THE KARMIC CIRCLE OF CURRENCY01 April 2021 Written by By Christine Douglas
Published in April 2021 Articles
Life is a hard road traveled in any situation.
Some people have a distinct advantage over others, having a firm foundation from which to rise and build their life. Strong and healthy family bonds create a safe and supportive environment to grow and become. But for Arthur J. Williams Jr., born on the South Side of Chicago to a mother who was bipolar and schizophrenic, life was already presenting challenges before he took his first steps. Through a whirlwind of highs and lows, from the projects of Chicago to prison, Arthur transformed his life into one that is fueled by his love for both creating art and creating good in the world. The chrysalis he broke out of represents a reformation success story unlike any other. Few incarcerated individuals have come out the other side having gained insight and recognized their potential enough to propel themselves forward, and even less have the dubious distinction of having a prime-space art gallery on a corner in Beverly Hills. For Arthur, the Davinci Gallery in Beverly Hills is a culmination of karmic events that kept him in constant motion toward the place he is today. And for that, he is not only grateful, but also feels the need to constantly pay it forward.
"Few incarcerated individuals have come out the other side having gained insight and recognized their potential enough to propel themselves forward, and even less have the dubious distinction of having a prime-space art gallery on a corner in Beverly Hills."
Arthur attests that his life seemed normal, even with a mother caught in the clutches of mental illness. As he aged, Arthur came to realize that his father’s line of work included being a “paper hanger,” someone who printed counterfeit money. By the time Arthur was entering his teen years, he had gone through years of back and forth, living with either his father or mother until his father vanished completely. Left with his mother who was residing at the Salvation Army in Chicago, Arthur faced the battle out of homelessness only to wind up living inside the walls of the harsh Chicago projects. He experienced the hopelessness that youths inside of that environment endure. Says Arthur, “We lived without food in the fridge, we had no heat, and I took cold showers every day for a year. The gangs, the drugs and violence, that was nothing compared to the sad, depressed look on my mom’s face day after day. She was a lively and happy person before living there. My sister tried to kill herself, I have another brother who lived homeless before dying, it seems like mental illness tried to dominate my life, but somehow I overcame.”
Once Arthur turned 15, he was immersed in the daily grind of trying to make money on the mean streets of Chicago. A man known by the name “Da Vinci” befriended the young man and took him under his wing, forever leaving a mark on Arthur’s heart. He taught him the finer points of making money, literally creating the green currency that everyone living in the projects craved. At the tender age of 18, Arthur gained his induction into the violent underworld of Chicago by getting shot. He’d also become a young father, naming his son Arthur Williams Jr. III. His mentor had disappeared and he fled to Texas where he met his wife, Natalie. Arthur recalls, “Back then I felt like Robin Hood. I always had a soft spot for the Salvation Army because they had helped my family get on our feet when we needed it. Natalie and I traveled the US, buying up toys and clothes with all the money I had created. We’d drop them off at various Salvation Army stores throughout the states we traveled. Then, that life caught up with me.”
Through numerous incarcerations, Arthur appeared to be a life lost. Each time he went to prison, he used the time constructively to read, learn, and evolve. While living at home, his mother would tell him that television was the devil. He was only allowed to read. Reading became his solace and his method for change. Religion and belief systems became his all encompassing passion. Taking in bits and pieces passed down from every religious leader throughout time, what Arthur ultimately determined was simple. “What I came to believe was that there’s a conscious energy throughout the universe, and the prevalent force behind all of it is love.
“EACH TIME ARTHUR WENT TO PRISON, HE WOULD ONCE AGAIN PICK UP BOOKS AND TRY TO LEARN FROM HISTORY, TAKING INSPIRATION FROM GREAT LEADERS, KINGS, AND EMPERORS, GRASPING FOR CHARACTERISTICS THAT HE COULD EMULATE TO HELP HIM TRANSFORM HIS LIFE.”
However, once I got out of prison, all of those lessons went out the window for a while. If you are living in the ghetto, you just have to survive. You tend to live like an animal, scratching and clawing.”
Now a free man, Arthur was blindsided when his now 13-year-old son was unexpectedly left in his care. Ironically, his ex had become a police officer and needed Arthur to be the parent now that he was out of jail! Arthur tried to make an honest wage but just couldn’t provide for his boy like he wanted to. Arthur became reacquainted with his father, who upon learning his son was a talented artist creating top-notch bills, convinced him to turn on the presses once again. Arthur had mastered the technique of creating ink presses that would replicate cash, elevating his game to the highest level of counterfeiter. Nobody could distinguish his money from runs straight out of the nation’s mints. He became a pop icon of sorts, in 2005 Rolling Stone author Jason Kersten did a story on his life, later turning it into the book The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter. In 2007, his story was told on the television show “American Greed.” His lifestyle seemed glamorous; he was considered an artist even then. Arthur’s son was enamored by the powerful persona his dad had developed. He wanted to be just like him, so he dove right into the “family business,” eventually leading to him sharing a prison cell with his father.
