The 13th Floor

The Strange History Of This John Wayne Gacy Painting

The Hyaena Gallery has been stationed right on Olive Avenue in Burbank for the last 9 years, providing the otherwise sunny side of town with “dark art.” While the gallery rotates their inventory and displays from a roster of amazingly talented artists on a regular basis, one of the first things I noticed when I set foot in the place back in 2006 was a handful of genuine serial killer art and true crime artifacts. Up until that point, I don’t think I’d actually seen any actual serial killer art in person, and I found it both mildly disturbing and extremely intriguing.

In particular, one unsettling piece that stopped me dead in my tracks was a painting of famed killer John Wayne Gacy, dressed up as his alter ego Pogo the Clown, in a cemetery with his arm around a gentleman. Everything about it just felt odd and off. After striking up a conversation with the gallery’s owner Bill Shafer, he explained that the strange character in the painting was in fact the person that commissioned it.

I don’t remember the timeline perfectly, but I vaguely remember that the piece had found a new home within the year. And during one random unrelated conversation when it happened to come up and I inquired about it again, Shafer mentioned that the guy in the painting once randomly walked into the gallery and was shocked to see it hanging up on his wall. I decided that I wanted to know the history of this particular piece. Why Gacy painted it and how? How Hyaena Gallery came into possession of it and where it ended up. That strange story is below in my interview with Hyaena Gallery’s Bill Shafer!

gacygraveyard One of the first pieces I noticed when I first came into your gallery all those years ago was your John Wayne Gacy piece. It had him as Pogo the Clown with his arm around the person that commissioned it. There’s something fascinating about seeing serial killer art. What’s the history of that piece, as you know it?

Bill Shafer: A guy commissioned John Wayne Gacy to paint him and Pogo the Clown, Gacy’s alter ego, in a cemetery. It’s kind of creepy. Gacy wasn’t a great painter so it has that weird outsider artist feel to it, which adds to the creepiness.

BH: Just to clarify, he did this in jail? He would often get commissioned to do art while he was serving time?

BS: Oh yeah. He had a whole painting business while in jail for years. From around 1982-1983, he started selling his paintings and started a mail order business, and did it up until 94 when he was executed. Even that last week, he was selling paintings, because he thought he wasn’t going to be executed! He was saving money for his appeals and legal funds. But he had a weird scam going during his whole prison run. He could do what he wanted, as long as he bribed the guards.

BH: Wow. So in that time period, was it difficult to get a commission out of him?

BS: Normally, no. This particular one seems like it was very difficult. I have a stack of correspondence between Gacy and the guy that commissioned it. This guy was a movie producer and he wrote and directed a movie about a serial killer in a wheelchair called HELL ON WHEELS. And so, he was writing to Gacy to get the serial killer perspective. Some of these letters – I mean, Gacy was always skirting around the issue of whether or not he was guilty. He always denied everything. He vehemently denied being a homosexual. In these letters, he talks about finding kids at the bus station and what he used to do with them. And he encourages this guy to do the same thing. He was trying to live vicariously through him. I don’t write serial killers for that very reason. You can get wrapped up in their nonsense, and they don’t have anything else to do, so they’re going to try to manipulate you for their own entertainment.  But this guy was very aware of what was going on, and played along to get what he wanted, which was information about being a killer and what it was like and how it was. And eventually to commission this painting. I think it took him about 6 months through the letters. They went back and forth and finally he got this painting.


BH: How’d you obtain it initially?

BS: I obtained it through a really big collector. He was going to open a museum of justice and oddities out here in LA. Jonathan Davis of Korn was involved.

BH: Oh right. I remember a while back that Jonathan Davis was a huge collector of original serial killer art. But he eventually sold it all off?

BS: I don’t know exactly what happened. They had a few partners and were going to open this American Curiosities Museum and then Jonathan Davis was on MTV talking about it and all their backers pulled out. After that, the pieces in that collection got scattered. This Gacy piece was going to be in that museum. And there’s articles online with Jonathan Davis in front of it. I obtained it from Arthur Rosenblatt who is one of the biggest collectors and most reputable people I’ve dealt with in true crime areas. I had it on my wall for maybe 2 years and it always fascinated me. I got obsessed with the guy that commissioned the piece, because I couldn’t understand it. He spent 6 months of time to get this thing, and I wondered, why did he give it up? He put so much effort to get it, so I assumed there had to be a story about why he got rid of it! I had to find this guy. He kept moving, but he was Hollywood-centric, so every couple of months, I’d do some research and try to find him and never did. Then one day, he just kind of waltzed right into the gallery. (Laughs) He had no idea who I was or what the place was. He walked in and stopped dead in front of the painting and asked, “Why do you have this?” So I go into my spiel, “well, it’s true crime and I’m interested in it. It’s part of history, its pop culture.” But he stopped me and said, “No, why do you have this? That’s me! In the painting!”

BH: Did you recognize him as soon as he said it?

BS: No, because it’s a horrible painting and he looked nothing like it! (Laughs) So I had a million questions for this guy, now that I found him. So I asked him what happened and he said, “oh yeah. The thing is, I got rid of it. I started producing porn. And I had it in my office. And it really creeped out the girls.” And that was it. (Laughs) There was no real story behind him getting rid of it and I was so disappointed!

BH: So he just sold it because of that?!

BS: Yeah. But he seemed really bothered by seeing it again. Which was kind of funny.

BH: When did you sell it?

BS: I sold it a few months after that. I guess he put that energy back into the air again, and I sold it to a private collector.

BH: Well, at least it’s now found a home!


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