John Wayne Gacy's paintings have become highly sought after in the 'murderabilia' world - but they have also caused a lot of distress.
John Wayne Gacy. Rapist. Murderer. Clown. Fine artist.
If you’ve developed a new skill during the coronavirus lockdown, you might have something in common with a serial killer.
In 1980, the man also known as Pogo The Clown reinvented himself as an artist when he was imprisoned in Menard Correctional Center for the murder of 33 men, churning out more than 2,000 paintings during his 14 years on death row.
He developed an interest in painting after being given an art set to use while jailed.
Between that moment and his execution, he produced a huge range of work. Self portraits of him as Pogo the Clown, the character he dressed up as to entertain local kids at charity events and in hospitals during the 1970s; other infamous criminals like Charles Manson and Ed Gein; tranquil scenes of nature; others featured Disney characters like the Seven Dwarves.
Oh, and he painted a portrait of Elvis Presley, too.
Why did he do it? He was quoted as saying he wanted “to bring joy to people’s lives”, but he was happy to sell his clumsy works to fans for $300 direct from his prison cell.
Today, these paintings can sell for thousands of pounds, with collectors including Johnny Depp and Marilyn Manson reportedly owning a piece of Gacy's “art brut”, “raw art” created outside the usual fine art realms.
At the moment, one of his paintings, ‘8213 W. Summerdale House’ is listed for sale online for £138,000. It’s the only painting he ever did of his suburban Chicago home, and clearly shows the crawl space beneath the house where he stashed most of his victims’ bodies.
In 2010, Andy Matesi, who sold Gacy’s art from his shop, Splish-Splash Collectibles in Chicago, told Time Out about his relationship with the killer clown, and how he came to be in possession of the one-off artwork.
Their friendship began in January 1980 after Gacy’s lawyer spotted a photograph of Charles Manson for sale in the shop and arranged for them to meet to chat business. He phoned him from prison a few days later.
He said: “John was a friend. He would call and tell me to take care of myself, you know, not to be overweight. And he was right.”
For the next four years the two men had more than twenty phone conversations (all taped by Matesi|), and he also went to see him in prison to pick up paintings and pay him in money orders. He would then mark up the paintings and sell them direct from his shop.
He explains that of all the paintings produced by Gacy, the house truly is the jewel in the crown.
“It’s the scene of the crime,” he says. “I’ve owned about 20 Gacy paintings, but there’s only one house. He did 230 Pogos, 10 Elvises, 18 Hitlers—it goes on. Just one house.”
And Gacy also knew how valuable this painting is - well in his own opinion, anyway. In a recording made by Matesi, he speaks from the grave, noting how important this piece is - least of all as it was a one-off and not one of a series of reproductions, like his self-portraits.
“A handwritten letter of mine is worth anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000,” a deep, muffled voice says. “You’ve already got something no one else has.
“You’ve got a painting of the house, which I said I would never do. You’ve got an exclusive painting. Goddamn! You’ve got something no one else has got.”
Gacy’s artwork proved to be controversial from the get go. Not only was he blocked from profiting from his work after 1985, but his victims’ families were horrified that he was allowed to enjoy such frivolous pursuits while their loved ones rotted, and they were left to pick up the pieces of their broken lives.
In September 1989, Dolores Nieder, mum of Gacy victim John Mowery, was a guest on an episode of Geraldo, where she shared in painful detail how upset she was that Gacy was given access to art materials, and that there was such a lucrative market for his work.
Seething with anger, she says: “Gacy is given art supplies to do drawings which are sold. As a matter of fact one of his paintings was put in to the Art Institute in Chicago.”
Dolores recalls that she called the Governors office to complain that some of Gacy’s drawings were being sold at the Illinois State Fair. An aide was dispatched to confiscate them, but by the time they arrived there, they had all sold.
She continues: “They tell me he is given art supplies for rehabilitation.
“I don’t want Gacy rehabilitated. I don’t want Gacy to have any more appeals. I want him to die.
“He snuffed out 33 lives what we know of. What he has done to the victims and families is unbelievable.”
In June 1994, less a month after Gacy was executed by lethal injection, there was a mass burning of some of his artworks outside James Quick Auctioneers in Naperville.
The Chicago Tribune reported: “It was part macabre, part cathartic, as paintings bearing such titles as ‘Skull Clown’ and ‘Death Wish’ were thrown into the flames about 6 p.m.
“Relatives of seven of Gacy's victims were among the 100 people present. Many in the crowd cheered and chanted as the fire was lighted.”
The public burning was the idea of two local men, Joseph Roth and Walter Knoebel, who spent more than $10,000 on artwork, two figurines and other Gacy items at an auction in May.
The paper spoke to on attendee called Milica Marino, whose brother Michael Marino was one of Gacy's known victims.
She said: "I wish it was (Gacy), but it's a piece of him. It doesn't bring my brother back, but it makes it better."