ARTWORK and Memorabilia Related to Serial Murder
Considering the celebrity status conferred on infamous criminals in modern society, it comes as no surprise that some of them become “collectible” through such media as portraits and autographed photos, personal mementos, model kits, trading cards, comic books, and sundry other items ranging from tawdry curiosities to the bizarre. This fascination with felons in general—and serial killers in particular—is viewed by some critics as a symbol of societal decadence (even imminent apocalypse), while others dismiss it as a passing fad. On balance, given the apparent declining interest in such items since the mid-1990s, the latter view would seem to be correct.
Serial killer art, as noted by authors Harold Schechter and David Everitt, may be conveniently divided into two categories: art depicting serial murderers, and art created by the killers themselves. The former category includes everything from formal portraits and life-sized sculpture to weird, abstract sketches on cheaply produced trading cards and the sometimes graphic scenes depicted in various comic book “biographies” of notorious slayers. The several sets of trading cards and comics sparked heated controversy in the early 1990s, as parents and conservative religious leaders blamed them for “corrupting” modern youth. Producers of the cards and comics countered with reminders that their goods were plainly marked “for sale to adults only” and were not intended for a younger audience—an argument which critics viewed as somewhat disingenuous. (Nassau County, New York, legally banned the sale of one card set to minors; by the time that law was voided on appeal, the company in question had gone bankrupt.)
Generally speaking, collectors of serial killer art are more interested in work produced by the murderers themselves, and there has been no shortage of product from the 1980s onward. Prison inmates have tons of spare time, and some unlikely artists have emerged from America’s captive population of recreational killers. JOHN GACY was easily the most famous, known worldwide for his paintings of clowns, skulls, and other subjects, sold from death row in a marketing scheme so controversial that the state of Illinois would later sue Gacy’s estate, seeking to recover room and board expenses for the years he spent in prison. As with many other artists, Gacy’s work has grown more pricey since his death in 1994, one outraged critic purchasing a block of paintings and burning them publicly, to prevent them reaching “the wrong hands.”
While Gacy hogged headlines in the war of words surrounding killer art, other notorious predators were quietly at work, including Richard Speck (wildlife watercolors), “Night Stalker” RICHARD RAMIREZ (ballpoint doodles), MANSON “FAMILY” alumnus Bobby Beausoleil (paintings), and Charles Manson himself (sketches and toy animals fashioned from socks). “Quiet” hardly describes the case of “Gainesville Ripper” Danny Rolling, whose pen-and-ink drawings were sold by his publicist and one-time fianc?e, Sondra London, until the state of Florida filed suit to shut the business down. Elmer Wayne Henley, accomplice and slayer of Houston’s DEAN CORLL, has emerged as another prison artist of note, his paintings displayed at two Texas galleries in 1998. Predictably, the showings drew more anger than acclaim, picketers at one gallery arriving with signs that read “hang Henley, not his art.” New York inmate Arthur Shawcross sparked a similar furor in September 1999, when prison administrators learned that he had retained agents to sell his paintings on the Internet auction site eBay. Shawcross spent nine months in solitary confinement for that transgression of prison policy and lost all art privileges for an additional five years. On May 16, 2001, eBay announced a ban on further sales of “murderabilia.”
Other collectible items in the serial murder genre include T-shirts emblazoned with portraits of various killers, autographs from sundry slayers, a scale model of EDWARD GEIN (complete with shovel and lantern, preparing to rob a fresh grave), and similar items. An Internet website markets scores of “killer fonts,” allowing persons so inclined to print computer-generated documents in the (simulated) handwriting of various psychopaths ranging from “JACK THE RIPPER” to more recent specimens. By 1995, several mail-order catalogs offered a wide range of murderous memorabilia and accessories—fake skulls and severed limbs, etc.—for collectors with money to burn. An easy winner in the poor-taste category (and impossible to authenticate without DNA tests) was the offer of fingernail clippings from LAWRENCE (“Pliers”) BITTAKER, awaiting execution at San Quentin. In February 1999, the Back Bay Brewing Company named a new brand of ale for alleged “BOSTON STRANGLER” Albert DeSalvo, declaring: “It’s probably one of our best.”
As with FICTION AND FILM treatments of serial murder, the sale and collection of killer art and memorabilia invites protests that vendors and buyers alike are somehow “glorifying” human monsters, transforming them into “heroes.” And, while it is undeniable that certain infamous killers—notably Manson and Ramirez—enjoy literal cult icon status with some pathological characters on the lunatic fringe, most casual collectors of murder memorabilia seem slightly eccentric, at worst. As the majority of baseball card collectors never pitch a big-league game, so there has been no case to date of any “killer art” collector emulating Gacy, Speck, or Manson with a series of atrocious crimes. The controversy surrounding such items generates income for vendors and critics alike (as when religious groups hold rallies and sell pamphlets or collect donations to oppose the latest “sinful” fad), but otherwise, the impact of serial murder collectibles on American society seems no more significant or lasting than the Nehru jacket or the hula hoop.
In September 1999, French authorities suggested that art might be a motivating factor in a series of unsolved murders around Perpignan. The first victim, 19-year-old Moktaria Chaib, was found stabbed to death and mutilated near Perpignan’s railway station in December 1997. Police arrested Dr. Andres Barrios, a Peruvian-born surgeon whom reporters quickly dubbed “a Latin JACK THE RIPPER,” and detectives linked him tentatively to the 1995 disappearance of 17- year-old Tatiana Andujar in the same vicinity. Then, with Barrios still in custody, the slayer struck again in June 1998, killing 22-year-old Marie-H?l?ne Gonzalez, escaping with her severed head and hands. Barrios was then released on bond, while officers compared the mutilations suffered by Chaib and Gonzalez to portraits of disfigured women painted by surrealist Salvador Dal?. The link was strengthened, some said, by the late artist’s comment that he “sprang to attention with joy and ecstasy” when he passed Perpignan’s railway depot. The crimes in France remained unsolved when this work went to press.