

Bruce and J$, I don’t know if those penny-pressing machines are legal. They’re just a smaller part of the bigger issue of the mass political defacement of currency. Your non-fuzzy thoughts focus attention on the need for a solution so please keep them coming. The truth is, If it’s illegal it matters.

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70 Bruce Allen July 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Ben and Jerry’s puerile, antagonistic attitude afflicts many of their generation. Grow up, you ice cream socialists! Quentin Crisp said it best: “Maturity is when you stop doing things simply to piss off your mother.”

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71 Richard Anthony July 7, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Good word, Bruce–puerile. I had never thought of it in the context of this money-stamping campaign being waged to protest campaign contributions but you’re right. This approach to so formidable a task as to bring about an amendment to the U.S. Constitution does seem immature and doomed to be inconsequential. Quentin Crisp also said, “Treat all disasters as if they were trivialities but never treat a triviality as if it were a disaster.” This, I think, is what J$ and others have accused me of re: the political defacement of U.S. currency. They perceive it as trivial while I view it as an insult to America and if it is illegal (which I suspect it is) something to be legally challenged and stopped. But I’ve yet to get an answer from any U.S. regulatory agency about its legality. And I hope that your comment will help the money-stampers to re-think their extremely antagonistic position and find a more effective and less offensive way to protest–one that might actually help to bring about positive change.

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72 Gross July 20, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Your quest is certainly an esoteric one to say the least. What do you intend to do if and when you get an answer to the legality of stamping or writing on paper currency? Aside from the occasional bill that I come across having a 2 or 3 digit number penciled on it (probably a tally point) or brief note indicating it served as note paper for someone in a pinch, I have never seen any defaced to the degree you claim. Maybe I’m missing something here but I don’t see the reason for concern.

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73 Gross July 23, 2014 at 9:14 am

After rereading your above article, I get my answer as to what you have in mind if writing on bills is legal. Now, could you imagine what would happen if paper currency turned into an advertising tool? Like Jimmy Durant said “every body wants to get into the act.” And they would. Bills would begin to look Like those place mats in all those low end eateries. Personally, I don’t see the utility of that sort of thing anyhow. I’m still waiting to see my first Ben Cohen’s stamped note. It is my feeling that the average person is not interested in reading money–just spending or saving it.
Gross
Ps: How about petitioning the treasury department to license space on paper currency to generate revenue? They may go for that.

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74 J. Money July 23, 2014 at 10:59 am

Actually – you might have a good idea there…

If you petition for a way to legalize *anything* on paper money (ads, drawings, whatever) you might actually get them to finally state it’s legal or not once and for all! So you drum up as much buzz and controversy as you can, with the end goal being to get a straight answer in return :) Since they’d have to state why it’s getting declined, haha…

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75 Richard Anthony July 23, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Gross and J. Money both make excellent points.

J$, before petitioning anyone about the legality of “anything” on paper money, let’s stick to the issue of Ben Cohen’s present nationwide campaign. At this stage I’ll settle for a simple acknowledgement–especially from the Federal Reserve Bank, which so far has ignored my requests to answer the question. By my logic, they would be the ultimate determiner of whether Ben’s stamped bills are fit for circulation; and if they’re unfit, his group’s actions are arguably illegal. It’s a hair-splitting issue because the law makes the perpetrator’s intent a major factor. (Any lawyers care to weigh in?)

Gross, I’ve received 2 of Ben’s bills in real life but no one else I’ve ever spoken to has. Have any of J$’s readers? I am eager to know how many of these politically defaced bills the Federal Reserve has seen so far, returned by banks around the country. This would give us a clearer picture of how much this protest adds to our tab as U.S. taxpayers via replacement costs for this mass-mutilated money. If you’d care to know, join the buzz!

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