Conversation: Graeme MacKellaig

After travelling around the world for work and leisure, designer and illustrator Graeme MacKellaig has amassed a hoard of paper money. We interviewed him for our Holiday issue.

How did you start collecting currency?

I’ve been travelling for the best part of ten years, since I was quite young. When I was sixteen, I went around Europe; I didn’t keep any the first time I went travelling, and I was pissed off with myself. So the second time I went travelling, to South East Asia, I picked up Vietnamese dong, Korean won, Chinese yuan... I just picked them up along the way. After a while it became a sort of trophy.

Is there a note that has a particularly good story behind it?

The Mongolian ones are quite good. They’re portrait, rather than landscape.

They look like a fairground ticket.

I was in Beijing during the last World Cup Semi-Final, and I was in a bar and I met an Australian guy who was working as a miner in Mongolia. We went out that night and got drunk, and by the end of the night he gave me a handful of pristine Mongolian notes. They’re the most unusual of the notes that I have. Although I do have Indonesian notes – they’re very strange, but they’re defunct. They’re apparently quite easy to fake.

The newer notes have a lot of anti-forgery technology built into them. Do you have a preference – the more modern types of currency, or the classic kind?

I think it depends on the country. This one’s from Nepal and I think it suits Nepal right down to the ground. It’s torn, it’s battered, it’s faded – I think there’s a lot of history behind it. I tend to think that with the new ones, they’ve not passed through as many hands, or been used for much. But then you look at the Hong Kong one and I think that suits Hong Kong as well. It’s like something out of Bladerunner – really modern. The more traditional ones, with the lion’s head, are really cool as well. I’ve got about £400 worth of currency, though of course it’s no use to anybody unless they go to these countries. And some of these are defunct, like pre-revolution Egyptian currency. And the North Korean notes would be pretty hard to use.

How did you get hold of them?

I was in South Korea, and I went to the DMZ, and I just came across a border guard. So I said “Do you have any North Korean on you?” and he was like “Yeah, I’ll trade you.” So I gave him quite a lot of South Korean won, probably too much – but he gave me quite a lot in return, so I was happy.

Is that Kim?

I’m not sure it is. He’s only on the lower denomination ones… you see them more often, that’s what he likes.


Speaking as a designer and an illustrator, if you were to design a note, what would you put on it?

I think you would need to have lived in the country for a long time to get it… so I think I could only ever design a banknote for Scotland. It’s always got to have a person on it, so I would pick somebody a bit more current, maybe an author or artist, Robert Louis Stevenson or someone like that. You need a building on it as well – the Philippines don’t have a very good one, it’s just a university. We’ve only really got castles in that regard.  Maybe I’d pick something more natural; a mountain range like Glen Coe or Ben Nevis. Nepal has Everest on it. Something like the Swedish ones, which have more about their culture - they’ve got stuff about the music and instruments on the back.

Have you ever travelled to somewhere just to get currency?

I’ve started to. I might travel over a border just for a day to get their money. It’s not quite an obsession, but it does lead me astray to places I wouldn’t normally go.