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A hobo walks into a nickel

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 13, 2014 12:24 PM

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Currency makes a unique kind of canvas. For one, the images on our coins and bills are iconic, which creates room for a lot of creative fun once you start changing them, and two, it's illegal to deface money, which makes any kind of currency art intrinsically subversive.

At the end of December the visual art website Colossal ran a post on an especially neat branch of currency art known as "hobo nickels." The art form dates to 1913, when the Buffalo nickel was introduced. The nickel's thickness, size, and the relative softness of its metal made it ideal for creating miniature bas reliefs, and its portability and inexpensiveness made it a popular art form among itinerant people (hence the term "hobo" nickel).

Hobo nickels were popular throughout the early and mid-20th century and are still being created in abundance today. The Colossal post featured the work of hobo nickel artist Paolo Curcio of Barcelona, who largely sticks to traditional hobo nickel themes by carving images of skulls and death into a variety of coins (not just nickels). It's amusing to see a skull-topped traveler advancing across the face of a coin where you're used to encountering a president. It's also a little bit unsettling, which makes you realize the kind of low-level emotional attachment we form over time with the faces on our money.

Hobo 1.jpg

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Images courtesy of Paolo Curcio.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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