Coin Cutting

The practicality of artwork has long been debated, usually seen as a marker of civilization but virtually useless. What about the artwork we’ve been so accustomed to that it escapes our notice, passed off as common normalcy and quickly disregarded, the art on one of the most practical products of society? The artistic designs printed on money-small change specifically- have been brought to the forefront through the ‘boom’ in a fad called “coin cutting.” Coin cutting is the act of taking the coinage of a country and either cutting away the excess background to have the ‘main picture’ suspended for emphasis, or redesigning the piece entirely.

A Symbolic/Interpretive Anthropologist would see this as an assertation of one’s independence. With the understanding that meaning is public and money is nationally symbolic of government, the altered image of the coin can be interpreted as a political stance, a small disobedient act that can be argued as anarchist. Coin cutters dispute that while ‘defacing’ government property is illegal, embellishing that property is not. They have re-defined law in their own terms, terms that are contradictory to the societally long established. Or at the very least Interpretivists might see this redesign as a visual representation of the political and societal change that has been subtly brewing.

A Functionalist would explain this phenomenon a bit differently. Today’s culture has a growing consciousness of its waste output. The messages of ‘up cycling’ ‘recycling’ and ‘thriftiness’ printed on posters and shouted from ‘PSA’s have become normative. At the same time the influx in the popularity of credit cards and electronic swipes have taken precedence as the most common way purchases are made, and brought with it an abundance of dusty coins. The rounded presidential profiles have become virtually obsolete in the trading process. What better way for an artist to meet “the specific societal need” of enforcing a cultural ideal than to “waste not, want not” and string a re-purposed pendant around their neck?

Coin cutting is a fascinating trend growing in popularity. A Symbolic/ Interpretive Anthropologist would draw a vastly different conclusion to explain the phenomenon than that of a Functionalist. While a Symbolic Anthropologist might argue that this art is a way to further a political agenda (a desecration of the old to become something new) a Functionalist might argue that a social agenda is driving the popularity of this re-purposed art.

– Sam E.

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33 Responses to Coin Cutting

  1. Di says:

    I think that the use of physical money as an art medium is really fascinating. It goes with the idea of using and re-using something that is already widely available. I believe that there should be a revision of the Fair Use law that says anything that is widely available can’t cause legal problems for the artist. I know this would have to been intensely debated, as this opens up a lot of avenues for piracy and misuse within music/video and other things, but more and more people are using these mediums in self-expression. I’m curious to see if any governments have taken any considerable legal action against those who are coin cutting.

    • Stephen Fleming says:

      I agree with what youre saying about the legality of coin cutting. i personally tried a while ago and it is much more difficult than it looks so if someone can make art out of a widely available and somewhat pointless resource (pennies) then why should they get into trouble. not to mention that almost any tourist/souvenir shop theres the penny cranker machine that imprints a design onto it for just the price of 51 cents. So by that standard if a tourist trap can profit after defacing coins then coin artwork should be in museums.

      • dianamorse says:

        Stephen, I didn’t even think about that! Coin defacing has already been around for a really long time! I’ve had coins pressed into souvenirs at places like Disney Land, and there was certainly no problem with that. There are other comments (further down) that say some people became nervous or uneasy while watching someone do coin cutting. I question would be, are these people also uneasy about souvenir coin presses as well? Is there a separation between having a person do it and having a machine do it?

  2. Abi Peters says:

    Before reading this I had never heard of coin cutting. With that I thought both perspectives applied really helped in my understanding of the phenomenon. The idea of it being a small act of disobedience seemed very appropriate – similar to beginnings of street graffiti it that is a bit daring, against the law, but also (unless one gets caught) a “secretive” act that no one else is aware of except the “perpetrator” them self. Unlike graffiti though, a coin can be carried around as a personal reminder to perhaps not always be obedient or to question the law. I also found the functionalist aspect of putting the coins to use rather than wasting them a very compelling point of view – there is certainly a trend at the moment to recycle and reuse. While I understand that defacing governmental property is illegal, I wonder what government officials actually think about coin cutting. I also wonder, like Di’s comment above, if there is any legal action being taken? The only reason I would think there might be, is that coins can be melted down by the government for reuse. And while coin cutters are reusing them, the government is not gaining anything like it would if the coins were melted down.

