Serial killers have breathed new life into David Johnson's sculpting career, and the Denver-based artist is somewhat ashamed.
But he is also unapologetic.
A year ago, Johnson says he was an artist struggling to sell his more conventional sculptures. But when he started making a line of action figures that included infamous serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy and began selling them over the Internet, his career took off.
"Yeah, it's a pretty shameful thing to do," Johnson said. "I'm making money off these grisly murders. But these guys were shameful long before I got ahold of them. I see them on [channels such as] A&E, Discovery every other day. People write books about them all the time and are making money off them."
Johnson knows the profit his serial killer action figures are generating is blood money, but he is not letting that stop him. His success reflects the popularity of "murderabilia" — memorabilia linked to notorious murderers, serial killers and murder cases. His action figures, which he sells from his own Web site, are in such high demand that he had to put a message on his site warning customers to expect the delivery of their orders to take four to five weeks.
Distasteful, Maybe Immoral … But Legal
Critics of Johnson and other purveyors and manufacturers murderabilia find their work repulsive and immoral — but it is not illegal. Victims' advocates are fighting for legislation to prevent murderabilia aficionados from making profits off crimes and tragedies such as the Columbine High School shooting and the Sept. 11 attacks.
California and Texas have adopted laws similar to "The Son of Sam" legislation that prevents criminals and third parties from profiting from the artwork, writings, and mementos of criminals. California was the first state to prohibit anyone from selling goods once owned or made by criminals. In Texas, murderabilia sale is not illegal, but proceeds go towards compensation funds for the families of crime victims.
Still, victim advocates admit they can do little to combat Johnson and others like him. Murderabilia laws do not cover manufactured items, and manufacturers are protected by their right to free enterprise and freedom of speech.
"As distasteful and revolting as some of these things are, the laws in Texas and California do not extend to manufactured items," said Andy Kahan of the Houston Crime Victims Assistance Division. "We've looked into extending the laws but have concluded that they just would not hold up in court. It would just be a waste of time."
Kahan was instrumental in getting Texas' "Son of Sam" murderabilia law passed in September 2001. He began his campaign against murderabilia in the fall of 1999 when he typed in "serial killer" at an auction site and found that he could purchase or bid on several mementos tied to history's most notorious killers. Kahan says he has been able to purchase anything on the Internet from a killer's clipped toenails to a Jeffrey Dahmer doll that had "Eat Me" written on it.
When Kahan came across Johnson's serial killer action figures as part of his research, he was not too surprised. He bought the figures, and they provided a visual aid at a victims' advocate conference in Colorado where he called on officials there to adopt murderabilia legislation similar to California and Texas.