Artist Arthur J. Williams, through his art, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities. He's collected by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Floyd Mayweather, and Jason Statham, to name a few. And earlier this month, he attended Sean Penn's annual Haiti Relief Organization Gala in Los Angeles, where he donated his work to contribute to the $3.5 million raised for Penn's charity.
But Williams isn't best known for his work as an artist. Instead, he's notorious for being the best counterfeiter there ever was, having printed almost $10 million in fake money before being caught and sentenced to seven years in federal prison. Having grown up with limited options, he turned to crime to support himself financially. A move, the artist says, he doesn't regret; after all, it gave him the opportunity to spend seven years perfecting his painting techniques, which have ultimately benefited not only him, but those at the receiving end of the charities his work supports.
Williams' life story is a captivating rags-to-riches tale, and after hearing it, we weren't at all surprised to learn that he's recently become a motivational speaker. Here, Williams opens up about his incredible journey: how he counterfeited the supposedly "impossible-to-replicate" 1996 hundred-dollar bill, how he went from a struggling janitor after prison to schmoozing with the stars, and how art, on several occasions, saved him from himself.
How did you learn to paint in prison?
I went to prison for counterfeiting when I was 33. But I had already been to prison twice before that. But those times I was only in for a couple of years, and it went by quick. The third time was different. I was 40 when I got out.
When I got caught counterfeiting the judge asked to look at one of the bills to see it for himself. He looked at it and said, “This would of fooled me. You’re really good at this.” Then he asked me, “How long did it take you to figure out how to do this?” And I told him 15 years. And he said, “Have you ever thought of what you could have done if you had spent all that time doing something good?” That hit me really hard. It really did. I hadn’t thought about it like that. So when I went to prison for seven years, I went in with a different mindset than when I did the first two times. I knew that I needed to make use of my time in there.
There isn’t a whole lot to do in prison. There are some classes on finance taught by other inmates in there for white-collar crimes, and there are some art and some writing classes. I took a painting class and the first day they had us paint flowers. I didn’t go back because I wasn’t really into painting flowers. The guy who was teaching it saw me in the yard and told me I had a real good sense of color and I really should keep coming to class. He asked me if I wasn’t into flowers, what am I interested in? I had a book about old money. I went back to the painting class and spent an entire year painting a 1896 $1 silver certificate, a part of the educational series.
When I start doing something, I really like to know everything there is to know about it. So I started reading about all the great artists. I started from the beginning with the Renaissance painters. I connected to Leonardo Da Vinci the most. That was kind of my style. But I also really like Andy Warhol. I didn’t really like how he treated people, but I liked that he had a factory and that he printed a lot, because I was a printer. I spent seven years in prison painting and coming up with my technique.
Tell me about your journey from getting out of prison to becoming a successful artist.
Once I got out of prison I wanted to be a writer. That’s what I really wanted to do. I wrote a book while I was in prison called Cain’s Dagger. But of course, that didn’t really work out. I was working as a janitor scrubbing toilets. I’d write for three hours in the morning, go to work, and then paint at night. Most people in prison still have their mind on fast cash so they study or dream about working as a real estate agent or stockbroker when they get out. Not something like construction, or a normal job. And there aren’t really programs to help people find work after prison. It’s really hard to get jobs with a criminal record and with no job skills. I mean, I had basically been in prison since I was a kid so I didn’t know how to do anything except paint and print money. So, I was working as a janitor and about nine months out of prison I had a show of my art in Chicago.
How did people know about your art?
I was kind of a local legend because there were a lot of reports about how I was the best counterfeiter. So people knew who I was and thought of me as a big time gangster. A lot of people came to the show. I sold a few things for $1,000 or $2,000 and I was really happy about that.
Then a little later I had a second show. A lot of people came but they just drank the wine and ate the cheese and no one bought anything. That was really disappointing. I was really discouraged. As an artist you get nervous about this kind of stuff. Like whether people are going to like your art, what they’re going to say, if they’re going to buy anything. At that point I thought maybe art just wasn’t for me.
Then three things happened. I lost my job because my boss was gambling away our paychecks. Next I hit a pot hole and my car broke down. And then my house caught on fire. We lost everything. The whole house was destroyed either by the fire or from water damage or from the firemen messing it all up. When I finally went into the house, I walked into the back room and there was just one thing that survived the fire. It was the painting I made when my brother died. I just started crying. I’m getting choked up just talking about it now [sniffles]. Art saved me. It saved me in prison and it saved me again then.
But financially, I was having a really tough time. I had child support and bills to pay and my baby was just about to be born. I didn’t know what to do and I was thinking about going back to printing money. I was really thinking about it. I was at a real low point. Then something happened. My son walked in on me right as I was about to do something bad. He looked at me and said, “Why would you do this? You’ve come so far.” I felt so bad. I just couldn’t do it.
At the time I had a studio at Lacuna Lofts in Chicago, a building where a bunch of artists worked. I walked out of my studio and sat on this bench in the hallway and Joe Cacciatore came up to me. He was the guy who owned the studio building. I told him about how down I was, about the fire and how I didn’t know how I was going to make ends meet. I just didn’t know what to do. He said, “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you work for me. We’re inviting artists from all over the country to do an event and you can help me organize it.” It was a really amazing job. Because finally I was doing something with art. I was working with all of these amazing artists, helping them prime their canvases, making sure they had all the materials they needed. I learned a lot. Because before that I really didn’t know anything about the art world. And, I was making $5,500 a month. I had never had that kind of money before.
So that was really your first introduction to the art world. You’re known now as an artist collected by celebrities. How did that happen?
