The undead clown leans slightly to his right as he peers across the room at you from his perch in the electric chair.
Clad in tattered jeans, red Chuck Taylors, a red and yellow striped shirt and green vest, the gangly creature looks as if he might leap from the chair of death at any moment and grab you by the throat. He also wears a pair of vintage Mickey Mouse ears.
Such is how it is in the home of Jeff Gaither, for whom every day is Halloween, it seems. The well-traveled artist grew up on movie monsters, true crime and horror fiction, and he has carried that obsession well into his adulthood. In fact, he’s built a life around it.
By day, he works as an art director, but he spends most of his waking hours creating images that to some would be best described as “disturbing.” Or perhaps “insane.” But it’s also art, and horrific images inspire him. He shows off a sculpture he is working on, which is just across the room from some skateboard projects he’s finishing. A pencil-sketched poster for Bloody Gore Comics sits in mid-creation on a drawing table just a few feet away, where his wife Stacey makes jewelry — using art Gaither has created.
And while gruesome images fill every nook and cranny of his South End house, Gaither begins a conversation with a story that makes him giggle: At a recent convention, he was approached by a young boy, maybe 11 or 12 years old, whose skateboard had just been stolen. He was a fan of Gaither’s work, and fell in love with one of the boards Gaither had for sale in his booth.
“I told him, ‘If you can guess my middle name, it’s yours,’” Gaither recalls. So the kid, whose dad was by his side, went around the convention, trying to find someone, anyone, who had that information. After hours, he finally came back with a correct answer. As promised, Gaither gave him the board — not that he wouldn’t have anyway, but part of the fun was in the game.
“I tortured that kid,” Gaither says, beaming.
Gaither comes across as any other guy — a guy who probably has played in a band or two, probably still does, and maybe has delivered a few pizzas in his day. But there’s a lot more bubbling under the surface. For one, he usually wears black. It isn’t a statement, just a personal choice.
But there is something else bubbling just under the surface. Visit Gaither’s website (jeffgaither.com), which features any number of his works of art for display and sale, click on “About the Author,” and the first words you read are, “Serial killers are BORN … not made.”
That’s not bad marketing, that’s just blunt honesty. The man is a walking history book of serial killers and serial killer culture, and he loves talking about his correspondences with John Wayne Gacy, who saw an ad for Gaither’s art and reached out to him. Gaither wrote to Gacy for about five years, exchanging art and ideas — Gacy even invited him for a visit to the prison where he is held (Gaither didn’t go).
Gaither is a guy who owns a chunk from Ed Gein’s headstone — Gein, you may know, was a legendary murderer who also stole corpses and created, shall we say, “keepsakes” using body parts. He was an inspiration for such film killers as Leatherface from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Norman Bates from “Psycho” and Buffalo Bill from “Silence of the Lambs.”
Gaither has corresponded with Richard Ramirez (aka “the Night Stalker”), Charles Manson, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz and others. He enjoys learning what makes them tick. He enjoys the artwork they send him and connecting with them in a personal way.
“When I wrote to the ‘Night Stalker,’ he wasn’t really drawing anymore,” Gaither says. But Gaither kept after him, and Ramirez finally complied. “He did a Daffy Duck drawing for me, which I still have.”
But sometimes making that personal connection doesn’t work out so well: “One of his victims, he cut their eyes out and they never did find them,” Gaither says. “I asked him what he did with the eyes, and he didn’t respond to that.”
It was worth a shot.
THE ART OF DEATH
But enough about morbidity in correspondence — it’s Gaither’s art that defines him. He’s drawn album covers for bands like the Misfits and Guns N’ Roses, not to mention The Murder Junkies, Testament, The Undead and plenty more.
You know that series of Forecastle posters featuring aquatic themes? That was Gaither’s too. In fact, he created every Forecastle poster up until 2012, leaving the fold only after a falling out with management of the wildly popular festival. In fact, Forecastle is how he met Stacey, who also was on the Forecastle team for a number of years.
