And last week’s news brought us the fact that serial killer Todd Kohlhepp was moved to solitary confinement after an autographed hand tracing of his showed up for sale on the killer-art market. After an investigation by the South Carolina Department of Corrections, the artifact was removed from sale.
According to South Carolina criminal code, inmates are not allowed to profit from their crimes. Because of this infraction, all of his mail was temporarily suspended and will be monitored more closely in the future.
The murderabilia seller in question, however, is still listing similar hand tracings by other murderers.
From serial killer John Wayne Gacy‘s infamous clown paintings to the “Ode to the Sea” exhibition created by eight prisoners housed at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba currently on exhibit in New York City, so-called “criminal art” is becoming more popular around the world.
And artworks created by famous criminals have become big business. In Psychology Today, Scott Bonn writes, “Imprisoned killers have time on their hands, and some have turned to painting as a way to express themselves, explore their creativity, and even make money (although this has significant legal restrictions). People on the outside serve as the prisoners’ sales agents, and it is they who generally reap the financial rewards for selling the merchandise to the public.”Ronnie and Reggie Kray of London’s notorious Kray twins ran a violent gang called “the Firm” during the 1960s. Two paintings made by the brothers, who have both died, sold for over $2,000 when they were auctioned in London.
“Purchasing an item of murderabilia also provides an adrenaline rush for collectors similar to that produced by monster movies, roller-coaster rides, or even natural disasters. In other words, there is a visceral appeal attached to the artifacts of murder,” Bonn writes.
Michael Gordon Peterson, also known as Charles Salvador, who took the name Charles Bronson, has been convicted of armed robbery, wounding, wounding with intent, criminal damage, grievous bodily harm, false imprisonment, blackmail, and threatening to kill. He is also a prolific artist who has won multiple Koestler Trust Awards for his art and poetry — and one of his pieces was controversially displayed on the London underground at the Angel tube station for two weeks.
Australian criminal Mark “Chopper” Read was a thief and kidnapper who shot a man outside a nightclub in 1987. After he was released from prison in the 1990s, he became a prolific artist who won numerous awards.
The issue is complicated by the fact that some of the most famous artists in history have also been criminals. This includes Italian master Caravaggio, who killed a man in a brawl in 1606.
Egon Scheile, an Austrian artist who was arrested for allegedly having sex with a teenage girl in 1912, made The Guardian’s list of top 10 notable criminal artists.
Olive Wharry, an early 20th-century suffragette who was sent to prison after she burned down the tea house at Kew Gardens and became known for her haunting watercolor paintings, also made the list.Another is Victorian artist Richard Dadd, who stabbed his father to death and spent the rest of his life in prisons, where he painted beautiful fairy-tale themed art.
Even some modern and mainstream artists have criminal records: Street artist Shepard Fairey was prosecuted by the Boston police for damaging property, which resulted in him being hit with a probationary sentence.
Some experts believe that convicts should be allowed to create art as part of their rehabilitation.
Jorge Cueto is a former convict who started a company selling leather goods tattooed by prisoners in Mexican jails, called Prison Art. He provides jobs for those formerly incarcerated and gives inmates a way to raise money for their families.
The Art by Offenders show, which recently finished a run at London’s Southbank Centre, was organized by the Koestler Trust, a charity that awards convicts with small cash prizes and a cut of any work sold. But opponents argue that offenders should not be allowed to profit from their crimes.
After The Times of London revealed that an origami sculpture purchased by London’s Royal Festival Hall for display in the lobby was the work of the convicted sex murderer Colin Pitchfork, the families of his victims objected and the work was removed from display.
Another concern is that rather than being a therapeutic outlet, that creating art just gives the artist a way to relive his crimes, such as when Dennis Nilsen drew pictures of body parts and corpses. Similarly, Gacy’s paintings of himself as Pogo the clown serve to glamorize and preserve his legend, ensuring that he is not forgotten.
Forensic Outreach quotes talented artist, as well as murderer, necrophile, and cannibal, Nicolas Claux, comparing the roles murder and art play in his life:
“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.”
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Main photo: A painting by Charles Salvador (a.k.a. Charles Bronson) [BBC Three Counties / YouTube (screenshot)]