“What do you have to draw on a note of money before it becomes unacceptable?”
There’s always an element of risk withdrawing money from an ATM. It lacks the same potential for danger as say, base jumping, certainly. But there is always the prospect that the person behind you may be a capable thief after a glimpse of your PIN, or your card is about to be quietly and irretrievably swallowed by the smug, faceless machine in the wall. And what quality of note are you about to procure? Your £10 is just as likely to come out as a crisp, brand new banknote as it is a chewed nub of ink-stained pulp, crumpled and withered and barely recognizable as something with a value.
A while back I requested £20 from a Santander machine and received two £10 notes that sadly had both been used as notepaper. One had “86 + 37 = 123” scrawled across it, and the other a thick, black streak of ink lengthways down the middle, as if it were in mourning. I’m sure you too have been dispensed money adorned with similar lazy scribbles, but for someone in a near-constant state of financial demi-apocalypse such as myself, I was displeased to see what few banknotes I possess blemished in this way. I’d be rightly annoyed if an unknown figure strolled into my bedroom, pulled my Monopoly set out of the cupboard and started defacing that fake paper money in such a manner, let alone my real, hard-earned tender.
I was actually slightly anxious in spending the note coated in a tar-like smear in case a cashier declaimed it marred beyond acceptability. Thankfully it was approved and the vandalized note returned back into the economy, to eventually replenish another cash machine and slightly rankle someone else withdrawing money further down the line.
Considering the cyclical nature of money I found it curious that defacing it, particularly in today’s economic toilet, didn’t come with greater repercussions. Back in the agricultural epoch when material assets constituted currency and people would trade an oxen in return for a jug of milk or first-born daughter, it would surely not be acceptable to offer a calf with “86 + 37 = 123” seared into its flank. Yet in the civilised urbanity of our modern age such behaviour now seems acceptable, and barely registered. I was intrigued to see just how far this system could be pushed. Were there any limits in place? Could you brand a note with near enough anything and still use it in a face-to-face transaction?
I started small, just testing the waters. I had done no background research at this stage so was completely blind to any possible illegalities I may have been committing. The afternoon following my thought-provoking morning at the Santander machine, I bought a Sharpie and on one side of a £10 note wrote in clear block capitals:
I DON’T LIKE YOU
My apologies but I do not have a photo of this inaugural marked note, as at the time I didn’t expect to be making a habit of this. Rest assured all further examples of inked currency come with pictorial evidence.
I headed to IKEA with the intention of using my new sullied money to buy a lamp, hoping the worker serving me would be Swedish and hence have a slightly laxer translative grasp of the withering put-down I was handing them. Unfortunately the woman serving me was comprehensively English, and a more miserable, sour-faced ambassador for flat-pack furniture you could not imagine. I tried to buoy her up with some jocund small-talk as she scanned my lamp, just in case she did see what I had written on the note, and actually that wasn’t alright, and I had vastly underestimated this all entirely. Job-mandated employee amiability has its limits, and the distance stood away from a worker behind a till is never greater than the distance their extended fist can achieve.
However, my money was simply snatched impatiently and thrust into the cash register without a second look, leaving me faltering and slightly disappointed and stuck with this lamp I didn’t really want. For someone whom Lady Luck frequently pours buckets of slurry over, I was astonished the affair passed so smoothly and assumed the cashier simply hadn’t noticed the text blazed across one side of the note. Working somewhere as busy as IKEA you must have to handle thousands of uniform slips of cash every day, so of course not every note is going to be carefully scrutinized, the queues that amassed would be biblical. I reasoned the only way to properly gauge the fallout from vandalizing money was to ensure the recipient noticed, so the next day I strolled to my local Co-op with this in my wallet:
The previous evening I’d tried to research the legal gravity behind scrawling over UK currency, and as with most issues that I seek to personally resolve, the Internet was neatly divided on the matter. Some people, referencing decades of experience working in banks and bookmakers, were flippantly dismissive, claiming as long as you’re not counterfeiting or trying to change the face value of the bill you can write effectively whatever you like on them. Others, the more timid and I sense more submissive British citizens tremulously cried the practice was illegal and akin to treason. The Currency and Bank Notes Act 1928 was often quoted:
12 Penalty for defacing bank notes.
If any person prints or stamps, or by any like means impresses, on any bank note any words, letters or figures, he shall, in respect of each offence, be liable on summary conviction to a penalty not exceeding one pound
This £1 fine was raised to £25 in 1977 (Criminal Law Act, s.31) and then again to £200 in 1982 (Criminal Justice Act, s.46). So admittedly, facing the possibility of a £200 fine, it is excusable to view with trepidation the use of money as a sketchbook. What was unanimously agreed was that it’s a little precarious doodling on a note in any way that modifies, covers or affects the Queen’s face, on the same archaic basis that it’s technically treason to post a letter with the stamp stuck on upside-down. So to attempt to debunk this theory I transformed our monarch into the cigar-chomping, Trilby-topped cat you see above, and just so Darwin on the reverse side didn’t feel left out:
As you can see from the photo of our feline Queen the note already had some writing on it upon its withdrawal, specifically ‘180’ crossed out to read ‘150’, so I felt slightly more justified in adding my own artistic contributions as I handed the money over to the Co-op worker. He was a fraction away from instinctively stuffing it into the till before clearly the addition of all that black ink caught his eye, and he held the money up to the light to get a good look. I braced myself for his reaction but to my surprise he simply laughed and handed me my change. In surprised relief I started laughing too, blaming “that pesky Banksy” and then hurriedly walking out, accidentally leaving all my shopping on the counter.
For my next test I decided to push the concept of writing on money to its excess and absolutely obliterate a £5 note with text. For no discernible reason I decided upon all the lyrics to Cee Lo Green’s 2010 hit ‘Forget You’:
Once finished, the £5 was noticeably heavy with ink. That note would no longer be accepted in anything automated such as ticket machines or self-service checkouts. Indeed even the slightest of Sharpie markings skew the weight of the paper or otherwise confuse whatever means these machines use to evaluate what’s inserted into them, so the only way to reimburse a defaced note’s value is via human interaction. Consequently I approached a cashier in Waterstones intending to purchase a book with my Cee Lo pop verse, again a little nervous but bolstered by my successes so far.
The worker wasn’t happy. There was no way of not noticing the great swathes of text emblazoned across one side of the money I handed over.
“What’s this?” he asked irritably.
I told him “I think it might be that Cee Lo Green song”, but denied writing it myself and bluffed that I’d just had the misfortune of receiving this ridiculous piece of currency from a nearby ATM. The cashier held the note up and desperately tried to squint through the lyrics, until eventually conceding, putting the note in the till and completing the transaction.
“Bloody.. some people have too much time on their hands,” he muttered with a shake of the head. “Whoever did this should go to prison for it.”
“Yep..” I agreed half-heartedly.
Thus far I’d been able to pretend that the graffitied money I was using was the work of someone else and I was simply the innocent party stuck with it, so what would happen if I tried to pass off a note decorated with a personalized message to the very employee serving me, so there was no way anyone besides me could have vandalized it? My plan was to go to a store, espy the nametag of a worker behind the till, then write a message to them, referencing them by name, on the very money to be used in our transaction.
I had aimed to visit Topman to buy some boxers and carry out this caper there, however instantly there was a problem. None of the workers had any nametags in the conventional sense, instead they were wearing booklets hanging around their necks akin to the pamphlets that delineate stages and line-ups you see people wearing at music festivals. It was too difficult to see an employee name without actually reading a book strapped to their chest, so I made do with a physical description of one worker. As is necessary to be employed in and indeed enter some chains of Topman, he was wearing skinny jeans and had a Justin Bieber-imitation hairstyle so I crafted his personal message from that.
After some careful queuing to ensure I was served by the right person, my pants were bagged and I handed over the tailored tenner. The worker glanced at it, double-took, studied it a little harder, and then wordlessly handed me my change without an acknowledgement. Just as I was despondently leaving I heard him quietly mutter “interesting note.”
“Oh! Did you like it?” I asked, smiling.
“Loved it mate.”
It seemed like there was nothing my Sharpie and I could do to make our money unwelcome. I thought back to what little conclusive advice I gleaned from my Internet research, in that stylistic changes to a banknote are generally fine so long as you don’t alter the face value, and so the next note I attempted to enter into circulation toyed with this idea.
I scribbled my counterfeit £20 note and headed to Currys with the intention of buying something exceeding £10, then paying with the fake twenty and patiently awaiting change. I already anticipated this would be tricky – it was late on a Sunday when trying this, so employees would be at their most fatigued and joyless. Atop that I was excruciatingly tired, and my Topman boxers were uncomfortable. Stoically I approached the till with a memory card priced at £13.99.
The timid, soft-spoken worker opened the product’s security case and began fiddling around struggling to scan it correctly, eventually having to call another employee over, all whilst I stood bristling with awkwardness knowing I didn’t actually have enough money to buy this item, I’d just crudely drawn it to make it appear that I did. Eventually the problem of the unscannable memory card was settled and I was asked for “£13.99 please sir.”
I threw the note at the worker with a hasty yell of “what do you make of this?”
