Artist J.S.G. Boggs, known worldwide for his drawings of money, dies in Tampa at 62

He received worldwide acclaim — and intense scrutiny — for his uncanny cash replicas.
Published January 25 2017
Updated January 25 2017

TAMPA — J.S.G. Boggs was kicked out of Brandon High School in the 11th grade but went on to become an artist of international acclaim, a merry prankster with a flair for publicity and an iconoclast whose disturbingly precise drawings of cash stirred up legal trouble on three continents.

Finally, the arc of his nonconformism brought him back to Tampa, specifically to Room 128 of the Howard Johnson Hotel near Tampa International Airport. It was there that Tampa police found him dead Sunday. He was 62.

Police say they do not suspect foul play. The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office said there was no trauma, and a determination of the cause of death is pending the results of toxicology tests.

Mr. Boggs's full name was James Stephen George Boggs, but he was better known as J.S.G. Boggs and often just as "Boggs." His art was all about money.

It consisted, in fact, of exquisitely detailed, exact-sized reproductions of American dollars, English pounds and Swiss francs — though with one side left blank and key features drawn with an off-kilter twist.

The George Washingtons on his "Boggs bills" sometimes faced the wrong way. Some were drawn laughing. Others crying. On some notes, Mr. Boggs' own face appeared in place of the dead presidents. Others he signed above phrases like "crazy cash" or "for what it's worth."

Often it was worth more than enough to bring Mr. Boggs meals, art supplies, cab fare, clothes, rented flats, even legal services and stocks and bonds.

That's because Mr. Boggs did not sell his namesake bills to art collectors. Instead, he would try to trade them for real goods or services. He didn't claim they were money, but did say that as works of art they had value he was willing to trade.

If the merchant was game and Mr. Boggs assigned a note more value than an item cost, he asked for a receipt and change, then noted details of the transaction on the back of the Boggs bill. He sold the receipts to art collectors who tracked down the merchants to buy the Boggs bills, sometimes for multiples of their face values.

Mr. Boggs' bills have been shown at the Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art and the British Museum.

"Paper money is beautiful, with the finest portraiture possible," Mr. Boggs told the Tampa Tribune in 2004.

But Mr. Boggs' art aroused the suspicion of treasury police in the United States, England and Australia.

In the 1980s, he was put on trial in London on charges of counterfeiting four notes in denominations of 10 pounds, 5 pounds and 1 pound.

He was acquitted and later told of his trial at the Old Bailey, the city's central criminal court, where he sat in "the same chair as the Acid Bath Murderer, the Yorkshire Ripper and the IRA terrorists."

When you look at Mr. Boggs' mother, Marlene Boggs, it's less surprising that he would go on to lead such a colorful life.

Marlene Boggs, who died last year, was born Marlene Dietrich Hildebrandt in Atlantic City and moved to Tampa after joining a carnival and touring as "Margo Queen of the Jungle."

Here, she married businessman Jim Boggs, helped him run the Brahman Lounge on Causeway Boulevard and wrote a community news column for the Tampa Tribune.

J.S.G. Boggs attended Brandon High, only to be kicked out his junior year.

"I was accused of starting a riot in the auditorium, but it was somebody else who threw the book at the principal," he told New Yorker journalist Lawrence Weschler, who wrote a 1999 book, Boggs: A Comedy of Values.

He went on to study at Miami University in Ohio, Hillsborough Community College, Columbia University and the Camden Arts Center in London.

The art that made him famous started in 1984, when he was having coffee and a doughnut at a diner in Chicago and doodling an image of a dollar bill on a greasy napkin.

A waitress asked to buy the doodle. Mr. Boggs refused, but offered to exchange it for his 90-cent tab.

As he continued, authorities were not amused. The Secret Service raided his home in three different cities: Tampa, Cheyenne, Wyo., and Pittsburgh.

On social media this week, friends recalled a free spirit with a manic sense of humor worthy of Shakespeare's Puck.

"A brilliant madman," said multimedia artist Alicia Everett of Valatie, N.Y., who knew Mr. Boggs as a mentor when she worked on her bachelor's degree at the University of South Florida. "He was very, very ethical, very loyal even though he was not normative by any means. He definitely was a big part of my being accepted into a really good graduate program at the Art Institute of Chicago."

During a trip to Miami, friends once wrote an angry note on Mr. Boggs' hotel room door, said a friend, River Dakota Cutler of Tampa. He liked it and somehow persuaded the hotel to let him remove and keep the door.

Mr. Boggs made a last public appearance this month at a party in Tampa. After a high-energy discourse on art and money, Cutler said, he threw $100,000 in $100 bills — real ones — on the floor and encouraged guests to roll around in them.

"Every day was a performance for him," Cutler said.

Though he had homes in Hills­borough and Pinellas counties, Mr. Boggs was depressed after his mother died last year, Cutler said. It was not unheard of for him to check into a hotel and hang out.

Predeceased by both parents, Mr. Boggs had no siblings and no children relatives know of, said his cousin Jeff Keebler of Valrico. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Police were called to the hotel on N Dale Mabry Highway Sunday by someone who said Mr. Boggs had not been seen in some time. Hotel management told officers he had been staying at the Howard Johnson for about a month and a half, police spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. An officer wrote in an incident report that the room looked as if a hoarder lived there.

This probably should come as no surprise.

"I never throw anything out," Mr. Boggs once told Weschler, his biographer. "You should see my London studio."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.