    • lilykoral says:

      As a coin cutter myself, I just wanted to comment on a few of your points from my own “insider’s perspective.” First, I wanted to address the bit about the coin cutting as a small act of disobedience. I’m sure it’s different for other coin cutters, but for me coin cutting is more of an act of individuality and uniqueness than of defiance. This point is pretty significant in my opinion because until I read this essay I personally never thought about disobedience being a motive to start coin cutting. In fact, I deface the coins I cut so I feel like I’m making them into something new that doesn’t resemble coins anymore. By doing this I nullify my act of disobedience so I can see myself as an artist instead of a rebel and I can trick myself into thinking that what I’m doing isn’t quite as illegal as it really is. The second point I wanted to address is your question about how government officials react to coin cutting. I personally have never gotten in trouble with the authorities for my jewelry (that might partly be because no one can tell my necklaces are made of coins). In fact, when my cousin, who is a bailiff, and my other cousins and my brother, who are all lawyers, see my coin necklaces they never mention how illegal it is, or that I could be fined for a lot of money if I get caught. Instead they praise me for my craftiness and implore me to sell my coin jewelry (even though selling them is almost more illegal).

      • Ashley Sanks says:

        Lily,

        I think you have a particularly intriguing viewpoint to coin cutting, something like many of the rest of us have never heard of. While I was contrasting the differences between your response and the original paragraph, I began to think of the political reasons behind this. Why is it illegal to “deface” money an act of disobedience, rather than an art form? The author has made the point that, “at the very least Interpretivists might see this redesign as a visual representation of the political and societal change that has been subtly brewing.” As a political science major, I would attribute this in part to Political Anthropology. The definition we were given in class simply explains politics as the system wide circulation of power and authority existent in our society. The main points of it are to maintain social order by a threat or use of physical force. Why does our government hold citizens so accountable to the point of illegality for “defacing” or destroying our currency?
        It may not be correct, but I would attribute this to the same problem that exists in flag burning (also against the law). The government coins money (given the power to do so in Article 1 in the Constitution) and regulates it through the Fed so it is very much a part of our political structure, and not to mention the power of money within the US. Like flags, (and as the author brought up) it is a symbol of our country, and the power of the figures that are engraved into it for our American “exceptionalism”, people who made great change, or the founding fathers who built our country and that are a symbol of true nationalism.
        Politics would want to regulate this because it is a symbol of political authority, but I personally think it may be more of a threat than it is actually enforced (as your example of family legal workers who don’t notice it, lest enforce it at all). This is woven into our lives without us even realizing that even a simple penny is woven into our social life.

      • Gabe DuPont says:

        Lily,
        I am glad that an actual coin cutter was able to comment on this blog. Honestly, I had never heard of this coin cutting trend until I read this piece. My first interpretation of this hobby was similar with the author of the blog. I thought this hobby was an act of defiance and some sort of rebellious act against the government. This is a supremely fascinating subject that I would like to know more about. So thank you for your input!

  3. Kyle Santi says:

    Coins hold so much symbolism in themselves and they are a better marker of value than credit cards and paper money. Coins have the weight and feel going for them to indicate value that paper money lacks. After all, there are so many cases of people maxing out their credit cards because they cannot understand how much money they can spend with that piece of plastic. With coins and notes, people do have a better understanding of how much they are spending. Plus, credit cards hold little symbolic value in comparison to coins and notes. They have culturally-specific artwork on them that means something to the people of their culture. That adds value to them to the people of that culture independent of their actual monetary value. They mean something. Seeing George Washington on a quarter brings up feelings of nationalism, for example. Coin cutting could be interpretive as outright contempt of their country of origin, and it would be a good way to show said contempt.

  4. Claire Cohen says:

    I too had never heard of this practice, and the theories presented to analyze the phenomenon really got me thinking about coin cutting. I particularly enjoyed your symbolic/interpretative approach, the way that you applied this theory in order to illustrate the cutter’s assertion of independence was really creative. I also found Abi’s relation to the defiant act of graffiti to be very relevant to the way in which coin cutting is an act of taking a political stance. If individuals do practice coin cutting as an act of political defiance, it would be a very clever and subtle way of doing so. Also, you bring up a good point in your functionalist interpretation of the recycling of items that are becoming obsolete. You can see this demonstrated in everyday fashion practices with the growing popularity of Do-It-Yourself projects that upcycle old T-shirts into new treasures.

  5. Allison Dudley says:

    I as well had not heard of coin cutting before this blog essay. I have, however, been exposed to a possibly related modification of money. In my family, on special celebrations, such as birthdays and graduations, a common gift is money folded and glued into different shapes with glitter and other festive decorations. While the bills are still useful as money, unlike coins that are cut, the meaning and symbolism behind this family tradition are very important to me and my family. I am interested in knowing whether coin cutting is more symbolic to those participating beyond an artistic symbolism. Who are the coin cutters and what are their reasons for making art out of coins, a government issued object? As stated above, the legal attribute of coin cutting is intriguing. Perhaps it could be a political statement similar to the burning of an American flag. Overall this is a very interesting topic for an essay and I want to know more about it.

