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Arts

Mister E Refuses to Cross the Line Between Novelty and Pop Art

Creating colourfully daring currency for art aficionados the world over, Miami-based artist Mister E’s unique take on the everyday item of legal tender—from single dollar bills to hundred-dollar bills—has become his calling card.

“What most people know me for is the art of money. I didn’t always paint just it though. I actually began by painting abstract things. But when I started doing the bills, I never looked back. And it has evolved into something a lot bigger I ever imagined.”

From superstars in the commercial music to sports worlds, Mister E has become an in-demand talent. In fact, he was recently tasked by tabloid fixture Miley Cyrus to do an installation at her Malibu home, where he covered an entire wall with his bright and radiant Benny Jr. hundred-dollar bills, as well as a ‘Money Bathroom’ with dollar bills on every inch of the walls and floor, a gold leafed sink with hundred-dollar bills, and yes, hundred-dollar bill toilet paper.

Extravagant as it sounds, there’s a grounded logic to the seeming materialism. Not to mention it’s a venture that continues to expand too.

“I don’t think anyone really realized that I was never just doing the one hundred-dollar bill. I was doing the one-dollar bill, a two-dollar bill, the fifty-dollar bill. All the bills! I’ve even done one hundred thousand-dollar bills! And now it has advanced into creating different artwork using things from the currency,” Mister E shares.

“I’m starting a whole new series that works around the idea of money changing everything,” he goes on. “So maybe it’s an 8 foot canvas and then in one left corner there’s a hundred-dollar bill. I’ve done that and then another series that combines the hundred-dollar bill with the one dollar bill, and it’s called the One Hundred and One.”

Incidentally, a lot of Mister E’s pieces these days are going on wood panels instead of canvas. He just did one on Lincoln Road in Miami that’s 20-feet-long. “You get off the elevator in this office building and it’s like Benjamin Franklin’s face staring at you and he’s 9-feet-tall! I really enjoy making these builds as large as possible.” He’s actually working on the biggest bill in the world right now.

Make no mistake: Mister E understands his niche, although he is conscious of being pigeonholed. “Basically it’s the repetition of that first one—the colourful hundred dollar bill—that to me has become mostly my brand. But now I’m personally taking more of a step back towards things that look more like paintings than dollar bills, with the currency incorporated into the work.”

The cash-centric approach hasn’t come without some contention however. Mister E’s near-exclusive attention to banknotes has raised some quiet debate in the arts community about his inspiration.

“People used to wonder if I just did hundred-dollar bills as though it was all about greed. The idea that people wanted to put money on the wall being a sign of avarice. But that’s not it. What I’m showing is the fascination of money and what money does in the whole world.”

For Mister E, his interest isn’t doesn’t lay in the status that fortune affords, but the stimulation.

“I think that what happens is people that see my work, they say ‘I gotta have that... I need that behind my desk... I want that when I’m walking in the morning down my staircase.’ Like it’s motivation or inspiration. You shouldn’t be afraid to admit that money is an amazing thing and makes this world go round. A lot of people are afraid to acknowledge that.”

While Mister E recognizes his output clearly appeals to some more than others, he’s quick to explain that his portfolio isn’t limited to the scope of those in the mass media sphere usually typified by wealth and excess. “It’s not like I only gravitate towards rappers or athletes,” Mister E clarifies. “I used to actually do portraits for some celebrities. I did one of Lionel Richie, I did one of Ernest Hemingway for his family.”

He also possesses a guiding principle which perhaps informs his work more than any celebrity endorsement or high profile commission could.

“Some people assume that for a client like Floyd Mayweather, I would put his face on the hundred-dollar bill. But one thing I’ve never done is alter a bill to the point where, in my eyes, it becomes a novelty. What I’ll do is change serial numbers or put initials in them for people, but I’ll never change the actual bill. I always leave that intact, to me that’s pretty important. There’s a thin line in art to me between novelty and pop art.”

And there it is: that fine line between novelty and pop art. It’s one Mister E refused to cross. In other words, you’ll never never see him put the Louis Vuitton pattern in the back of a hundred-dollar bill. “I love the brand and I think they’re amazing,” he stresses, “but that’s not art. That’s a fad.”

Nevertheless, Mister E acknowledges that to make it in his profession in this age of instant celebrity and social media marketing, the rulebook has changed. After all, it’s different to become a famous artist today versus 50 or 75 or 100 years ago.

“It’s so much less about an artist’s pure drawing and painting skills, and more about the brand and the concept end of all it. And I’m not afraid to really say that. One of my greatest inspirations is Damien Hirst. He’s quoted as saying the greatest architects in the world never laid one brick but they’re still amazing at design and build beautiful buildings. So I think there is a lot more than goes into my day-to-day work than just when I’m active with paint.”

As the arts scene in his adopted city in Miami continues to explode, so too does Mister E’s profile. Just don’t expect him to crossover into gimmick territory any time soon. Like the man said, he respects the line between novelty and pop art.

“I was asked to do a Canadian bill for Drake. I’ve never even been to Canada. Although I’ve sent a lot of bills there, to London, to the Middle East. Everywhere! And the funny thing is people ask me why I’m not doing their currency, only my own. It’s not that I have anything against any other country. It’s just that when people say the Coca Cola logo or the McDonald’s arches are the most recognizable brands in the world, well, I think more people know what an American one dollar bill is.”