"When dollars call for change"
March 1, 2010
Author: Emma Dumain
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Looking for a cheap way to get your message out? Consider putting it on a dollar bill.
From fringe groups to more established advocates, many activists have found that scribbling or stamping messages onto money is an inexpensive way to spread the word about their cause.
The tactic -- you could call it dollar billboarding -- has been used by groups across the political spectrum, although it tends to be more popular with those on the outskirts of the mainstream.
Atheists arguing for the separation of church and state have crossed out the word "God" in the motto "In God We Trust." Conservatives who disapprove of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have stamped the words "tax cheat" over his signature. Supporters of marijuana legalization have pointed out that George Washington grew hemp.
Though the federal government frowns on defacing currency, few activists who go this route end up facing legal sanctions. In the meantime, their messages can spread pretty far.
With a lifespan of close to 18 months , a typical $1 bill passes through hundreds if not thousands of hands and can travel pretty far around the country. Using a popular dollar-tracking website, WheresGeorge.com , a group of mathematicians determined that a single dollar bill can travel between 30 and 500 miles across the United States over a period of nine months.
Generally, stamping dollar bills does not attract much media attention -- unless it's done by a more mainstream group.
In Canada, an environmental organization drew a lot of attention for its use of one-dollar coins which feature the loon, an aquatic bird.
The Dogwood Initiative wanted to publicize its campaign to protect wildlife from oil spills. Its solution was to affix stickers of an oil-soaked loon to the back of the coins.
Since the campaign first launched in early 2009, over half a million coins have been stamped and circulated, said communications director Charles Campbell.
"For the first months of the campaign," said Campbell, "you were likely to encounter a few of our coins in any given week."
He said the project's big draw was that it allowed activists outside the organization to get involved. It costs the Dogwood Initiative 10 to 20 cents to print each sticker, which they then sell in batches of 42 for a total of $10.
"What was exciting for us was that, while we printed these decals, we weren't sticking all of them on the coins ourselves. We sold them on the website, or gave them away in the beginning. It was a really good way of allowing people to give voice to their concerns," Campbell said.
In the United States, advocacy groups periodically create rubber stamps which are then sold online to like-minded activists.
Not all efforts are as organized. New York artist David Greg Harth has been creating his own stamps since 1998.
"I have multiple rubber stamps with different messages, and then I send them to people in other cities, friends, or strangers who have contacted me through the site," Harth explained. "If I stamp one thousand singles, I exchange them for one thousand unmarked singles, then stamp those."
Through this cycle, Harth says he has facilitated the marking of over a million bills. But whereas the Dogwood Initiative integrates its message into the design of the currency, Harth uses the bills more as literal vehicles for his messages.
Some of his slogans have included "I am HIV Positive" and "I am HIV Negative," which he stamps on separate bills. When they are put into circulation, their random distribution reflects the distribution of the virus itself.
And around election season, he marks bills with the words, "I am voting," and for the anniversaries of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he stamps, "I am not terrorized."
"I wanted to get politically involved through my art," Harth said of how his project originated. "I'm not one to go to a podium and speak out vocally. The point is to start a dialogue. It would be great if two strangers were both looking at a bill, wondering about it, talking about it."
For many activists, the mild form of civil disobedience involved in altering U.S. currency is part of the thrill. But technically speaking, it's not against the law unless perpetrators deface the currency "with intent to render such bank bill(s) ... unfit to be reissued."
In other words, as long as the bill is still usable, it's OK. Cutting, gluing, or changing the numerical value of a bill could lead to a fine or up to six months in prison, however.
Still, defaced currency cases are reported so rarely that law enforcement officials were not immediately certain whose jurisdiction the issue falls to.
The Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing referred a reporter to the Secret Service. That agency, which typically handles counterfeit crimes, recommended the Justice Department.
Ben Friedman, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office for the District of Columbia, said he was not aware of any recent cases.
"I don't know of any cases of defacing currency that have been brought in our office, at least not of the type involving the scratching out something on a bill or anything like that," said Friedman, who has worked in the attorney's office since 1998. "It may technically be a crime, but it's not something our office has ever prosecuted."