John Wayne Gacy, the notorious serial killer and children’s birthday clown who tortured and murdered 33 men and boys, was executed for his crimes almost 25 years ago. But his artwork—he created thousands of paintings both before and after his imprisonment—has never been more popular, or lucrative.
One of his many clown self-portraits—he went by the nom de clown Pogo—sold at a high-end art auction in Philadelphia last April for $7,500, considerably more than the $2,000 high estimate, according to Antiques and the Arts Weekly. At sites like Murder Auction, Supernaught True Crime Gallery, and other online purveyors of serial killer collectibles, Gacy paintings are fetching anywhere from $6,000 to $175,000, the latter price tag for an oil painting of Gacy’s house highlighting the crawl space where he buried his victims.
Stephen Koschal, a 50-year vet of the memorabilia business who’s sold hundreds of Gacy paintings, estimates that there are between 2,000 and 2,500 Gacy originals in circulation today, and the prices just keep going up. “His Pogo paintings were only going for about $250 in the early ‘90s,” Koschal says. “But these days they can sell for as much as $50,000.”
Gacy is far from the only serial killer whose artwork has become a hot commodity in recent years. At sites like Serial Killers Ink, True Crime Auction House, and Murder Museum, you can purchase original illustrations and paintings by some of the most infamous murderers in recent history, like Richard Ramirez and Charles Manson. And it’s not just criminals with name recognition selling their artistic wares. There are dozens of convicted murderers and rapists with art available for sale, including death row artistes like John Robinson, Andre Crawford, Eugene McWatters (“The Salerno Strangler”), Alfred J. Gaynor, and Keith Jesperson (“The Happy Face Killer”). They rarely get Gacy prices—most of their work sells for hundreds rather than thousands. But it wasn’t that long ago that even Gacy wasn’t getting Gacy prices.
Andy Kahan, a victims rights advocate in Houston, Texas, has been following the rise of “murderabilia”—a term he coined—since 1999, when he first discovered a serial killer’s art for sale in a New York newspaper. Since then, he’s been the most vocal watchdog and critic of this growing marketplace, watching it evolve from a handful of dealers on eBay to an industry worth, by Kahan’s estimate, a quarter of a million dollars annually.
A serial killer with artistic ambitions is no longer an exception. Although most of them, unlike Gacy, don’t transform into artists until after they get handcuffed. “When you end up on death row now, two things happen,” Kahan says. “You get reborn and you turn into DaVinci.”
The buyers who seek out serial killer art don’t fall into easy categories. William Harder, who’s run Murder Auction from Fresno, California since 2005, says his customers aren’t just creepy murder fetishists. “They’re regular people,” he says. “I remember this contractor guy I sold to. He built houses and decks and stuff, and he came to me looking for something subtle. He told me, ‘I thought about getting a Gacy, but I’m afraid that’s just going to attract too much attention.’ So he bought something by Charles Manson, but nothing you’d recognize as a Manson unless you looked closer and saw the signature.”
Koschal has sold murderabilia to collectors around the globe—“England, Australia, Japan, everywhere”—and they’ve run the gamut from curiosity seekers to 12-year-old boys. “This kid brought his mother in,” Koschal explains, still amazed, “and she buys a Gacy for him.” Celebrities are always in the mix, too. “I’ve sold to big-name actors and actresses from Hollywood,” he says, declining to share any names, although Johnny Depp, Susan Sarandon and Marilyn Manson have all publicly admitted to purchasing art by convicted killers. “One fella out of California—I think he was in radio or TV—after he’d bought a pretty expensive painting, he told me that he was going to hide it in his study because he didn’t want his wife to know.”
Serial killers have always been a cultural obsession, but with true crime podcasts like My Favorite Murder averaging 19 million monthly listeners, and the proliferation of shows like Netflix’s Mindhunter, they’ve never been more popular. Collecting their art takes it one step beyond passive fandom. You’re actually inviting a serial killer—or at least something they created—into your home. Shawn McCarron, who runs a tattoo shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, owns a Gacy Pogo painting that he keeps under lock and key, and only takes out when friends or customers ask to see it. “As it is risen out of its box, people say they get ice in their veins,” McCarron says, almost as if he’s bragging. “It has been touched and created by pure evil.” For many collectors, these paintings feel dangerous and offer the kind of adrenaline rush you can’t achieve just by watching or reading about killers in the abstract.
Ryan Graveface, who lives in Savannah, Georgia and runs two record stores, has been a collector of murderabilia art for decades, “before it got popular and cost big money,” he says. Graveface has no idea of the exact number of pieces he owns—“I have a 5000 square foot warehouse with a ton tucked inside,” he says—but his art collection ranges from Gacy and Manson to the Cleveland Strangler and the Genesee River Killer. He occasionally exhibits his favorites: earlier this month, he hosted a gallery showing in Chicago, which attracted several thousand gawkers. Everything he owns is technically for sale “if the price is right,” Graveface says. “But most things I’m not looking to get rid of.”