He read what was written on the note, smiled, and said “yep, we can accept this, no problem.”
My heart soared. I hadn’t even tried particularly hard in making that note look professional! A reverie of forever crafting my own money briefly opened up before me. Staggered, I couldn’t help but ask “what, really??”
“Oh yeah, that’s fine,” said the Currys worker. “If I could just have the other £3.99 please..?”
“Oh,” I said glumly, hopes dashed. “But did you not read what the note said?”
“Yeah, someone’s just written a silly message on it,” he responded.
I tried convincing the man, pointing at where the number 10 had quite clearly been replaced with a 20, however my arguments were let down by the fact that I still had black Sharpie ink all over my god-damned fingers. Upon realizing this I sheepishly left, without a memory card, and later used the same note in its capacity as a tenner to purchase a pint with no issues.
For my final act I went all out, planning to go to my bank to deposit £40 bearing the message “THIS NOTE IS FAKE. PLEASE CALL THE POLICE.”
I deemed this the ultimate test to discover the limits of defacing currency. Drenching a note in lyrics or drawing a party hat on Charles Darwin were interesting warm-ups but nothing ground-breaking, however if I could have notes accepted that aren’t just scribbled on but actually conveying messages questioning their authenticity, in a bank no less, surely that would disprove that any vandalized note of money could ever be refused.
Armed with my fake ‘fake’ money I visited my local branch, fusty and mirthless as all banks are, and strode up to a young bearded employee. I explained I’d withdrawn these from an ATM and they’d been written on in such a fashion, and so wanted to deposit them as I wasn’t comfortable using them in shops. At first he was frivolous, explaining this was just a case of someone messing around and so depositing them would be fine, at which I relaxed thinking this whole enterprise would be over a lot sooner than I’d thought.
But the more he thought about it, the more baffled he became – how could someone deface 2 separate notes of money that then both came out together from one ATM withdrawal? My story, I grant, was fundamentally flawed in that respect, and it did seem painfully evident that either I was the one who had written the message, seemingly for no good reason whatsoever, or that I was actually trying to pay exceptionally well-made fake money into my account.
He repeatedly struck each note with his counterfeit money tester pen, which basically resembles a yellow highlighter. If the money was indeed fake, the iodine in the pen would react with starch in the wood pulp of the paper, leaving a thick, black, incriminating mark. But the money was coming out clean each time, because it was real money.
The bank clerk excused himself and returned a few minutes later, now accompanied by the Head of Security. Whilst the original cashier had been young and amicable and shy, never once making eye contact, the security chief was old, militaristic and no-nonsense. His eye contact dug into me.
“Where did you get this? What bank?” he ordered.
I said I couldn’t remember.
“What bank?” he ordered again.
I said I couldn’t remember.
He glared at me for a long time, before the two of them disappeared once more. I was reasonably nervous by this stage and had to keep wiping away the huge pads of sweat forming on the marble counter beneath my clammy hands.
Eventually the good clerk, bad clerk duo returned, asking for my online banking details so they could check exactly which bank’s ATM was responsible. Terrifyingly I realized I couldn’t actually remember if I’d withdrawn this £40 from one cash machine or two; if I had taken a £20 from each of two separate machines, then my story was decimated and I was doubtlessly the culprit. At the brink of almost vomiting with stress they informed me it looked like the money came from a cash-back transaction at Sainsbury’s, explaining the correlation between the two notes and mercifully permitting the money to be deposited and me to leave a free man. The money was in my account later that day and I heard nothing more on the matter.
I’ve always thought money, as the increment of human power, wealth and status, seemed awfully vulnerable – it can get stained, be torn, is utterly destroyed by fire and water. This is probably why we flinch slightly when a shrivelled nodule of money limps from an ATM rather than a pristine one, filled with concern that it’ll tear or disintegrate, or simply a cashier will frown at the balled-up gob of currency you’ve handed over and say “sorry, I can’t accept this.” This fear is deeply ingrained and understandable, fear that we will work and earn and yet our labours won’t be reciprocated simply due to a cash-point being filled with, on that day, tatty squibs of notes or money covered in various words and doodles.
However it seems that cashiers and bank clerks universally recognize how fragile a note of money is, and appreciate that as it circles around and around the economy it’s bound to pick up the odd scuff or scribble or Cee Lo song. I was originally anxious that a banknote marked in any substantial way would be generally refused, but with £40 boldly and clearly stating it was not £40 deposited into my account even through the cold glare of the Head of Bank Security, I can now state with a fair confidence that the Currency and Bank Notes Act, in regards to writing on money, is effectively obsolete and no longer recognized. And you can remain confident of that fact unless you ever see me in a newspaper being convicted for high treason, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.