Pollock, da Vinci, van Gogh and Warhol. The list of renowned artists whose inspired work has lasted decades goes on. Picasso, Monet, Ramirez, Dali, Gacy and Nilsen. Perhaps there are a few names you didn’t expect to see in that second list…
Serial killer art is any form of art, poetry or literature created by murderers while serving time in prison. You might be surprised to hear that some of this art is highly coveted and can sell for thousands of dollars. For example, paintings by notorious killer John Wayne Gacy have sold for as much as $20,000.
As you might expect, the sale and exhibition of these artefacts is highly controversial and the profits made from these have been branded as “blood money”. In some cases, the families of the victims have been known to purchase the art and immediately destroy it. Many criticise this as exploiting the memory of the victim and just plain tasteless.
Nevertheless, aside from personal profit, there are three fascinating reasons why serial killers indulge in creating art while incarcerated.
All these feelings: an expression of emotion
The link between art and emotion has been extensively studied — not only the emotion evoked by viewing a particular piece of art but also the emotion that is poured into creating an artwork. Unsurprisingly, many serial killers use the create art as an outlet for their emotions.
Anger, hate, rage — these emotions have all been expressed on canvas by killers. In some cases, creating art allows these people to express emotions they don’t even understand. Perhaps they don’t have another way to express their emotions.
It is a way of relieving internal conflict.
In some cases, these pieces of art have been examined in parallel to the killer’s crime. According to the FBI’s dichotomous characterisation of the organised and the disorgnised killers, organised killers who leave a clean scene are thought to create peaceful, orderly and even “normal” artwork. Whereas disorganised killers may create something more abstract reflecting their more erratic emotional state. However, this is hard to apply to those who create a range of artwork, like Arthur Shawcross who brutally murdered fourteen people. He drew subjects ranging from bloody heads to delicate pictures of Princess Diana.
Sweet memories: reliving their crimes
Some serial killers create disturbing artworks depicting their crimes, or aspects of it. In doing so they are able to relive those fantasies and moments.
Dennis Nilsen, killer and necrophiliac, often drew the body parts of his victims or corpses crushed in to closets. Famously, he drew a sketch of one of his victims, Stephen Sinclair’s, bottom half detached from the rest of his body.
Another fascinating example is that of Nicolas Claux, or the Vampire of Paris who indulged in murder, necrophilia and cannibalism. He was able to relive his crimes and fantasies through his art to such an extent that he actually likened the two processes. He said:
“There’s a parallel between art and murder. They are both a quest for aestheticism, and they both give me strange godlike feelings. Art is creation and murder is annihilation. I have mastered both these tools.”
The middle finger: a final hurrah
Such is the disturbed mind of a serial killer that some even see the creation of art as an opportunity to continue tormenting society. Some revel in the opportunity to find fame and fortune by essentially using the victims that they enjoyed killing. They love the shock value.
Additionally it gives them the opportunity to further capitalise on their infamy. For example, Richard Ramirez created self portraits depicting a somewhat demonised version of himself — obviously capitalising on the fact he was viewed as somewhat of a sex symbol for Satanism.
Similarly, John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown, painted a self portrait wearing his infamous clown suit. The demand for these portraits was exceptionally high and Gacy was sitting comfortably atop the profits he had made. Such was the extent of his (undeserved) success that a prison warden revoked Gacy’s arts and crafts privileges a year before he was executed. His death only served to increase the value of his artworks and indeed his infamy.
Your turn: Do you think that serial killers should be allowed to create art in prison? Do you think they should be able to sell these for personal profit? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.