[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:
- It’s illegal to photograph money.
- 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.”
Ballsier 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?
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?
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?
[Dollar bills up top courtesy of Richard Anthony. Aplaca yawning by Rob Faulkner]