The 37 year old, who has been buying and trading murderabilia for most of his adult life, says his main interest in it is interacting with other collectors. “I like finding the people who were friends with Gacy during his prison days and trading with them,” he says. “Then you get stories attached to the pieces and aren’t just buying them from faceless people online.” During his traveling exhibits, most of the new collectors he’s met are young—between 28 and 40 years old—and female. “They are the sweetest people ever,” Graveface says. “Nine out of ten of the people who purchase from me claim the piece of artwork will be put in their bedroom.”
A more pressing question, especially for the lawmakers trying to put an end to murderabilia, is who profits? Harder scoffs at claims that the marketplace has profits in the six figures. “That’s an outright lie,” he says. A typical dealer who sells multiple paintings a month and really hustles can expect to earn, at best, “maybe $800 a month,” Harder claims. He won’t disclose his salary from Murder Auction or other murderabilia sales, but insists it isn’t his primary source of income. (He also runs a website that sells Satanic accessories, which he says pays his bills.)
But for a market that’s seemingly low-stakes, the competition is “cut-throat,” says Harder. He describes being repeatedly threatened by other dealers trying to intimidate him into closing down Murder Auction. “There was one guy who posted my home address, my parents home address, where my wife works,” he says. “He was trying to drive me out so he’d be the only game in town.”
Not all dealers are gunning for more customers. London-based artist Nicola White, founder of ArtReach, a program that commissions and sells art by death row inmates at San Quentin prison in California, says her interest in the artistic renderings of convicted murderers has nothing to do with profits. “I couldn’t really imagine anywhere darker than death row,” she says. “I liked the idea of putting a little bit of light in a very dark place.”
The work that ArtReach selects is sold online or at exhibitions around the US and UK, including an event called “Voices from the Row” this July, where inmates read poetry aloud via prison phones. White represents 40 artists awaiting execution, and all of the proceeds—paintings run between $20 and $300—go to charity or art supplies. “None one of them are trying to make money from their crimes,” White says.
That’s not just moral grandstanding; in some US states, it’s a matter of legality. In 1977, New York became the first state to introduce a Son of Sam Law, named for serial killer David Berkowitz, to prevent murderers from cashing in on their own infamy. Forty-one other states drafted similar laws, and though they’ve been frequently challenged—including from the US Supreme Court, who unanimously voted in 1991 that Son of Sam laws violate the First Amendment—killers profiting from their criminal notoriety is either illegal or heavily restricted across the country.
Although Harder has developed personal relationships with numerous murderers—he’s visited 90 in prison, including his first, the man who would become his close friend, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez—he insists he never sells anything they give him. “I only sell things I get from other collectors,” he says. Most of the art being peddled at sites like Murder Auction were never created for sale at all, assuming you take Harder at his word.
“A lot of these dealers write to inmates posing as a girl,” he says. “They gain their trust and then when the prisoners send them artwork, thinking it’s a gift to a woman who’s interested in them, they turn around and sell the stuff online.” Harder has several angry letters from mass murderers, written to dealers (not him) after discovering the scam. John E. Robinson, a serial killer and rapist who murdered at least eight women in Kansas, wrote a fiery letter to a dealer in Washington after learning he’d been duped. “What a loser you are!” the hand-written letter reads. “Preying on those in prison for monetary gain… Talk about a bottom feeder!”
Not all of the art for sale at murderabilia sites is even guaranteed to be real. Koschal says forgeries are rampant in the online marketplace, and it’s especially easy to get away with because most buyers aren’t discerning enough to spot obvious discrepancies. Koschal was once sent a Gacy painting to authenticate by a long time murderabilia collector, and though it had what appeared to be Gacy’s signature, “the date handwritten under the signature was two years after Gacy had been executed,” Koschal says. “It wasn’t just a fake, it was a lazy fake.”
The only way to be absolutely certain you’re getting the real deal is by buying from a dealer with a personal relationship with the killer, which few will admit to because of Son of Sam laws, or by getting something so original and audacious that it couldn’t possibly be reproduced. Two of Koschal’s most sought-after Gacy paintings, which he personally requested from the clown killer, are the bizarre “Dwarf’s Baseball,” featuring Disney’s seven dwarfs playing baseball against the Chicago Cubs, which Koschal somehow convinced Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle to sign—it last sold for $9,500—and “Boxing Hall of Fame,” a portrait of two faceless boxers, with Gacy’s signature right next to signatures by Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson. It’s currently for sale on Koschal’s site for $3,500—up more than 50% since it last sold just a few years ago for $1,375.
“You’ve got to give the customer something they can’t get anywhere else,” Koschal says. “You’re not gonna find paintings like that at Walmart.”
Murderabilia is in many ways a contradiction. The dealers and even the murderers themselves ask us to separate the art from the artist. Their creative ambitions aren’t an extension of their crimes; the two things, they insist, are unrelated.
