Imagine an alternate world where our coins are graced not by unsmiling presidents but Frankenstein, ET, skulls, pirates—hell, even a butt. That's the funny, fanciful world of Italian artist Paolo Curcio.
Curcio has created some truly remarkable hobo nickels, an art form originally popular, as their name would suggest, among hobos during the Great Depression. Why did they carve them? There are multiple explanations: There's the inherent portability of the coin, for one thing, as well as the fact that thousands of unemployed Americans had time on their hands during those years. Cabinet Magazine suggests that the carvings were meant to increase the value of the coins, making it easier to barter for food or a place to sleep.
Most of these folk artists chose to carve their work on the broad face of the new Buffalo nickel, introduced in 1913. By the time the Jefferson nickel replaced it, in the 1940s, the art form had seemingly reached its peak. But in later years, collectors and communities of artists, including Curcio, have kept interest in hobo nickels alive.
Curcio's coins, as you can see in the video below, are incredibly intricate and require many rounds of carving. Some of the original coins are "clad," meaning different layers of metal are revealed as you carve away. A skilled carver can thus "color" a hobo nickel made from a clad coin.
The old Buffalo nickel is still a favorite amongst enthusiasts, since its large size and rough features are a perfect blank canvas for artists. Here, you can watch Cucio transform a buffalo nickel into bearded guy with a hat:
There's the whole series of hypnotic how-to videos, too. The reason Curcio carves nickels is likely very different from the reasons actual hobos carved them nearly a century ago—but they're no less fun to look at. [Paolo Curcio via Colossal]