    • Brianna Dascher says:

      Allison, I found your money folding tradition very interesting. Although folding paper money is different than coin cutting as you said, in part because it is not so permanent and probably doesn’t render a bill useless, it was intriguing to hear that a similar practice takes place for such vastly different reasons. Although this essay had a different thought about this act in the eyes of an interpretive/symbolic anthropologist, hearing about your family’s tradition leads me to believe coin cutting is probably more for artistic merit or traditional values like in your family. An interpretive/symbolic anthropologist would probably see both sides, in that some cut coins as a small act of rebellion, and others merely to create something new and beautiful others can enjoy.

  6. lilykoral says:

    As a coin cutter/defacer, I found this essay fairly spot on. I say this because before I started making jewelry from coins I made recycled jewelry from old soda tabs and ribbon. However, after years of this I wanted to start a new form of recycled jewelry. While I was looking for something new I noticed the large amount of dusty pennies and nickels I had collected and never used over the years, as the essay mentioned, so I started using them as material for my new jewelry. Since cutting US currency is illegal, as is stated in the essay, I started defacing the coins so that no one would be able to tell that the jewelry was made from coins. Therefore defacing the coins so they’re no longer recognizable is how I personally redefined the law against cutting coins.

    • Anastasia M. says:

      Lily,
      I very much appreciate your incite as a coin cutter, it definitely brings a better understanding and more intimate perspective to the subject, but I do have several questions.

      1. Where did you initially learn about coin cutting, and what was the original message attempting to be portrayed through cutting the coins ?

      2. Once you have cut the coins and turned them into jewelry, what do they symbolize for you? How do they fulfill what you wish for them to represent?

      3. There has been a lot of stir about eliminating coins as a form of currency. If this were to be done, would the symbolism still hold or would the new art form become obsolete, just as the coins would?

  7. Rachel says:

    I found the subject of coin cutting to be very interesting. All around the world people use coins as a form of payment. In a sense, money is what makes the world go round, it justifies that trades are fair and in many societies symbolizes importance. The idea of defacing something so significant to any given culture could be viewed as a very bold statement. Throughout the ages people have used different varieties of coins as tokens of wealth. In today’s world, each society, for the most part, has their own currency and each currency has it’s own artwork, characteristics, and importance. For example Danish coins have holes through the middle of them and coins in the Euro monetary system grow larger in circumference in accordance with value. Coins are the basis of any monetary system, and although it is easy to deface such small and seemingly insignificant objects, I find it interesting that people partake in the destruction of such a unique and defining aspect of a culture in order to create entirely different pieces art.

  8. Alana McDowell says:

    I think it might be worth exploring how the art of coin cutting could change if the penny was dropped as a valid form of currency. Would artists suddenly be using pennies much more in their work?

    Also, how do coin cutters advertise, sell, or even display their work if its nature is illegal? Should there be a way for coin cutting artists to “pay the government back” for the coins he or she cuts? For example, what if the art of coin cutting became legal, but the artist was required to pay a fee equal to the amount of currency defaced? Is this the concern of the government, or does the illegal nature of coin cutting more rooted in a desire to keep citizens from even thinking of “meddling” with “government property”? Very interesting stuff.

    • lilykoral says:

      (This is from my perspective, I don’t know about other coin cutters) If pennies become dropped then I might actually want to sell some of my pieces. Until then I don’t sell my pieces to the general public. I only do commission jobs for really close friends/family.

      As for the idea about paying the government back, that would be awesome if that worked. But that’s actually not what the government is worried about. Their main concern is that the coin that is being cut is no longer usable and therefore it becomes “lost currency.” The actual law about it doesn’t just specify US coins, but any form of currency from any country.

      (P.S. I did not write this essay, I’m just a coin cutter/defacer and this topic excites me)

      • Calvert Smith says:

        I wonder how coin cutters would react if legislation were made to legalize coin cutting. While I am certain many would appreciate being able to sell their work and not have to worry about getting caught, I feel like the illegality might add an extra thrill for others, or give it a sense of being a social statement or protest art that would not be present if it were illegal. I don’t quite understand the level of concern the government has with this though, as it did not sounds like the cutters were making the coins unusable.

