Arthur J. Williams Jr.’s criminal past is so outrageous it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been the subject of a Netflix docuseries or true-crime podcast yet. Williams is a convicted counterfeiter originally from Chicago, one of the best in the world, known for replicating the unbreakable 1996 series $100 bill. After serving three prison sentences, he became a self-taught artist and owner of three art galleries, including his latest, DaVinci’s Gallery, in West Hollywood.
Opened in June, the gallery sits on the corner of Melrose Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard near all the upscale restaurants and tony shops. With brick walls and an artist’s studio in the back, the 4,000-square-foot space is a testament to how Williams’s pursuit of money and mischief has shaped his art, which in turn helped rehabilitate his life.
“I tell the story of money, good and bad, and what it does,” Williams, 48, tells Los Angeles.
Williams was raised in Chicago’s tough Bridgeport neighborhood. His mother, Malinda, was diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia, and his father, Arthur Williams Sr., did time for auto theft and abandoned Williams, his brother, and his sister while they were young. When his father returned, he absconded with his children for nine months before leaving again for good. Williams became a father at 17, started hot-wiring cars at 13, and robbed parking meters to buy groceries for his family. He was in and out of gangs and even survived a gunshot in the hip.
At 15, Williams met a customer who frequented a diner where his mother worked and nicknamed him “da Vinci.” Da Vinci was a counterfeiter and he taught Williams the basics of making money out of his warehouse; four years later, Williams was running his own printing operation. Williams used both offset and computer technology to create what’s been described as “hybrid” bills, which he sold mostly to various criminal networks, making as much as 30 cents on the dollar.
Williams would later move to a small town in Texas, where in 1994 he was arrested for second-degree burglary. He was released in 1996, the same year the U.S. Treasury Department issued currency with a new design and security features. Aimed at curbing counterfeiting, the series included the new $100 bill, one of the most frequently counterfeited denominations. Williams perfected the new note, which was so convincing the money passed through casinos and banks. Though he doesn’t know the exact amount, Williams estimates he counterfeited millions of dollars over a 15-year period.
“I figured out how to create something that the government spends hundreds of millions to protect,” says Williams. “And I just figured out how to do it with household items and make it look just as good.”
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Not satisfied with just selling counterfeit money to organized crime, Williams and his ex-wife went on shopping sprees at malls across the country, including in California. The two would buy inexpensive items with the fake cash and keep the change, donating the merchandise—diapers, kids’ clothes, etc.—to the Salvation Army. While staying at a House of Blues Hotel in Chicago, Williams was arrested for counterfeiting, but the charges were dropped due to an illegal search and seizure.
Looking to reconnect with his father, Williams again moved, this time to a remote part of Alaska. Soon, Williams Sr. joined in on the counterfeiting scheme. After his father’s two friends were caught using bogus money at a mall, Williams was arrested for counterfeiting in 2002, along with five co-conspirators. Williams received a three-year sentence. He left prison in 2004 on the same day his father died of a heart attack in jail.
Eventually, Williams’s crimes did capture the interest of Hollywood. In 2009, Paramount Pictures announced it was making a movie about Williams’s life, based on writer Jason Kersten’s Rolling Stone article, which later became the book, The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter. Actor Chris Pine was attached to star. But Williams didn’t like the script and the project was shelved. He did, however, inspire an episode of CNBC’s series American Greed and appeared in a Vice documentary.
Williams was arrested for counterfeiting again in Chicago in 2006. Williams says he was trying to help finance the career of his oldest son, Arthur Williams III, an aspiring rapper.
In 2009, the 18-year-old Williams III was also arrested for counterfeiting. At one point, Williams and his son served time in the same correctional facility in Forrest City, Arkansas. Both were released in 2013.
While behind bars, Williams read books about Michelangelo, Dali, and Warhol, and took art classes. His teacher instructed him to paint flowers, but Williams stuck to what he knew best: money, especially vintage currency. He spent a year painting an 1896 $1 bill.
“I studied Renaissance painters,” says Williams. “That was my escape out of the cell. It just kept me in that world, Florence, for a long time. But I was especially attracted to Warhol because he was a screen printer and I’m a printer. It’s in my blood.”
After his last prison stint, Williams went through a string of odd jobs, barely making ends meet. He got his first break as an artist when a Chicago real estate developer hired him to work as a curator at a local artists loft building. Williams’s first exhibit was at Chicago’s Meg Frazier Gallery, where he displayed the oil paintings he had created in prison. At Art Basel in Miami, he caught the attention of representatives for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s after-school program, After-School All-Stars, who invited him to one of the actor’s fundraisers at his home in L.A. Williams’s art raised more than $180,000 for the charity.
In 2017, Williams used the profits from the sale of his paintings to open the first DaVinci’s Gallery in his home neighborhood of Bridgeport. After the gallery shut down due to the pandemic, Williams made yet another risky decision: he relocated to L.A. late last year with his wife, Sarah, and two of his six kids.
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“L.A. has been a real tough city to come to,” says Williams. “You have to work a little harder here because you’re competing with a lot of people. I’m from the inner city, and being in tough environments, it prepared me to come out here.”
A real estate agent who had bought one of his pieces helped Williams set up his gallery in a temporary spot in Beverly Hills. “So here it is—the whole world is falling apart,” recalls Williams. “People are angry. Trump supporters are protesting across the street. And I was at the gallery with the doors open, peacefully painting. It was a crazy time.”
After that location turned into a restaurant, Williams reopened in West Hollywood. New Renaissance, the first exhibit in his gallery’s current home, includes Williams’s trademark money-themed paintings, prints, and mixed media. His signature style blends symbols from the $100 bill onto portraits of celebrities, singers, and other imagery, whether it’s Marylin Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Bob Marley, or a simple rose.
“I read a biography on Marilyn in prison,” remembers Williams. “I fell in love with her life, and the beauty and the pain she went through, which eventually killed her.”
One print features the mugshot of a young Frank Sinatra behind Benjamin Franklin’s face and a Chicago Sun-Times headline that reads: “$100 Bill Has Been Broken!” Elsewhere, Williams depicts God handing Adam a stack of bills—a subversive nod to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam—while on another canvas, he paints all the presidents and founding fathers on U.S. money playing in a big band called “The Notes” in front of famous Chicago landmarks. Williams even created metal cutouts in the shape of female silhouettes aptly titled “Bond Girls.”
Williams says he’s sold more than 140 paintings over the years, priced between $5,000 and $50,000. He plans to display other artist’s work in the future. Ultimately, he wants visitors to walk away from his gallery knowing that “people can change.”
“I grew up poor in the projects,” Williams says. “I didn’t graduate high school. I was a criminal from 12 until I was 40. I got off probation for the first time since I was 12 when I was 43. My whole life I was on some sort of supervision. So if there was anyone who was destined for failure, it would’ve been me. Everything that could be stacked against you was stacked against me. But there was that moment when I said, ‘No more. No matter what happens, I am not going back.’ It made me work harder. I want to show the guys who are sitting in prison or the guy who’s getting ready to join a gang a little portion of my life, and let them know that we’re not defined by our past, but who we are right now. I walked out of prison with $20 in my pocket and just a dream. This is the proof of the last eight years.”
DaVinci’s Gallery, 8483 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. Open Wed.-Sat., noon-8 p.m.; arthurjwilliamsjr.com or @arthurjwilliamsjr on Instagram.
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