Arthur J. Williams Jr. has the distinction of being the first person to successfully replicate the 1996 $100 bill, which the U.S. Treasury designed to be counterfeit-proof. Integrating old-school printing-press methods with digital technology, the Chicago-born Williams did the impossible. As the Secret Service tried to trace the source, Williams reportedly created as much as $10 million in funny money, his visual skills allowing to him to craft a product stunningly realistic on every level, from the watermark and security thread to the ink and imagery. His exploits were captured in a best-selling 2009 book, The Art of Making Money. Eventually apprehended, the former petty thief turned gangster turned master counterfeiter was put behind bars for a third time. When Williams emerged, he had transformed himself yet again, walking to freedom as an exceptionally gifted painter.
How did you first get involved painting and creating art?
It started when I was in prison. I’d always had a fascination with old currency. I used to collect bills from the 1800s. I marveled at the beauty the old engravers could produce. I always felt like America was a strong, powerful force and the money back then actually showed that. I started drawing with a pencil. I was creating pencil images throughout my transfers from FCI Manchester to FCI Big Springs. I didn’t really start painting until I got to FCI Forrest City in Arkansas. I started with oils. A fellow inmate taught a class. I read art books. You don’t have an iPhone to Google images or watch instructional videos. Using books, I learned by studying the masters, like da Vinci and Michelangelo. I read up on colors and techniques. By the time I got out, I could paint anything my eye could see.
After serving seven years, you hit the streets in 2014. How was your transition?
Before going in, I was a pretty powerful dude in Chicago. I knew all the heads of the mobs. If I needed money, I just printed it. I could have gone to the basement, printed $100 million, and been done with it. Maybe I should have done that. But instead, I just printed what I needed. When I got out of prison it was real humbling. I only had a little bit of money. My wife had left me. She was down in Texas with the three kids. I felt really alone. I didn’t know what I was going to do. A really good friend of mine that I’d let down, Mark Schwartz, got me a job cleaning for $15 an hour.