Hobo Nickels are the Currency of Art

A hobo nickel is a small denomination coin that has been sculpted in an artistic manner. Usually, the artwork is a portrait carved into the surface of the coin, to replace the original coin artwork.

Why Carve Nickels?

Although a number of coins are used, the American nickel is a favorite among coin carvers, because it is soft and easy to carve. The art form began, as many art styles do, as a means of entertainment, and was popular among homeless people (hobos) and soldiers, as a way to pass the time. Softer coin sculptures can be created with the tip of a knife, and the medium and tools carried easily in a pocket, making it an ideal art form for those on the move.
Most hobo nickel coin carvings replace the original portrait on the coin with a portrait of the artist's own creation.

Top left: a realistic carving of a skull replaces the original head on the coin. 
Top right: A hobo nickel artists' distinctive style shows through the coin carving design.
Bottom left: A humorously grinning parody of Death, wearing a crown and smoking a cigar.
Bottom right: A viking portrait decorates the coin in place of the original design.

Love Tokens or Art Works?

The earliest recorded Hobo nickels are from the 18th century, and the majority of coin carvings recovered from this period are love tokens. These would most often be created by machining a coin smooth and then carving the lovers' initials or a design into the face of the coin.

Top: Love token hobo nickels were often crafted to be worn on a necklace.
Bottom: This love coin has the lovers' initials and the date, surrounded by artistic carvings.

Money as Art

Although it is not illegal to deface coins in the name of art, it is illegal to alter money with the intention of cheating another person. As long as hobo nickels are sold as an art work, and not returned into circulation, most authorities will turn a blind eye to this art form.

Above: Animals such as lions, owls and raccoon have been used as subject matter for the coin art carvings. 
Bottom right: A beautiful woman is carved into this coin, beside the word, "liberty". Although it is not clear, this could be the artist's personal rendition of the political ideal personified in the Statue of Liberty.

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