John Wayne Gacy: The 'Killer Clown' and His Paintings

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Within this essay discusses the paintings produced by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy is his morality presented within his work and should the aesthetic value of his work be affected by his morality. In this essay the work of Gacy that will be referenced in particular is his paintings that feature Pogo the Clown, his child entertainer persona. Also why is it that people that buy his work and even commission Gacy to create work for them? Why is it that these collectors are supporting a man with a incredibly dark background? Do they ignore the morals associated with Gacy or is it due to his morality that they buy and collect his work? A brief look into Gacy’s background and the events leading up to his death row sentence is explained to give context as to what kind of person he was and how this reflects in his work.    

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The serial killer John Wayne Gacy or the ‘Killer Clown’ gained a cult following through the paintings he produced during his time in Death Row from 1980 to 1994 the year in which he was executed. He was convicted for the murder of 33 boys and young men between the years of 1972 to 1978. He buried his victims in the crawl space underneath his house after he was finished torturing and sexual abusing them. What was it that influenced Gacy to become such a monstrous being? His childhood was regular with exception of the relationship he had with his father John Wayne Gacy Sr. He was an alcoholic who would beat and verbally abuse his children. Despite this horrible treatment Gacy still tried to gain his father’s love, attention and approval but he failed to do so due to his father’s death in 1965 on Christmas Day.    

Gacy seemed to be affected by this upbringing, he would suffer from alienation in school due to a heart condition. Later in his life he moved to Chicago where he attended a business college. There Gacy learned that he was a natural salesman, with his silver tongue he could talk his way out of any situation. After working his way up into a management position Gacy married into a wealthy family. His father-in-Law offered him a management position in their family owned chicken restaurant business. He quickly became a loveable and well-known member of the community, he seemed to be your average Joe until the year 1968. Gacy was given his first felony charge and was arrested for forcing a young male employee of his into sexual acts. This came as a shock to his family and community but especially for his wife and two kids. Gacy pleaded guilty and his wife divorced him after his sentence.    

After Gacy served his time he moved back to Chicago in 1971 where he remarried a divorced women and work as a construction contractor. He was considered a sharp businessman as he cut costs by employing young high school students to work for him. He gained popularity amongst the community by hosting street parties and entertaining children in local hospitals dressed in his alter ego Pogo the Clown.    

In 1978 Gacy became a person of interest for the local police due to when a teenage boy went missing and was last seen with him. Police were shocked to find Gacy’s previous conviction. The police then searched Gacy’s house only to find a rancid smell with which they shrugged off as a sewage leak. They then went through the evidence they collected only to find that Gacy had a ring belonging to a boy that was missing for a year already. The police went back to Gacy’s house where he confessed and gave the location of all his victims graves scattered underneath his house that he dug. Gacy then explained to the police that there were four versions of himself, ’John the Constructor, John the Clown (Pogo the Clown), John the Politician and Jack Hanley’. Gacy described, ‘Jack Hanley’ as the one who did evil things, he was a killer. In 1980 Gacy tired pleading insanity during his trial but this didn’t work in his favour, he was found guilty for the murders and given a death sentence. He spent the last of his 14 years in death row.    

During his time in Death Row, Gacy created paintings that have a simple, childlike quality to them. He mainly painted his alter ego Pogo the Clown in which Gacy would dawn this personality during his time as a clown entertainer for kids. He creates his oil paintings with the same ideology he had when entertaining kids and that is,’ to bring joy to people’s lives’, which is quite chilling to think of such an innocent phrase to come from an extremely dangerous killer that has a form of schizophrenia.    

Two businessmen Wally Knoebel and Joe Roth began buying Gacy’s work in order to give them to the families of his victims, so that they could burn them in an attempt to get some form of revenge on the killer for the unimaginable amount of suffering that he had caused to them. Gacy’s work began to rise in prices when the time of serial killer and murder documentaries became popular amongst the public. This created a rise in the collection of ‘muderbilia’, works that were created by dangerous criminals. With people becoming more familiar with the serial killer genre they have lost the fear associated with owning a piece of muderbilia. The painting ‘Pogo the Clown’ started at a bid of $20,000 which had risen quite a lot considering when Gacy first started selling his work at a starting rate of $300.    

The fascination in Gacy’s work comes from the darkness hidden within his clown paintings. He paints his alter ego Pogo the Clown as a happy and pleasant clown who just wants to keep children entertained and happy, but underneath this brightly dressed and happy clown mask is a dark sadistic man who wants to turn his sexual fantasies into reality. This hidden darkness creates a fear factor in which attracts viewers to his work.    

Within his paintings of Pogo the Clown, there are some signs in which Gacy tries to hide what his true nature is. Is he trying to escape from his other ego ‘Jack Hanley’, the evil version of himself? Is Gacy trying to use Pogo the Clown as a way depict how he truly wants to be, as someone that entertains and brings joy to people? In some of the paintings he places Pogo in a natural scene with pine trees and a blue sky in the background, while his character is painted non-natural colours such as blues, reds, purples etc. This combination of a vibrant clown in the wilderness is a bit surreal and in some ways unsettling. He also tries to hide his sexual deviant side by depicting Pogo from the waist up. He uses a reoccurring pose in which his left hand is raised in a Christ like pose suggesting that he thought of himself as non- human seeking some form of recognition. That recognition could possibly still be the love or respect of his abusive father.    

Can Gacy’s work have any aesthetic values that attracts viewers alone or is it the morbid fascination, that fear factor behind the work that attracts viewers. Much of his work is simplistic and childlike with a heavy use of primary colours. His work shows a lack of formal training and due to this can be considered some form of outsider art which can be appreciated aesthetically for it simple manner if categorized as that type of art but it is the fact that it is the work of the serial John Wayne Gacy that sells his work not his style but the glorification of serial killers during this time of ever-growing fascination of morbid artefacts. Collectors believe they can gain an understanding of the killer by owning his work and looking deeply into and analysing the work. It’s the taboo aesthetic that causes people to collect this ‘muderbilia’, the shock value and controversy surrounding owning these objects with a darkness lingering within them.    

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In conclusion the aesthetic value of John Wayne Gacy’s work is affected by his morality. It is not his artistic ‘skills’ as an outsider artist that causes his work to be popular or even aesthetically pleasant, it is the controversy that surrounds his work. His name alone is what causes his work to sell at such outlandish prices. It is the collectors of ‘muderbilia’ that purchase his work based on associating Gacy’s own morality with his work rather than appreciating it for whatever aesthetic value his work may have. The idea of reaching into the mind of a killer buy owning basically, a piece of him. Is his morality evident in his work? Yes, although he attempts to hide his insidious side by trying to ’bring joy to’ viewers with his creepy friendly clown alter ego, you can’t help linking his past to what this man really was with the heinous crimes that he committed and that does have influence on his work when evaluating it.   

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Dr. Oliver Johnson

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John Wayne Gacy: The ‘Killer Clown’ And His Paintings. (2022, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 2, 2023, from
“John Wayne Gacy: The ‘Killer Clown’ And His Paintings.” GradesFixer, 11 Apr. 2022,
John Wayne Gacy: The ‘Killer Clown’ And His Paintings. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 Oct. 2023].
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