Each time Arthur went to prison, he would once again pick up books and try to learn from history, taking inspiration from great leaders, kings, and emperors, grasping for characteristics that he could emulate to help him transform his life. “Once you have been in the system, when you are free again, there aren’t many options open. It’s hard to rent an apartment. You end up doing low-end jobs that make it hard to survive. I very easily slipped back into what I was good at, printing green paper.”
The final time standing before a judge while staring down 105 months of prison, the judge asked a poignant question that struck a cord. Says Arthur, “The judge asked if he could see the bills I had made. He said, ‘Mr. Williams, I understand you are the best counterfeiter that’s ever lived. I imagine you’ve put a lot of effort into becoming so accomplished?’ I said to him, ‘Yes, your honor, 15 years.’ Then the judge asks, ‘What do you think you could have done if you had put your efforts into something else?’ That’s what clicked with me.”
The last time behind bars was spent reading biographies of great people Sinatra, Tesla, and Michelangelo. “I fell in love with the renaissance, studied artists like Davinci, Dali, and Warhol. I began inventing things like shoes, helmets, and glasses. God gave me the gift of being able to comprehend complex details. I can read or see how to do something and it almost instantly translates into me being able to do it myself. I walked into a prison art class, but quit after the first day because they wanted me to paint a flower. The instructor had watched what I was doing and was intrigued by the way I was mixing colors. He found me and pleaded with me to come back. I told him I would but that I wanted to paint what I love; I wanted to paint money. I embarked on a yearlong journey of creating art, working with oils. I even sold my first painting to the Auto Gallery in Addison, Illinois.”
Arthur emerged from behind bars with new purpose and determination, having spent a great deal of time developing various painting techniques and pouring his accumulated life lessons and God-given talent onto canvas. Arthur was living an ordinary life trying to make ends meet. Yes, he had discovered a great love for art, but his paycheck was coming from being a delivery driver. He could hardly pay the bills and was about to slip back into the underworld when his son paid him a visit and set him straight. Divine intervention stepped in, and he finally got a lucky break. “I had a friend whose father saw something in me. Joe Caccitore gave me a job working at the Lacuna Lofts in Chicago as an assistant to the mural artists working there. It was an art internship that paid well. The education I gained from working with those artists was immeasurable; more importantly, it gave me the confidence and support I needed to stay focused toward growth without backsliding.”
“ARTHUR EMERGED FROM BEHIND BARS WITH NEW PURPOSE AND DETERMINATION, HAVING SPENT A GREAT DEAL OF TIME DEVELOPING VARIOUS PAINTING TECHNIQUES AND POURING HIS ACCUMULATED LIFE LESSONS AND GOD-GIVEN TALENT ONTO CANVAS.”
Arthur met his current wife, Sara, after finishing that internship. He was painting houses and soon had two young sons to support. Creating works of art was rendered a hobby. He stored his creations in the basement of his home, and on one unfortunate day in 2017, there was a fire. The fire destroyed everything, but his family was safe. When Arthur was finally allowed to examine the rubble, the lone item left intact was a portrait of his deceased brother that he had painted. He made up his mind to pursue being an artist once more.
In 2017, Arthur submitted his works to Art Basel for consideration as a featured artist and was welcomed into the fold. In 2018, the Arnold Schwarzenegger Foundation went to Art Basel, discovered his works and purchased four paintings gaining him acclaim. Six months later, he was invited to Arnold’s house for a private showing and made $480K in one night. His first move after receiving that very large paycheck was one that now defines Arthur as a person. He gave a chunk back to the Schwarzenegger Foundation that benefits after-school programs for kids. Arthur shares, “I whole-heartedly believe that giving back is an important aspect of life. I was given certain opportunities that have allowed me to thrive, I need to pay it forward to make sure that chain goes unbroken.” The proceeds from the sale allowed Arthur to fulfill his dreams of opening an art gallery in his hometown of Chicago.
“THE DAY ARTHUR DECIDED TO TEAR HIS GALLERY DOWN WAS THE DAY HE WAS STRUCK WITH THE INSPIRATION TO CREATE THE PIECE THAT WOULD BECOME THE “SMOKE: FAST TIMES” ALBUM COVER.”