  9. Stephanie Grossart says:

    Wow. I really enjoyed this blog post. Coin cutting was not even apparent to me until now. It must take a lot of work to cut so precisely on those little coins. Also I would agree with the coin cutters that they are embellishing government property. I was an art dealer in Miami Florida and I can tell you that anything can be art. Art is different for everyone. A special craft is always appreciated in the art world. Coin cutting transforms an order piece of money into a beautiful work of art.

  10. Molly Atkins says:

    I agree with your argument for the symbolic view of anthropology that coin cutting is a symbol of independence. Although I have never heard of coin cutting until now it really does seem symbolic of some form of civil disobedience as well as expression. It shows that this aspect of culture values artistic expression over following rules laid out by the government. But in a way it also seems to me since they view their art as enhancing what the government has already created so it is also symbolic of appreciating what is already there. It is symbolic of both individuality and appreciation.

  11. Michaela Quinlan says:

    I really appreciated this blog essay because as an artist I am constantly looking for materials that could “help” the surrounding environment, such as recycling, rather than using white bleached paper. I thought the theory regarding the Functionalist Anthropologist was extremely interesting due to the comparison of American waste output versus the actual use of physical money. I agree that Americans are increasingly replacing physical money with credit cards or debt cards out or mere practicality. Though, it goes to show the negligence these coins receive alongside the government need for more money. Perhaps the Functionalist would view this as a way to “recycle” these unused coins, but I also believe they would be interested in the cause and effect of this use of money. In the grand scheme of things a few small coins used by an artist isn’t going to change the national economy, but what does this have to say about the neglected physical coins that go unused from an anti-coin-cutting perspective? Does this coin-cutting even make a significant effect upon national currency? Also, if the artist were to sell these pieces for profit, the Functionalist could regard this practice as an economic advance. The labor used on the coin is then objectified into a higher value than the original coin value (example if a penny was coin cut).

  12. Mateo Hajek says:

    I really appreciate the duality you made with interpretive and functional theory as applied to coin cutting. I want to try and expand on the idea by arguing the opposing viewpoint of both theories from the opposing theoretical paradigm.

    Wherein you said an interpretive anthropologist would see coin cutting as an assertion of ones independence via de facto civil disobedience, I believe a functional argument can be made for coin cutting serving the function of civil disobedience by the coin cutter knowingly and willfully defacing federal property, which carries a heavy penalty. However as article 18 of ‘the US code’ explicitly states, the act of defacement must be ‘fraudulent’. As such coin cutting is not technically illegal. An interpretive anthropologist might then understand this use in semantics as meaning that coin cutting is symbolic of self expression and current up cycling trends amidst groups that see a waning in the use of coin and paper money in the contemporary US.

  13. Hayley Dardick says:

    I’m another reader who has just been introduced to coin cutting! After “googling” pictures of the practice, I can say it seems to be a very impressive art form. Precision and artistic vision are both necessary to make this pieces and it is clear a lot of effort must be spent to cut these coins. I have to admit, though… A small part of me was slightly taken aback when I saw the pictures. It does seem a little shocking socially that these are pieces of value to the United States that people are cutting, defacing, melting, etc. However, after reading some of the comments from coin-cutters and watching a youtube video I’ll attach below, it does not seem that coin cutters look at their work as anarchist. In fact, it seems to be the opposite. Coin-cutters appear to be passionate about coins and their individual stories and history. They see their work as a tribute to this history and a way to enhance uniqueness in a coin that is otherwise uniform with all others of its type.

    • John Cooper says:

      I am just wounding about the morality of coin cutting. the symbols that governments put on these coins are deeply meaningful. From the most part they are national heroes on those coins, they resent the greatness of a nation and it just dose not seem fully appropriate to me that people are altering them.

  14. Jake Bradshaw says:

    This is also the first time I have heard of coin cutting and I have to say from the examples I’ve googled that the finished products produced can be most exquisite. What I find most interesting though about this entire blog section is a lack of consensus on the legality of coin cutting and that is just as interesting as the theories you’ve attached to this art. A simple Google search to the US mint has led me to federal criminal statue 18 U.S.C. §331. The Mint states on its website (https://www.usmint.gov/consumer/?action=archives) that in relation to this law, defacing coins is generally not illegal unless it is in order to commit fraud: a 1983 coin grinded down upon to show the date 1933 to defraud coin collectors. You’ve stated in your second paragraph that a Symbolic/Interpretive anthropologist might find these coin cutters have “re-defined law in their own terms, terms that are contradictory to the societally long established.” What is really interesting is that they are re-defining a law that doesn’t exist. As this blog has illustrated, society has made its own laws, or perceptions of legality, that are in complete contrast to the actual reality of the laws that a government institution has put in place. In our case, its the general public consensus that this coin cutting is illegal while US federal law has stated that, as long as its not down with fraudulent intent, it isn’t. Societal ignorance in this case has produced a rebel, “anarchists” image for this act that is baseless.