He won’t talk on the record about exactly why he decided to leave what was one of his best-paying gigs, saying only that he loved the experience, loved the people he met, and that, “We had a disagreement on how things were being done. I just wasn’t going to put up with it no more.”
At its best, Gaither’s art conjures an almost cartoon terror, something that might appeal to the inner fears of one person and the inner 8-year-old of another. Here’s an example: Kids who grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s remember the little plastic figures called Rat Finks. Vintage Rat Finks are everywhere to be found in Gaither’s home, from the figures themselves to artwork and other tributes.
That’s no accident. For several years, Gaither worked with the creator of the Rat Fink, an artist named Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, whose name is synonymous with California hot rod culture of the 1960s, along with the imagery that helped define it. It is a style that depicts grotesque caricatures of creatures both real and imagined, and one that has been carried on by countless artists and cartoonists since, including Gaither.
Roth was also a custom car designer, which obviously helped him gain a foothold with his art in the movement. Gaither learned plenty from him while creating images for Roth’s brand (including a semi-gruesome pen-and-ink drawing of a Rat Fink playing a Rat Fink guitar).
But artistic style aside, Gaither’s obsession with horror and the macabre is something the artist generally credits to his mother, LaDonna, and his Aunt Linda. Both were avid artists, be it sketching, painting or theater. And Linda was the one who bought a very young Gaither copies of “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” a popular movie monster fan magazine, and took him to see movies such as “The Exorcist” and “Night of the Living Dead.”
Not long after, Gaither began reading true crime books, which helped develop his obsession with serial killers.
Browse his website and look into his artwork, and one can see a cross section of the cartoon-meets-grotesque influence of Roth and images that are genuinely shocking. For every toothy, grinning, mohawked monster, there is a murderous clown or a deformed infant. In particular, some of the pen-and-ink work is straightforward horror, leaving the cartoon-y element out altogether.
His clientele appreciates the balance Gaither shows, as he seemingly brings elements of his personality into his works, perhaps based on mood or perhaps based on context. Some of the quotes on Gaither’s website are priceless.
“Rude, raw, and in your face,” is how Boo Gruesome of the Horrifics describes Gaither’s art. “Like an ‘80s splatter flick all hopped up on goof balls, Jeff Gaither’s artwork wreaks of pure hallucinogenic violence.”
“Not since Dr. Frankenstein,” writes Jerry Only of the Misfits, “has someone so masterfully stitched rotting human flesh.”
In other words, some of this artwork makes AMC’s “The Walking Dead” look like a Disney flick.
One of the best things about talking with Gaither is his openness. He’s a guy who is never hesitant to tell you how he sees it, and sometimes his opinions can be unforgiving. For instance, when asked if the décor of his home becomes off-putting to certain people, he said, “We’ve had a family member [leave].”
He looks around and continues, “Most people would not get this. But for me to walk into a house, and it’s all just white walls … how in the hell can you live in a house that’s just so fucking boring?”
He continues, “I’m sure if you went into any artist’s home, especially underground [artists], all our houses would be pretty close to this. It’s an eclectic bunch of people.”
Interestingly, while Gaither is quick with a viewpoint or a story, he claims Stacey is the one who does most of the talking when he’s at conventions or when someone asks about his art. He’s done posters, he’s done sculptures. He’s done pieces that are now in museums. But he doesn’t show you his resume or portfolio. Why? Because he’d rather make more art than brag about what he’s already made.
“Even now, I don’t really think of myself as a great artist,” Gaither says. “I think I’m good at what I do, but I don’t brag on myself at all. I’m very low key on that.”
Asked what he might be talking about, besides his art, if he’s hanging out with Stacey or a trusted friend, and Gaither says, “Bands. Serial killers. Current events. Politics. Shit that’s going on in Serbia. How Russia’s affecting stuff. Conspiracy theories. Cryptozoology. Anything really weird.”
