An artist pours money into every one of his or her projects: in the cost of canvas, paint, equipment, time. Few do it quite so literally as artist Mark Wagner, who cuts up dollar bills to intricately collage their bits and pieces into portraits.
“The one dollar bill is the most ubiquitous piece of paper in America,” he writes in his artist statement. “Blade and glue transform it–reproducing the effects of tapestries, paints, engravings, mosaics, and computers–striving for something bizarre, beautiful, or unbelievable.”
Wagner has completed portraits of people we see on our money all the time, like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but he has also seen fit to recreate the Mona Lisa, Ben Bernanke, and Barack Obama in cold hard cash. The medium itself is durable. There’s no paper we’re more interested in preserving than currency. And each portrait just uses 15 to 20 one-dollar bills, which, as art supplies go, is pretty cheap.
Granted, what he’s doing is also a little outside the law. U.S. code prohibits mutilating, cutting, disfiguring or pasting together bills. But Wagner’s work has been collected in museums around the world, so he’s not too worried. When he first starting cutting up bills in 1999, he felt a little weird about it, but that cringing feeling has since passed. “Now I don’t think about it like money,” he told Slate, “and it’s easy to cut up.”
Easy, but not quick. Wagner often spends 30 to 40 hours assembling each collage, even working with an assistant. Watch him at work:
In Wagner’s hands, dollar bills become unusable as currency. In the process, they take on a totally new value.