Arthur made great strides in the art world in a short amount of time. He made a name for himself by showcasing his talents with color and visual effect, creating legitimate riches and works to be praised for generations. All the energy he once channeled into becoming the greatest counterfeiter now flows into the modern, urban-meets-classic masterpieces that bear his name. “My wife is amazing. She’s willing to travel to all kinds of art shows, trekking over 200,000 miles as I’m trying to keep relevant in the art world. I’m combining all the knowledge I’ve gained through all these years, and I’m applying it now. I had a consignment deal go bad, losing art to a guy who took it! All it did was add fuel to my fire. I became more aggressive, going into a painting rampage. Out of that determination to not succumb but succeed, I birthed my Circus, Science, and Bond Girls Collections. Next, I depicted gamblers and musical notes in my pieces,” says Arthur. With all the frenzied attention turned toward him and his creations, an offer to do a reality show in Los Angeles popped up, just in time for COVID-19 to slow everything down.
Forces were pulling him toward California. Arthur recognized it and followed the universe’s lead. “Closing my gallery in Chicago was a hard decision, but the circumstances and COVID-19 slowdown required it. I had made contacts in Los Angeles with some of the writers for the reality show with New Wave Entertainment and some great connections with real estate people in Ventura. We decided to make the move. Once settled into a gorgeous home in Los Angeles, I was able to have an art show, and that’s where I met Shawn Far of Beverly Hills Tower, LLC. He is an amazing and supportive lover of art. He and his wife own prime property on the corner of Santa Monica and Canyon in Beverly Hills. Shawn tells me that he wants that space filled and that he wants me to be the one to do it. I nearly dropped to my knees in gratitude. How was this possible? I had just taken a huge leap of faith by moving my family out here to California for a fresh start, when this opportunity lands in my lap. I could only feel it was meant to be. And I knew that I was now on a lifelong mission to pay the world back for giving me my shot.”
On Arthur’s birthday in November 2020, he started what would be a video chronicled 45-day challenge to get his Davinci Gallery laid out and open to the public. Right when he was ready to open, he tore it down again. Arthur explains, “I’m not afraid to change things up if it can be better. I have a passion for reinventing, I’ve done it to myself, and my gallery is a reflection of me. I’m going to keep working on it until it’s right.”
Arthur had a friend he met during one of his prison stints, who currently resides in the San Francisco area. He came up to meet him one afternoon. During his time visiting the area, he became acquainted with Axel Sang, whose family lives in Brentwood. Axel’s son Ivan is a founding member of a local band named Smoke, and Axel was sharing the story of their journey with Arthur. He told him about how they were just about to launch their second album and that they were all under 18. Arthur says, ”I love Korn, Tool, Metallica, and Led Zeppelin. Something happened as Axel was telling me about his boy trying to make it in the music business. It brought me back to a time when my son was writing rhymes, he wanted to rap and I was trying to fund his dreams. At that time I made some choices that led down a bad path. I wanted to help Axel get these kids started, the right way. I offered to do their album cover. I want my art to be a vehicle for good, in some ways that makes it’s value much higher than any it can command from a sale.”
The day Arthur decided to tear his gallery down was the day he was struck with the inspiration to create the piece that would become the “Smoke: Fast Times” album cover. “I was really tired, it was a super busy time, but after 36 hours and a lot of coffee, I had recreated my gallery and the album art was finished. An art lover came into the gallery that very same day, buying a painting for a substantial amount and securing my gallery for six months. That is the karmic circle I see playing out. What goes out comes back to you tenfold. I see it happening all the time.”
Arthur and his family paid a visit to the boys of Smoke in February. The band presented him with a signed CD of the finished product as well as shirts they had made. Next, they performed a private concert for him. On that night, they revealed a new song they had wrote in his honor titled “Smoke It.” Arthur has a favorite catch phrase when he’s turning on the heat, really diving into something and ready to make a canvas come to life, he terms the act “smoking it.” Their song was a homage to him, his creative genius, and the generosity leant to a young band in the suburbs just trying to catch a lucky break. The song was met with excited surprise, and Arthur addressed the young boys immediately after saying, “One day you may have an opportunity to reach back and help some young guys like yourselves. Do it. Make sure you give back. You never know what it’s going to take to help someone reach their goals, you can be the difference.”
The next edition of this artist’s career includes expansion into the San Francisco area, with gallery showings of his energy-charged art. Through his series of ups and downs, highs and lows, Arthur has learned the lessons that flavor his artwork with a life all their own. At first glance, one can see why he’s been heralded the next Andy Warhol. And the impression Dali has made translates through his intricately placed lines that create his compositions. But the sheer magic of his work is the boldness it presents, a boldness that has been gained through life experience. Arthur shares a finishing touch to his story, “There’s going to be tough times and bad things that happen. You’ve just got to be able to adjust your thoughts. You’ve got to look for the good and squeeze it out.”