Talk about cultural currency! The Sao Paulo–born, Frankfurt-based artist and designer Andre Levy has earned himself a huge online following and an exhibition at Stew Gallery in Norwich, England with his project Tales You Lose, for which he turns the portraits of monarchs and political heroes adorning coins into images of pop culture icons including transforming the image of Franco on a Spanish coin into Divine, turning an Olympian on a Greek coin into the Flash, and remaking a Chinese coin into miniature version of René Magritte’s “The Son of Man.”
“I’m a graphic designer and split my time between an advertising job and my personal projects, which include street art and illustration. The most notorious of those projects, so far, is Tales You Lose, which became popular on Instagram and Tumblr,” Levy told Hyperallergic over email. “I never collected coins. What initially made me accumulate a few was the fact that I keep forgetting them in my pockets. I learned, though, that outside its territory of origin the coin leaves behind its illusional value as currency to carry a value defined by its carrier. I saw those coins as massively reproduced sculptures, and felt they could be turned into templates for something richer. Painting the coins was a way to give those metal pieces some room for interpretation. The pop characters where a way to bring in narratives as strong as the original ones and enable the new stories when people relate both characters.”
For some, the defacing of currency might constitute a political statement, but Levy doesn’t see the project in those terms. “I know many of the original faces I cover with paint, but my intention is rarely to induce an interpretation or forcing a connection by using my own political views,” he says. “Some pieces ‘make sense’ if the viewer have a previous opinion about both the person on the coin and the added character. But my statement is in the collection itself. It’s about showing the value of individual personality over massified behavior and redefining people’s emotional connection to money.”
So, which currencies are most amenable to Levy’s brand of pop cultural augmentation?
“In general I love British coins because Queen Elizabeth has a great female silhouette, and the fact that she turns older every new edition makes her face the most versatile of all,” the artist says. “The ‘Vitruvian Man’ on the Italian euro allows me to to full body figures. Some people are more sensitive than others regarding seeing their rulers or heroes dressed as someone else, but most reactions are positive, even when I paint villains, proving that people can deal with their money in a more imaginative way than simply spending or hiding it.”
Given the growing demand for his dolled-up dough, Levy is constantly minting new portraits. “Even after almost two years of project, I keep on my phone a never-ending list of characters that I want to paint,” he says. “Some are quite hard to be put on coins. I’m recently struggling to find the perfect canvas for a RuPaul.”