Metal detecting inspires Mitchell artist to transform old U.S. coins into works of art dubbed 'hobo nickels'
Tommy McKibben carves a variety of portraits into old coins where the head of a former U.S. president is transformed into a highly detailed character, skull or whatever idea is in his mind at the time
MITCHELL — Tommy McKibben has unearthed many fascinating items around Mitchell with his metal detector.
Among the memorable finds are old U.S. coins that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries when they were still made from silver and copper. While many people view 100- to 200-year-old coins as valuable collectibles worth holding on to, McKibben sees them as a canvas for his unique art to take shape.
The Mitchell native carves a variety of portraits into old coins where the head of a former U.S. president is transformed into a highly detailed character, skull or whatever idea is in McKibben’s mind. Once finished, his works of art that he dubs as “hobo nickels” are sold online.
“The love I have for coins and making hobo nickels comes directly from metal detecting,” McKibben said as he unveiled his latest finds on a table. “It's the coolest type of art I've ever done.”
What started off as a hobby and creative outlet for McKibben eight years ago has blossomed into a business. His latest masterpieces etched on old $1 coins depicting popular cartoon characters, Scooby Doo and Shaggy, have attracted bids over $200 and counting.
McKibben primarily sells his hobo nickels on ebay, which allows interested buyers to bid on his art. His work can also be seen on social media platforms under the name, Deadhead Hobo Coins.
Considering the coins he turns into art are either dug up through metal detecting or purchased from pawn shops at a price near the actual value of the coins themselves, selling a coin for $50 to $300 like he does has equated to nice profits. But money isn’t what motivates McKibben to continue perfecting his craft.
“I love it. It’s become a lost art that I feel like I’m helping keep alive,” he said.
Old nickels are far from the only coins McKibben carves his creations on. He classifies his coins as hobo nickels because it’s the term used to describe the art form of coin sculpting, which has been around for more than a century.
The hobo nickel art movement took off in the early 1900s when the Buffalo nickel was produced in the U.S. and served as a 5 cent coin from 1913 to 1938. McKibben said the buffalo nickel — which featured a Native American head on one side and a man riding a buffalo on the other — was a rare coin compared to others in that the Native American head took up much more space on one side of the nickel’s surface.
Hobo nickels were typically crafted by traveling hobos — which is where the name derived from — as a way to increase the value of the coin amid the Great Depression to help them buy a meal or trade it for train rides around the country. Just as merchants did during the 1920s and ‘30s, McKibben said it’s “so cool” that people today still see such artistic value in hand-crafted hobo nickels.
“Hobo nickels are very collectible to this day. The hobos 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 the same concept in a different era,” McKibben said. “They would turn the Native American head into a hobo. The coin's large head gave them much more room to carve.”
Special connection to designer of buffalo nickel
When McKibben began crafting hobo nickels nearly a decade ago, he learned about the buffalo coin’s history that would reveal a special connection to the short-lived nickel. The man behind the design of the U.S. buffalo nickel, James Earle Fraser, grew up in Mitchell.
After learning he and Fraser were raised in the same South Dakota city and shared a love for sculpting art out of raw materials, McKibben said it gave “even more meaning” to his hobo nickel work.
“James Earle Fraser started sculpting his art on limestone right here in town. It’s so cool to me and gives even more meaning to my work to be from the same town as the guy who made the first coin that really created hobo nickels,” McKibben said of Fraser, who went on to become 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 technology available for metal sculpting such as engraving machines, McKibben has opted to stick with the same tools many hobo nickel artists used when the movement took off in the early 1900s.
And doing so has helped him develop his own original style, he feels.
“I had the cheapest, crappiest tools when I started off about eight years ago. When I was looking for new tools, an old artist told me, ‘It’s not your tools that make the art, it’s you.’ That stuck with me,” McKibben said. “So I started really learning the tools I had, and every coin I make is better and better.”
Challenges of finding silver coins makes metal detecting vital
While Mckibben carves art into a variety of old coins, he’s very selective about the type of coins he takes his tools to. Silver and copper coins are McKibben’s favorite material to work with, but he said finding them has become more challenging since the U.S. switched the material makeup of coins in the 1960s and ‘70s from silver to a mixture of copper and nickel.
“I really like carving on the silver John F. Kennedy half dollars since the material is better to work with. Up until 1964, they were 90% silver, and after that they went to 40% silver. They aren’t easy to find, but I find them,” said McKibben, who spends hours on end metal detecting in hopes of digging up silver coins like the half dollar.
As part of the Coinage Act of 1965, it eliminated silver from being used to make quarters and dimes and reduced the half dollar coin to a 40% silver composition.
For coin artists like McKibben, the switch in materials makes it increasingly difficult to find silver coins that are more malleable to carve into. The coin shortage that swept across the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic added more challenges to getting his hands on silver coins.
But through his metal detecting, McKibben manages to dig up century-old silver coins. His first coin he ever uncovered with his metal detector was a rare Morgan dollar coin, which was first minted as a U.S. silver dollar coin in 1878.
“Some people go their whole life metal detecting without finding a Morgan dollar. It had me hooked forever,” McKibben said, gawking at the coin’s design that featured a woman’s head on one side and the U.S. seal eagle on the other.
While he’s yet to unearth another Morgan dollar, he’s optimistic there could be some lurking underground around the abundance of untapped parts of Mitchell he’s yet to metal detect.