I found out about Art Basel in Miami, which I hadn’t even heard of before. Someone was going to have a pop up show. I had to pay $400 to hang my art there. I couldn’t believe you had to pay to play. But I payed them the money and loaded my truck and drove down there. People came and I met a lot of people but nobody was buying anything. Then I met someone who worked with Blade Executive Jets, which is like Uber for jets. He said, “Why don’t you come to some events we’re hosting and I can introduce you to some people.”
He took me to a party and there were all these celebrities there and it was a show for Mr. E. Mr. E. makes dollar bill paintings. I support all artists and I want every artist to be successful, I really do. But I felt like maybe I missed the boat because Mr. E was already doing bill paintings, and I didn’t just want to be doing the same thing someone else was doing. I mean, mine are a lot different, but I didn’t feel right talking to people about my art there because it was Mr. E’s night. It was about him.
When we left, the person who took me said sorry, he hadn’t realized until after we got there that it would be uncomfortable for me. He said the next night he’d take me to a party at the Fontainebleau Hotel. I got a call from him at 3 A.M. the next night and said he was really sorry but he couldn’t get me into the party. He felt bad about it so he said “Look, why don’t we have an event in the airplane hanger, invite some people, and you can show your work.” What I didn’t realize was that the hanger was 45 minutes away from Miami. I thought there’s no way people are going to come out to this. I got there and set up, and I saw there was this silver and black jet, and I had a silver and black painting. I thought, I got to get a picture of this. So I went and set up my paintings, took some photos. When I came back into the main room, there were like 35, 40 people there. I couldn’t believe it. One guy ended up buying all of the paintings for $36,000. I got to tell you, it felt so good. I couldn’t believe it. I was just so excited.
At the party I met Natalia Sol, who works for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s non-profit organization, called After-School All-Stars. She told me about the organization, which helps kids through after-school programs, and asked me if I wanted to work with them to raise money for the foundation. I hadn’t ever heard anything about something like this so I said, “I want to read about it and learn more about what you do, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about how I could help.” She said they’d auction my art and I could keep half of the proceeds and the other half would go to the organization. I have a thing for kids because I had it rough growing up. Who knows, maybe if there were programs like that in the projects when I was a kid things would have been different. So, I ended up donating some work and it raised $180,000. I didn’t take my half, I just gave it all to the kids. I realized that art didn’t just save me, art can help a lot of people.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s people also wanted to put some of my art in an event at Arnold’s house in Los Angeles. They invited me to come but then later they said that since I had a criminal record, I might not be able to. I worked on my art as if I was going, but I didn’t know if I’d be able to go. My criminal record keeps me from doing a lot of stuff still. I just got rejected from a house to live in because of my record, even though my financials are great now. I even told them about all the money I donated to kids and programs with my art but they still denied me.
Anyway, six days before it happened at Arnold’s house, they told my that they had sent a request to the Secret Service to allow me to come, and it was approved. That meant so much to me. Not just that I could go to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s house. But actually, the state approved of me. They approved of what I was doing.
Your first major body of work involves portraits of famous people. What do those mean to you?
I really didn’t just want to make dollar bills, even though that’s what I was good at, because that wasn’t creative enough. When I was in prison I read about all the old artists but I also read about other famous people like old presidents, and biographies on people like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. I ended up painting a picture of Frank Sinatra, but then inside his portrait was Ben Franklin, painted like the hundred-dollar bill. I liked the illusion aspect. I did a series of paintings like these that were of famous people, like Marilyn Monroe, Prince and Amy Winehouse, because it connects my art to an issue. My aunt and uncle both died from overdoses, from opioid pills. I was really close to my uncle; he was like my brother. That was really tough on me. And so I painted people who were so great and talented but who died because of drugs. This pill epidemic is a big problem.
You are arguably the best counterfeiter there is. You got away with printing $10 million before you got caught. And not only that, you counterfeited the 1996 $100 bill, which is supposedly impossible to replicate. How did you do it?
I educated myself. I studied it. I got to be good at counterfeiting the same way I learned to paint. I learned from mimicking the people who did it best. Just like how I read about Da Vinci in prison to see how he did it, I looked at how the federal reserve printed money and copied that. I learned they did it in layers: first the color, then the borders, and so on. I learned how to mix inks and make paper and do watermarks and then insert the strip. It’s all about layers.
So is your art.
It’s pretty much the same. I work in layers. I put watermarks on my canvases that you can only see when you hold them up to the light. That way no one can make fakes of my work. I use iridescent ink that is only visible under a black light. So in the dark, if you turn on a black light, you can see a whole different image. A lot of the techniques I use are the same ones you use to print money.
It’s interesting that you said you like to paint illusions, because the counterfeit bill is, in a sense, an illusion. It’s the illusion of value. And your reasoning for applying the watermark to your artworks—so that other artists can’t forge your paintings—is really striking. That thought process would never occur to most artists, but clearly your history as a counterfeiter influences not only your formal techniques but also how you think about art and authorship!
Arthur, you broke federal law and spent 11 years (in total) of your life in prison. Now you’re a successful artist, in large part because of that time you spent in prison. Do you have regrets?
No. I don’t. I mean, maybe I could have gone to school. Or become a lawyer. I always liked law. Of course, there are certain things I did when I was younger that I wish I hadn’t, when I was involved in gangs. There’s a lot of violence in that life. And I wish I had more time with my kids when they were young. But I don’t regret anything because so much good has come out of my story. Art saved me. It’s been therapy for me. And now I can go out and share my story and try to give other people confidence about following their own dreams, whether it’s to be an artist or not. I give motivational talks now. My art has helped raise a lot of money for kids and different charities. I wouldn’t have been able to do all that if I didn’t have the life I had. I have no regrets.