William “Bill” Clark, a death row inmate at San Quentin who exhibits and sells his drawings through ArtReach, decries critics who only consider convict-produced art “through the lens of the crime, which blinds them to the merits and beauty of the art itself.” They are, he laments, “so steeped in prejudice and hatred for the person behind the art, they are incapable of recognizing and appreciating the art for what it is.”
To some extent, that may be true. But would a watercolor painting of a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean really be selling for $8,500 if it hadn’t been created by the Gainesville Ripper, the serial killer who inspired the 1996 slasher film Scream? Would a painting of a Cape Cod lighthouse, which looks like something that’d be sold at a small town farmers market, have a $2,000 asking price if the artist wasn’t Henry Lee Lucas, a late serial killer who claimed to have killed thousands? Without that context, most of the art is unmemorable at best, and really, really bad at worst.
Nicola White believes there’s deeper meaning in these paintings if you look for it. “I see hope,” she says. “I see a need for those condemned to death to search within themselves and redeem themselves.” Most of the inmates draw and paint “what they would love to see, and what they cannot be part of,” she says. “I see a longing and a yearning.”
Some murderabilia art is innocuous, depicting animals, flowers and nature settings. But the “longing and yearning” takes on a different meaning when the imagery turns dark. The vast majority of artwork sold at commercial murderabilia sites depicts things like vampires or demons, big-breasted naked women, movie villains like Jason Voorhees or Pennywise, and skulls, so many skulls. It’s like an endless loop of rejected Megadeth album covers.
Although White’s stable of death row artists never venture into such explicit territory, when you look at something like “First Kill,” a harrowing painting of a screaming, bloody woman, created by serial killer and necrophiliac Andre Crawford, it’s pretty clear that what he’d love to see and wishes he could be a part of again is something no sane person would ever want framed and hanging on their living room wall.
It’s imagery like this that keeps watchdog Andy Kahan determined to put an end to the industry once and for all. His last big victory was in 2001, when he lobbied eBay to stop giving a platform to murderabilia. In recent years, the same death art merchants he drove out of eBay are popping up on Facebook, but this time they’re not as easy to get rid of.
A few years ago, Kahan had his crosshairs on Serial Killer Ink, whose Facebook page has over 10,000 followers, for what he thought was ban-worthy indecency. They were promoting gruesome drawings by meth-addicted rapist and serial killer Jeremy Bryan Jones, including one with Jesus Christ nailed to a cross, with a semi-naked nun performing a sexual act on him. Kahan contacted Facebook and was told “it didn’t violate their policy. But they did tell me if I put up a naked picture of myself, it would be removed.”
Kahan has taken some unorthodox approaches to finding the kinks in murderabilia’s armor, including finding allies in unlikely places. For over a decade, he’s had a secret working relationship with David Berkowitz—the Son of Sam, now in his mid-60s. “He’s been very valuable to me,” says Kahan. “Every request he gets from one of these dealers, he forwards it to me. It lets me know how these guys operate, how they essentially groom offenders, similar to what a sex offender would do to a young child.”
He continues to work closely with lawmakers—like Texas Senator John Cornyn, who shares his passion for stomping out murderabilia—and pushes for federal legislation that he says will be more effective than state restrictions and laws against prisoner profiteering that sometimes contradict each other. But he admits it can be frustrating, especially when even public awareness and outrage doesn’t slow down murderabilia’s business.
In 2012, the sale of a startlingly offensive art piece by convicted serial killer Anthony Sowell caused a brief backlash. The drawing, listed for $175 on Serial Killers Ink, featured a graveyard at night guarded by the Grim Reaper, with eleven tombstones, each ostensibly for one of Sowell’s eleven victims. There was a grumbling about it in the local press, official statements from the victims’ families and local prosecutors, and even the buyer—a businessman from Philadelphia—had to explain himself to reporters.
Now, six years after the controversy, another graveyard drawing by Sowell is up for sale. But this time, the eleven tombstones all have names, explicitly identifying each of his victims. What’s more, the new drawing costs $400, more than double its original price. There’s no outrage this time. And by the time you read this, it may already be sold and replaced with a new, even more egregious art piece.
Graveface, for one, isn’t that impressed. “Sowell is doing that shit for attention because he’s got nothing better to do,” he says. For him, nobody will ever match Gacy, “no matter how offensive they try to be,” he says. “Their stories are simply not as compelling.” Many dealers agree, pointing out that it’s not just the creepiness of a murderer’s artistic vision that matters, but whether their crimes have captured the national attention. “The Golden Age of the serial killer is over,” Harder says.
But anything is possible, especially in a market driven by shock value. “The more vicious the case, the higher the body count, certainly the more celebration in the press, the more a painting or drawing is going to be worth,” Harder says. Tomorrow’s prison Picasso may be out there right now, sharpening his knives and preparing the easel for his next masterpiece.