CHICAGO (CBS) — Counterfeit cash, printing for the mob and redemption might sound like a movie, but it’s real life for a Chicago man who is now making his mark in the world as an artist.
It’s the life of a man known to many as the master counterfeiter — Arthur Williams.
“And doing money, you have to be really, really, really detailed with it, you know?” Williams said.
You could say money has always been a central part of Williams’ life, but not in the way you might think.
“It was a fun time actually,” he said. “I gotta say, I love printing money.”
Williams was a counterfeiter. At one time he was considered the best in the world for mastering the 1996 hundred dollar bill, supposedly impossible to replicate.
“I went on a journey to not only defeat the pin but to defeat everything. I defeated the strip. I defeated the watermark. I defeated the UV. I defeated the shifting ink. I mean everything,” Williams said.
But that mastery landed him in federal prison. That’s where he went from a life of crime to a life of oils and canvas.
He says he owns his past.
“It’s made me who I am,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t change a thing, you know. I really do believe that the struggles are what makes us beautiful.”
Williams was just 11 when his father left the family and, struggling, they wound up living in a Bridgeport housing project. Williams first stole quarters from parking meters to buy his family food. Then he ended up in jail for stealing a car. His mother’s friend bailed him out.
“He brought me into his world, and his world was printing money, you know, for all the mobs,” he said.
He says he printed millions in fake bills, first buying things for his wife and himself.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t we just start buying kid stuff and then we’ll just drop it off at the Salvation Army charity wherever we’re at.’ And we did that for a long time,” Williams said.
That was until 2006 when he got caught. He picked up his first brush in prison.
“When I would paint I would feel again,” Williams said. “I would feel like a human because prison really is designed to make you feel like an animal.”
Williams was released in 2013, and life on the outside was tough. He scrubbed toilets. In a matter of months he lost his job and his car and his house burned down. But a painting of his deceased brother survived.
“It was sitting there, and it just told me this is what I needed to do. I needed to keep going,” he said.
Two acquaintances eventually paid him to paint, taking a cut if the paintings sold. Four did at a Miami art show a year ago. To date his paintings have brought in almost $500,000. He gives 10 percent to kids’ charities. He’s rubbed elbows with celebrities, and he’s opened a gallery blocks from his boyhood home.
“Everybody said, ‘Go to Gold Coast. Go to River North. Go here.’ And I said, ‘You know what? No. I’m going to stay right here in this neighborhood. This is where I belong,'” he said.
Williams wants to expand his Bridgeport art gallery to include space for music, writing and dance.
Instead of being known as the master counterfeiter, he wants to be known as a master artist who changed his life and lives around him for the better.