Metal detecting inspires artist Mitchell to turn old American coins into works of art dubbed “hobo nickels”
July 26 – MITCHELL – Tommy McKibben discovered many fascinating objects around Mitchell with his metal detector.
Among the memorable finds are old American coins dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were still made from silver and copper. While many people view 100-200 year old coins as valuable collectibles worth keeping, McKibben sees them as a canvas for his unique art to take shape.
The Mitchell native carves a variety of portraits out of old coins where the head of a former US president is transformed into a figure, skull, or other highly detailed idea in McKibben’s mind. Once completed, his works of art which he refers to as “hobo nickels” are sold online.
“The love I have for coins and nickel hobo making comes straight from metal detecting,” McKibben said as she unveiled her latest finds on a table. “It’s the coolest type of art I’ve ever done.”
What started as a hobby and creative outlet for McKibben eight years ago has turned into a business. His latest masterpieces engraved on old $1 coins featuring popular cartoon characters Scooby Doo and Shaggy have attracted bids of over $200 and up.
McKibben primarily sells his hobo nickels on ebay, allowing interested buyers to bid on his art. His work can also be seen on social media platforms as Deadhead Hobo Coins.
Considering that the coins he turns into art are either unearthed through metal detecting or bought from pawnshops at a price close to the actual value of the coins themselves, selling a coin for $50 to $300 as doing so equates to handsome profits. But money isn’t what drives McKibben to keep honing his craft.
“I love it. It’s become a lost art that I feel like I’m helping to keep alive,” he said.
Old nickels are far from the only pieces on which McKibben engraves his creations. He classifies his coins as hobo nickels because that is the term used to describe the art form of coin carving, which has been around for over a century.
The hobo nickel art movement took off in the early 1900s when the Buffalo nickel was produced in the United States and served as the 5-cent coin from 1913 to 1938. McKibben said the nickel of buffalo – which featured a Native American head on one side and a man riding a buffalo on the other – was a rare piece compared to the others in that the Native American head took up much more space on one side of the surface of the nickel.
Hobo nickels were usually made by traveling hobos – hence the name derived – as a way to increase the coin’s value in the midst of the Great Depression to help them buy a meal or exchange it for car rides. train across the country. Much like dealers did in the 1920s and 1930s, McKibben said it was “so cool” that people still see such artistic value in handcrafted hobo nickels today.
“Hobo nickels are highly collectible to this day. Hobos have found a way to use their art to increase the value of a coin. I look at what I’m doing with my hobo coin business 100 years later, and it’s It’s the same concept in another era,” McKibben said. “They were turning the Native American head into a tramp. The big head of the piece gave them a lot more room to carve.”
When McKibben began making hobo nickels nearly a decade ago, he learned the story of the buffalo coin that would reveal a special, short-lived connection to nickel. The man behind the American bison nickel design, James Earle Fraser, grew up in Mitchell.
After learning that he and Fraser grew up in the same town in South Dakota and shared a love for the art of sculpting from raw materials, McKibben said it gave “even more meaning” to his work of hobo nickel.
“James Earle Fraser started carving his art out of limestone right here in town. It’s so cool to me and it gives my work even more meaning to be from the same town as the guy who made the first coin that really created hobo nickels,” McKibben said of Fraser, who became a famous sculptor and created statues, some of which can be seen at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The self-taught artist uses what he calls “old school, simple” tools to create his hobo nickels. With new technologies available for metal carving such as engraving machines, McKibben chose to stick with the same tools that many nickel hobo artists used when the movement took off in the early 1900s.
And that helped him develop his own original style, he thinks.
“I had the cheapest, shittiest tools when I started about eight years ago. When I was looking for new tools, an old artist said to me, ‘It’s not your tools that make the ‘art is you.’ It stuck with me,” McKibben said. “So I started to really learn the tools I had, and every piece I make just gets better and better.”
While Mckibben carves art into a variety of antique pieces, he is very selective about the type of pieces he uses his tools on. Silver and copper coins are McKibben’s favorite materials, but he said finding them has become more difficult since the United States changed the material composition of coins in the 1960s and 1970s from silver to a mixture of copper and nickel.
“I really like to engrave on John F. Kennedy silver half dollars because it’s best to work with this material. Until 1964 they were 90% silver, then they went to 40% silver They’re not easy to find, but I find them,” said McKibben, who spends hours metal detecting in hopes of digging up silver coins like the half dollar.
As part of the Mint Act of 1965, it eliminated the use of silver to make quarters and dimes and reduced the half-dollar coin to a 40% silver composition .
For coiners like McKibben, the change in materials made it increasingly difficult to find more malleable silver coins to carve. The coin shortage that has swept the country during the COVID-19 pandemic has added more challenges to getting your hands on silver coins.
But thanks to his metal detection, McKibben manages to unearth centuries-old silver coins. His first coin he ever discovered with his metal detector was a rare Morgan dollar coin, which was first minted as a US silver dollar coin in 1878.
“Some people go their whole lives metal detecting and can’t find a Morgan dollar. It hooked me forever,” McKibben said, gawking at the design of the coin that featured the head of a woman from a side and the American eagle on the other.
Although he has yet to discover another Morgan dollar, he is optimistic that there could be basements around the abundance of untapped parts of Mitchell that he has yet to detect.