He trails off, and then snaps back to life with, “Oh! And horror films, obviously. And toys. That goes without saying, since I collect all kinds of stuff.”
Boy, does he ever. Never mind the house of horrors, there are also plenty of vintage toys, movie props and autographed photographs of people he’s met and worked with. For instance, the original cast of “Dawn of the Dead” is a big hit at horror fan conventions; when they pass through Louisville, they stay at the Gaither household rather than splurge on a hotel. Sometimes they get into costume while there as well.
“I’ve had zombies eating breakfast in my kitchen,” Gaither says with a smile.
And if you’re familiar with the aforementioned band the Murder Junkies, you’ve already guessed that Gaither is a fan. He’s also a friend. Gaither knew the late frontman GG Allin, who was known for his outlandish and macabre stage antics, and Gaither is still in touch with the reformed version of the band.
“That was one of our first dates,” Stacey recalls. “We went to see the Murder Junkies. I was like, ‘Oh, my god. I’m really marrying this guy?’”
Fittingly, Gaither says he usually works in the middle of the night. Night time is the right time, it would seem. He also says he does his best work when he’s left to his own devices, with little to no direction. Sure, he’s happy to try and capture a client’s vision, but he does his best work alone.
And then there are times when the inspiration doesn’t come; Gaither battles anxiety issues, and when he’s feeling anxious, creativity is often difficult to find. But truth be told, he probably doesn’t come by his obsession with killers, his often-macabre artistic style or his anxiety by accident.
As noted, Gaither puts it all on the table, and never shies away from a story. As part of describing how he grew up around movie monsters, horror fiction and true crime, he tells the story of his stepfather, and the man’s divorce from his mother.
Gaither was 11 or 12, about the same age as the kid to whom he gave the skateboard, when his stepfather came to visit him one day. Gaither was under the impression his stepdad was going to pick him up to take him out so they could do something fun.
“He opened the car door, and I saw him pull out a shovel,” Gaither says, before talking about how his stepfather proceeded to force his way into the house and beat LaDonna and Linda mercilessly.
“There was blood all over the house,” Gaither recalls, although he doesn’t remember the scene in great detail. “I’ve kind of blocked it out.”
Sadly, his Aunt Linda died a few weeks later of a brain aneurysm after developing extreme headaches and ringing in her ears following the gruesome attack.
“She never had any problems before that,” Gaither says. “He killed her, basically.”
Gaither’s stepfather got five years of probation for the crimes.
“It is sort of weird that I am into serial killers after something like that,” Gaither admits with an almost audible shrug. “That could lead to my weird fascination with serial killers, too, I guess.”
‘ART SAVED MY LIFE’
But make no mistake, this isn’t a man who endorses violent behavior; he is merely fascinated by it and what motivates these people to commit such terrible crimes and in such systematic ways. There’s perhaps a thin line there, but one Gaither seems to take very seriously.
“It’s sort of fucked up I had that experience with my mom, then I turn around and write to serial killers,” Gaither says. “I can talk to people like that as long as they didn’t do anything to anybody I know. If they did something to someone I know, I’d want to kill them.”
But the obsession continues unabated; he’s a full-on serial killer historian, in a way. He’s involved with an annual convention called Dark History that focuses on true crime fiction and art. He is part of a documentary by John Borowski called “Serial Killer Culture,” which explores the fascination people like Gaither have with serial killer history.
Gaither’s experiences didn’t immediately manifest themselves in his focus on art. He admits he let some of his anxiety get the better of him when he was a younger man. As he puts it, “I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have done. I finally decided, ‘This is not the way to go.’”
So, I ask him why — after watching the brutal attack on his family and becoming so obsessed with such a violent culture — he never became a serial killer himself.
He doesn’t hesitate.
“Art,” he says. “I take all my aggression out in art. I think art is basically — and I’ve said this before — art has saved my life.”
Perhaps it has saved a few others as well.