By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
Painting set Arthur Williams Jr. free when he was behind bars.
Locked up for counterfeiting money, Williams signed up for a painting class offered by a fellow inmate one day.
The concept of painting was similar to creating counterfeit currency, he said. And he liked it.
Now, he has taken an activity that was therapy for him in prison and has turned it into a career. He recently opened a fine art gallery in Boca Raton on Palmetto Park Road.
His works still feature what landed him behind bars: money.
Williams’ criminal career started early. He was 11 when his dad took off and left his bi-polar mother, who only knew how to be a housewife, with the kids to raise.
Quickly, he went from living in the suburbs of Chicago to foster care to a shelter and then to the projects where he was surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence.
Williams was 12 and living in the projects in the South side of Chicago. He remembered coming home from school one day and seeing his mother crying about how she was going to feed the family as the food stamps had run out.
“I got mad and started hitting parking meters,” Williams said. “I heard the change in them. I started playing with the meter. I made a key out of a piece of metal and opened them. I got $82.”
He used the money to go grocery shopping. But when his mother found out how he purchased the food, he said he was chastised and told that, “Stealing is not the way that we are going to survive.”
The lecture didn’t deter Williams from committing petty crimes and being involved in gang activity.
At 15, he met a man at the diner his mother worked at, who was an old-time counterfeiter. He took Williams under his wing and taught him how to mix colors, make plates and ink to create fake money.
He studied as an apprentice under the master nicknamed Da Vinci for a year.
But, he wasn’t staying out of trouble and his mom sent him to Texas to get straightened out. Instead he wound up in state prison for two years.
When he got out, the 1996 $100 bill was released.
So, he wanted to figure out how to replicate the bill, which was billed as supposedly impossible to replicate.
He knew the bill was only really checked with a special pen. So, he began figuring out to create something that would get past the pen.
It started with finding the perfect paper.
“I ordered paper from all over the world,” he said. “I was determined.”
With no internet at that time, he located paper companies using the phone book, but none of the materials worked. The acidity of the paper wasn’t right and they couldn’t trick the pen.
Frustrated, he said he threw the phone book down and then tested it.
“The phone book that we had been looking in was the paper that worked,” he said.
Called directory paper, it was thin enough and two sheets of it was the exact thickness of the bill. So, Williams got to work adding a watermark and strip.
His then wife was very computer savvy with early versions of PhotoShop. She was able to digitally change the serial numbers of the bills using a number generating program.
Soon, they had more money than they knew how to spend. Not into new cars or flashy things, Williams said they bought what they needed and used the rest to create memories through traveling the country and by giving back.
“We were a good Bonnie and Clyde,” he said.
They would visit a city and purchase toys, books, clothing and donate it to a charity. Then they would travel to a new place and do the same thing.
They were able to evade the Secret Service for so long because the bills were all numbered differently. It is estimated Williams created more than $10 million of fake money.
After a while, he wanted to get out of the fake money business. He found his father, who had abandoned him so many years ago, in Alaska and his dad convinced him to keep printing.
They both ended up in trouble with the law. This time Williams served three years and the day he got out, his father died.
He went back to Chicago where he wound up going back to printing money after struggling to find a job that would help pay all the bills.
“It’s very addicting to print money,” he said. “Its a hard thing not to do.”
This time his sentence was serious: seven years.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I felt like a complete loser.”
With nothing but time, he began to read biographies of people he felt were good.
He read about presidents, Tesla, Einstein, Ford, Carnegies, Jackie-O and others.
“I started just reading everything I could on who I perceived to be a good man or woman,” he said.
And then he read “The Agony and the Ecstasy” about Michelangelo and he said he knew he wanted to paint.
When reading the book, he said he felt like he was in Florence. He could see the city in his mind and he felt free.
“I knew I wanted to paint,” he said. “I knew I wanted to try it.”
So, he gave a prison painting class a shot. After two classes and an assignment of painting a flower, he quit.
When the instructor encouraged him to come back, he asked if he could paint what he wanted. The teacher said yes.
His subject: old currency.
“I had a fascination with old currency, 1800s money,” he said.
Williams found a photo of a $1 bill from 1896. It is very detailed and the instructor said it would be impossible for him to replicate the image.
It took one year, but Williams did.
And he began to read everything on painting, colors and artists.
“I fell in love with Da Vinci and how he glazed and mixed,” he said. “For the next seven years we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have models. I had to go through magazines and find pictures I liked and sketch it out to create my scene.”
By the time his sentence was up, he had about a dozen completed paintings.
“I got out, I felt good,” he said. “I was strong. My mind was clean and I was ready to conquer the world.”
But, it wasn’t easy once he got out. He was divorced, owed child support and was happy to get paid $15 an hour cleaning toilets in a building a friend owned.
A T-shirt line he attempted to create, Julius Davinci Clothing, failed and he wasn’t making money from being the subject of a book “The Art of Making Money.” The only solace he found was when he painted.
“The canvas made me feel free,” he said. “It was my therapy. It was my home. It was my safety.”
He sold pieces on the side for small sums of cash, a few thousand here and there. He got a job transporting cars, but after two years the money ran dry.
“Right when I would get to my lowest point, I would sell a painting,” he said. “It would save me. There were always those moments.”
Not sure where to turn next, back to a life of crime or the tough life of an artist, he said his son saved his life when he caught Williams purchasing things he needed to counterfeit money. He hasn’t gone back to the criminal life since that moment.
In 2017, he lost his job, his car was totaled from hitting a pot hole and his house burned down. But, he didn’t go back to hustling.
He started painting houses and the partners in the company said he should pursue his artwork as well. They said they would give him space and pay him to create paintings for six months.
Four of those paintings, all money related of course, made it to Art Basel in 2017. All of them were sold. He took his spoils and bought a gallery for himself in Chicago.
Someone who worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger asked him to create pieces for a charity event benefitting children. Thrilled he could give back to kids, he agreed. His work was being recognized.
He spent time creating more paintings for Art Basel 2018. When only two paintings sold, he got discouraged, but decided to hang out in South Florida.
After the holidays ended, people began calling to buy his pieces.
One of his buyers suggested opening a gallery in South Florida. That buyer, a member of the Rizutto family, which owns Cuisinart, is now his partner in the gallery.
The gallery opened on March 1. Williams spends about three weeks in South Florida and one week in Chicago.
“I still get to print money and help kids,” he said.