An Argentinian artist is combating his country’s ongoing inflation crisis by selling miniature paintings on depreciated banknotes. 

Sergio Guillermo Diaz, a painter and museum worker from the northern province of Salta, has been raising the value of increasingly valueless currency to support his family. From two-peso bills to 1,000-peso notes — which are now worth about $5 — Diaz renders pop culture icons and historic artworks directly on their facades, often combining bills to develop larger compositions.

One of Diaz’s larger pieces stacks two 200-peso notes atop a single United States dollar to recreate the poster from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, alluding to Argentina’s dependence on the dollar. Others show popular sports scenes, such as soccer star Lionel Messi lifting the World Cup and Muhammad Ali standing over a defeated Sonny Liston, referencing competition between Global South countries.  

A banknote painting by Sergio Guillermo Diaz recreates the poster from Jaws to critique Argentinian dependence on the US dollar.

An ongoing project since 2017, Diaz’s banknote paintings cleverly intersect income inequality at home with free-market capitalism. He previously worked in black and white but says the birth of his daughter, as well as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, gave him the time and inspiration to raise more awareness in color. 

“The year the pandemic began, the lower-value bills, two and five pesos, were beginning to go out of circulation, so I liked to think that those disappearing bills would become small pieces of art,” the artist told Hyperallergic.

Sergio Guillermo Diaz at work

Characters from Star Wars and Super Mario likewise appear in hyperrealistic detail. While Diaz is a fan of the franchises, he claims many Argentinians may no longer be able to afford these kinds of entertainment.

“It sounds bad, but everyone tends to get used to it, live with it, and deprive oneself of things that begin to feel like luxuries,” he lamented. “You live with the reality that an art supply you bought last week is now going to cost a little more — and not only that item, but anything you are going to pay for the following week.”

Beyond pop culture, Diaz has also been using the surplus currency to portray the history and scale of Argentina’s economic woes. Some of these are adapted from popular Argentinian artworks, such as Ernesto de la Cárcova’s painting “Without Bread and Without Work” (1894). In another, Bob Ross appears to be painting a rainforest on fire, evoking recent deforestation in the nearby Gran Chaco region.

Ernesto de la Cárcova’s “Without Bread and Without Work” (1894) appears in one of Diaz’s pieces.

Argentina is currently the highest-affected country from inflation due to rising energy and food prices in global markets, with banks reportedly running out of space to store banknotes. Inflation has spiked to a three-decade high, increasing by 5% on average in Argentina per month while wages have only risen at a monthly average of 3%, leading 40% of the country’s population into poverty. While Argentina was among the world’s leading economies in the early 20th century, it now sits below the top 20.

Bob Ross appears on one of Diaz’s paintings

As a result, Argentinian conceptual artists like Esteban Alvarez and Ral Veroni have used devalued banknotes to produce political commentaries since the 1990s. Alvarez’s Money Made with Money project, for example, shows cut-up and spliced-together banknotes that appear liquid in form. Meanwhile, Veroni’s colored-pencil drawings on two-peso notes, which he produced every day for four years, are tiny acts of protest against a previous recession. 

Diaz claims that artists in his own community are now working extra jobs to support themselves, making his work a poignant revival of Argentinian resilience.

“The rising cost of the materials we use is a recurring problem, as well as the price we put on our finished work,” he said. “But as Heath Ledger’s Joker said: It’s not all about money, it’s about sending a message.”

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.