  15. Daniel Greer says:

    I’m not sure I agree or fully understand your application of functionalism. As I understand it, functionalism suggests that cultural institutions arise as a means of fulfilling basic biological needs. For instance, sexual intercourse is a basic biological need. However, since the consequence of sex, i.e. a child, requires a great deal of resources and time to raise, societies have developed complex marital customs, like dowries, to ensure both that humans gain access to sexual intercourse, while also having the financial stability to support a child. If you wanted to argue the necessity of coin cutting as a means of fulfilling a basic biological need, you might start by arguing that humans have a basic need to create art, and this manifests as coin cutting because of x, y, and z. Great paper, though. You definitely chose a unique topic.

  16. Danielle Maxey says:

    Like many others, I had not heard of coin-cutting before I had read your paper. I had to google it to see exactly what it was. I have seen it to some degree in older coins, normally replicas of ancient currency. It was fascinating to find that selling cut coins could be considered illegal. After all, shredded bags of bills can be sold. If those can be sold, why not cut coins? The coin is not being sold for more than it is worth, instead a piece of art is being sold. No one is ever going to accept that coin if the person who bought it decided they suddenly wanted to use it just as no one will ever accept a bag of shredded bills. On a different note, I thought your use of theories was interesting. I do not necessarily agree with the statement that cutting the coin is an act of rebellion, for some it might simply be an act of expression and they happened to like how the coin looked.

  17. Hannah Hilden-Reid says:

    Great topic choice! I’m not terribly familiar with this art form but it sounds fascinating. The symbolic interpretation was spot on and the analysis was done very well. But I wonder if the author’s functionalist theory surrounding society’s consciousness of waste could be adapted so that the act of coin-cutting itself is a waste, rather than a form of recycling. This altered currency could not to cycled back through the economy and is essentially worthless. Is this not just an artsy way of wasting money?

    • Megan Salzer says:

      I would have to agree, while I am no very aware what this art form I thought it was a very interesting topic! I think while the symbolic interpretation re illuminated the form of art and was very successful, the functionalist theory could have discussed the way Hannah states, as a waste rather than a form of recycling. While the goal of this act is to create a piece of historical art through the use of coin-cutting, the idea that credit cards are more commonly used today in our society than paying with coins could illustrate the lack of function a coin currently has. Creating an art out of this small piece of metal containing many symbolic meanings to different individuals, but could this be offensive. With the coin representing our former presidents and the history of America, could coin-cutting be considered a way to “cut out” the background of American history? On a related by slightly off topic note, isn’t destroying/defacing American currency illegal? And if it is, why do people continue to participate in the art of coin-cutting?

  18. Emma Simpleman says:

    I thought this topic but I found it very interesting. I have never heard of coin cutting until reading this. I really enjoyed your analysis through the interpretive theory and really liked the fact that you looked at the concept of money through an artistic view.

  19. Meg Fleming says:

    I enjoyed reading this about coin cutting! I have never heard of coin cutting so this was interesting to read and re-read the comments. I understand how you described coin cutting through a symbolic/interpretive anthropologist view and I liked how you used a creative art in comparison. I did not fully understand your analysis through a functionalist view, at first. Then when I read more comments, I understood how a functionalist would see it and your analysis was spot on!

  20. shelly kim says:

    Interesting topic because I collect word coins and paper notes and always have been fascinated about the pictures on the currencies. good analyzing with interpretive theory. The intro part was kind of confusing to me with wordings but the second paragraph settled it down. I personally don’t believe in coin cutting because one should not play with money! but this writing also gave me the idea that on the other hand, it might be seen as art form rather than playing with objects which some arts really are.

  21. Sophia Grenier says:

    This is really interesting to me, because I had never heard of coin-cutting until now. I just looked it up, and some folks have made some pretty amazing art on coins! I’m not quite sure what to think of it, though–I mean, it’s art, yes, but it’s also destroying valid currency, something that I find difficult to understand whilst living off a college student’s budget. You mention Interpretive Theory and coin-cutting could be seen as a way of articulating independence from the government; I wonder why currency was picked as that symbol. Maybe it was the only real tangible thing that represented government? Either way, great job!

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