Q&A with Adam Leech: Hobo Nickel History & Artform
Clad in a tie-dye Misfits T-shirt bearing the legend “Punks Not Dead,” Adam Leech doesn’t exactly fit the type for a historian or a practitioner of a centuries-old art form. He shows up to talk with COCO on a vintage scooter speckled with spray paint logos and provocative bumper stickers, and there’s as much metal on his face as in the jeweler’s kit strapped to the back of his ride.
Yet Leech is one of just a handful of craftspeople still practicing the art of the hobo nickel—coins turned into folk art using nothing but a sharp edge, some glue and a lot of patience. Furthermore, he’s one of the subculture’s more passionate and skeptical historians, participating in a good old-fashioned mystery story that spans continents, generations and more than a few charlatans.
COCO met Leech outside his vintage shop in Old Colorado City to learn more about this often-overlooked American art form and the people who practice it. Our interview turned into a trip down a very specialized and fascinating rabbit hole.
COCO: Why “hobo” nickel? Was this art form really invented by homeless guys on trains?
AL: At the high end, [a hobo nickel] is world-class quality fine art engraving on a pocket scale. The folklore—the accepted narrative of the hobo nickel—is that these guys would carve them on the road or in the hobo jungle and use them to curry favors or to avoid prosecution or getting beat up by a railroad bull… Through my research and my skeptical nature, I think that’s more embellished. Most of the early [20th century] pieces—definitely the better ones—were carved by jewelers, trained engravers. A lot of hobos were extremely talented, skilled workers just out of work, so they’re like, “Well, I’ve gotta eat something, so I’ll make some of these silly nickels.”…It’s just a real practical way to survive if you don’t have the means.
COCO: What is the hobo jungle?
AL: A hobo jungle is basically anywhere hobos camp. Usually near a railroad stop. The folklore is that you’d hop off the train, you’d get to the jungle, there’d be a guy cooking a pot of stew over a campfire, you’d turn out your pockets and throw in whatever you could contribute to the stew, and everybody would just hang out at the campfire, pass it around, share. Hobos always share everything they have. It’s a real romantic kind of a bulls**t story….But back in the day it was different. Everybody was a hobo, because everybody was out of work….Our country was built off of migrant workers, and those are the hobos: The people who go, “Well, there’s no opportunity here; I’m going to find one somewhere else.” And that’s what hobo nickels are about: Giving yourself an opportunity to survive with nothing at all. Everything you need just fits in a little wooden box.
COCO: So what does it take to make a hobo nickel?
AL: It’s sort of a scavenger hunt. You need a glob of hot glue, a baseball bat or a rolling pin or a two-by-four, and a hardened steel nail or broken drill bit—any piece of hard steel—and once you have those three items, I can get you started. You need to set your metal into a handle—a chunk of wood, a wine cork, a ball of tape, a golf ball with a hole in it—your imagination can run wild. Set the spike in there and sharpen it to a 45-degree angle. And then glue the nickel [to your surface]. I like a wooden baseball bat, because it’s really tall; if you’re sitting you can squeeze it between your feet and it provides all the resistance of a jeweler’s ball, which is the actual equipment that you would use. [I also use] this stuff called engraver’s shellac—it’s made out of tree wax; they invented it in the 1500s.
So the process looks like I’m doing drugs. You heat the shellac [with a lighter], it gets all bubbly and gooey and nasty, and then you need your nickel. Always carry a nickel. And then it just melts in; you’ve got to let it dry for a little while.
COCO: How long does it take for you to carve a coin?
AL: When I do my skeletons, I’ve carved so many of those now, it’s 40 minutes to rough it out, another 20 minutes or so to polish it up. Portraits, sometimes I’ll draw for five hours and still go, “This is all f***in’ wrong,” so when I do portraits I charge ten times more because it’s just so much prep work to do….But if I wanted this coin to look like a traditional hobo [nickel], I could do a crude one in ten minutes, I could do a fancy one in an hour, and I could do a spectacular one in five.
The value comes down to eye appeal, and this one that [my son] carved has just as much eye appeal as some of the old crude original pieces that sell for a hundred, two hundred dollars—and it was carved by an eleven-year-old.
