With designs including David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, graffiti and the words of Karl Marx, artisanal currency from the London neighborhood of Brixton offers a great example of how avant-garde thinking can help revive a supposedly passé medium — in this case, physical money.

Many cities and neighborhoods worldwide have started minting local-use-only, small-batch currencies to rally community spirit, boost their economies and, at least in part, tap a millennial distrust of digital transactions. According to The New York Times, “the phrase ‘cash only’ has come to signify hipster entrepreneurialism.” So it follows that if money is more compelling as an object — to look at, hold in the hand or wallet, and share via commerce with others — then people will want to buy at home with paper and not elsewhere with plastic.

In terms of my fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, the Brixton Pound intrigues me because its designs go beyond simply slapping artwork on a bill to make it look good. Instead, the money — via counterculture gestures within its designs — performs a winking self-critique. It lets the user know that the institution behind the money understands its function, history and shortcomings, and why it needs reinvention in the first place. As a result, something old-fashioned or outmoded becomes cool and desirable.

If art can be injected into a traditional relationship like exchanging money for goods and services, a news outlet might give it a try as a way of owning its analog nature, because this zone of reflexivity is where art and journalism share common ground. Organic to the practice of each is a tradition of self-evaluation — what’s our purpose, how can we remain relevant, etc. — as well as an imperative to stand outside structures of power as a check on authority.  

The fronts of Brixton pound notes feature heroes ranging from the lesser known (such as World War II secret agent Violette Szabo) to the widely loved. The Bowie 10-pound edition — issued in 2011 — started selling on eBay and other outlets for as much as $60 immediately after his death on January 10. The reverse sides sport tributes to neighborhood architecture and public art, including the Brixton Girl, a signature character by graffiti artist Wayne Seale a.k.a. Wrist77. The use of famous faces isn’t that radical — think of commemorative postal stamps. The graffiti seems new, however, because this brings in the self-critique. Nicely, it acknowledges the time-honored practice of people doodling, marking or otherwise tagging physical bills. But the broader point is that graffiti is always an attack on public property and-or vehicles of power. By embracing this practice, the Brixton Pound collaborates in a kind of vandalism and gains street cred as a beneficiary — not a victim — of anti-establishment attack.

The subversive message gets extra meta on the Brixton Pound’s fifth-anniversary commemorative 5-pound note, issued in August 2015 and designed by renowned artist Jeremy Deller. A rainbow-filigreed, sun-like face adorns the front — androgynous, anonymous and antithetical to the historical gravitas of a George Washington or Queen Elizabeth. Widely praised by design writers and trend-spotting outlets, the Deller pound raises cultural capital for Brixton and, like the Bowie pound, could increase in worth as a collectable. The back of the money makes this very point with its Marx quote about capital and its “occult ability to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring, or at least lays golden eggs.” Indeed.

Recommendations for further reading

Anne Thompson  
University fellow


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