We all have a moral obligation to sign our pieces so they don’t get confused with the old ones. But if you didn’t have that conscience, you could just carve ‘em up, sell ‘em off, and as soon as the person who owns it doesn’t know where it came from, it becomes an original hobo-carved masterpiece.
That’s the ultimate mystery of it all: You just have to look at the coin and imagine who made it, where they made it, why they made it, who’s owned it since—did it get spent and found in a cash register, or was it gifted directly from the artist to the original owner? Was it passed down from generation to generation? Did it just turn up in grandma’s little trinket box? So the story behind the coin, or the mystery of the story, that’s really what a customer is buying.
COCO: Who is continuing this antiquated art form? Why are people still making hobo nickels?
AL: Five years ago, we bragged that there were a dozen carvers in the world. At the last get-together, there were 25 of us. I would expect it to just keep growing like that. On Facebook and Instagram and Reddit and all these places, every day somebody stumbles on hobo nickels for the first time and [is] totally blown away and [has] to tell the whole world about it. It’s easy to make them go viral, you know: A catchy coin can travel around the world instantly.
COCO: Do you see the quality of the carvings getting better as people start to innovate with modern equipment like air tools and microscopes?
AL: The craft itself hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. You can use power and electricity, but it doesn’t really do much for you if you don’t already have some skill….There are some engravers who are classically trained European master sculptors, and [their work is] insane. When I started, there was a handful of modern carvers; Ron Landis was inarguably the modern master, but since then, a bunch of younger kids have gotten in the game and they’re amazing. Aleksey Saburov, Paolo Curcio, mostly foreigners….Not to make unfair generalizations, but Americans are pretty much terrible at everything.
COCO: It’s ironic, because the art form of the hobo nickel originated in America, didn’t it?
AL: The hobo nickel is indigenous to the United States and the Buffalo nickel. Without that coin, hobo nickels wouldn’t exist. But carved coins have gone back to the late 1500s: There are a lot of Russian wedding tokens where they’ll take a coin, completely hollow it out, put a hinge on it, put a little [picture inside]. There are historical coins going back where some rich dude would invite somebody over for dinner and it would all be engraved on an old coin: “Please attend this dinner, you and your wife, on this day”….All of that is a more hoity-toity version of the hobo nickel. Pictorial love tokens and the monogram pieces are almost always on silver or gold coins, and jewelers would make them to gift to people.
But the hobo nickel was the opposite: A satirical eff-you. The very first [carvings] were almost always politically incorrect: A lot of rabbis, some anti-Semitic, more with just Hebrew scripture or whatever. A lot of them were just accentuated features —big noses, curly hair. And that was just because that’s the easy stuff to make. Some of the very first ones were of the Kaiser. We were in World War I, and they’d give him a curly mustache and a pointy army helmet. It actually ruffled some feathers. One of the very first printed [records of hobo nickels] in 1917, in upstate New York, there was a sheriff offering a reward for whoever was defacing nickels and turning them into the Kaiser.
So we know they got started carving them after 1913, but nobody really knows exactly who or exactly why.
COCO: Did hobo nickels come before or after the legislation against defacing currency?
AL: That’s the biggest question everybody asks: “Well, isn’t that illegal?” I like to let them think it is. The main law about defacing or mutilating money has one word that saves all of our a**es: “It is illegal or unlawful to fraudulently deface, mutilate, destroy.” So it comes down to your intent. My intent is pure. I’m just entertaining myself and making little pieces of art.
But there’s another law on the books that says it’s illegal to remove small-denomination coins from circulation—pennies and nickels—because the melt value is more than the face value. A few years ago, a nickel was worth seven cents. If you’re rich enough, you buy a million dollars in nickels, melt them into metal, and sell it for more than you paid for the nickels. So they made a law that that was illegal. Technically, I’m removing extremely small amounts of nickels out of circulation, so I’m a real rebel.
I like to let people think, “Let them come after me; they can take my nickels when they pry them from my cold dead hands,” but it would be an honor to get prosecuted or arrested for defacing coins. I think that would probably be the best thing that could happen for my career. So if there’s any law enforcement out there listening—come and get me, copper!