Jeff Gaither is an internationally renowned underground artist who's celebrated for his unique and morbid horror-rock style. Over the past 30 years, he's designed artwork for bands like the Misfits, Guns N' Roses, Van Halen, Insane Clown Posse, and GG Allin, including over 400 album covers. A lifelong native of Louisville, Kentucky, he's been labeled "the artist for the criminally insane" due to his grotesque and freakish cartoons, which resemble polished versions of the sketches you'd find in the notebook of the most disturbed metalhead at any high school in America.
He got his start submitting artwork to fanzines in the 1980s before building his reputation by working for Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, the cartoonist and custom car fanatic behind the famous Rat Fink character that's the de facto mascot for the Kustom Kulture hot rod community. Gaither later got into designing for punk and metal acts, providing the visual complement to the trashy, zero-fucks-given sensibilities of bands with names like the Strap-Ons and Agoraphobic Nosebleed.
Today, Gaither is known as a big figure in the world of murderabilia—the hobby of collecting serial killer artifacts—as he spent years exchanging letters and art with gruesome legends like John Wayne Gacy and Richard Ramirez. Just in time for Halloween season, the 55-year-old hopped on the phone with VICE to talk about his work and legacy.
VICE: How would you describe your art?
Jeff Gaither: Most of it is ugly art. I can do normal-looking stuff; I just prefer to do more brutal-looking stuff, though some people think its funny-looking. Some people are sort of freaked out by my art and I get a kick out of it because it's just an illusion. It's just art. They are repulsed by it though. I consider my art ugly and it's not an insult, it's just not pretty art. I've had people ask me if I can do portraits, and I'm like, Yeah, if they've been hit by a car.
When did you get into illustration?
I drew when I was a kid. Everybody has a baby book with drawings in it, and I still have mine. I drew a lot as a teenager. I drew all the time. I'm a self-taught artist basically. What really got me into art was my mom and my aunt. My mom was in the actors studio in Louisville and she was really into art plus she liked horror stuff. My aunt was the same way. She used to bring me monster magazines. The combination of that and me liking comic books led to me drawing all the time.
You mentioned getting into some trouble as a kid. How did that affect your artwork?
I got involved in things I shouldn't have gotten involved in during high school and kind of got off track a little with drugs and stuff. But I still drew a little—I used to draw and trade the work for drugs. But one time I did a bunch of mind-altering drugs while drinking and smoking at the same time. When everyone else came down, I didn't. I stayed tripping for like a month. My brain just clicked and I was on a trip for a long time. It was a bad trip. When I finally came back around to reality I stopped hanging around all the people I was hanging around and I stopped doing drugs, quit smoking pot, quite smoking cigarettes, quit drinking. I didn't hang around anyone. All I did was draw.
I know it sounds sort of stupid because you hear artists say this all the time, but in my case art really saved me. During those years I drew a lot. I mean a lot. That's what I did all the time. Period. I dropped out of school and I just drew all of the fucking time.
When did you start seeing art as a viable career choice?
My own art started developing at the same time that I got into fanzines. The fanzines kind of went with rock 'n' roll and punk. I would see these fanzines at comic book shops and I would buy them and there would always be ads in the back for other fanzines. I would send the artwork out to all the fanzines and I would tell them if they put my address and advertised my artwork they could use one or two of my drawings. Eventually I was doing 50 or 60 of these a week.
A lot of times I was doing it for free or for fun or for drugs or to get chicks or whatever. I never really thought I could make money off it. It was like more for fun. But eventually people started writing me and asking me, How much would you do this for? How much to draw that? It was just a little bit, but after a couple of years I got to a point where I wouldn't do free work anymore.
When did your career really start taking off?
A lot of people know me because I've been in thousands of fanzines. Then after that I did mini-comics, little bitty comics that are only eight pages. I'm like the godfather of mini-comics. I sold them for like a quarter and people now sell them on eBay for like 40 bucks and collect them.
Maybe when I started working with [Ed "Big Daddy"] Roth on the Rat Fink stuff. I was working with this guy RK Sloan on the album cover for the Accused's Martha Splatterhead's Maddest Stories Ever Told . Sloan hooked it up so I could send Roth photocopies of my work, which surprising cause I thought the guy behind Rat Fink was dead or something! I collected Roth's stickers as a kid. One day he called and said, "Gaither would you like to work for me?"and I about fell over. It was like a dream come true.
"I've had people ask me if I can do portraits, and I'm like, 'Yeah, if they've been hit by a car.'" —Jeff Gaither
Can you tell me about making all those album covers?
I've done over 400 album covers. For bands from all over the world—a lot of them are crazy bands. A lot of bands that people never heard of. They would contact me through my website, through word of mouth, or from my fanzine days.
I've done tour shirts for Van Halen and merch stuff. The same with Guns N' Roses, Stone Temple Pilots, Insane Clown Posse, Testament, the Misfits... the list goes on and on. For most of the big bands it was just T-shirt designs and other merchandise. This was like my rock star years, getting backstage, going to the shows and meeting the bands I was doing designs for.
When did you get into writing serial killers and collecting murderabilia?
I was doing work for Screw, which was like a nationwide tabloid. John Wayne Gacy saw my work and started writing me. I had always read tons and tons of books on true crime and I never really thought about writing to [convicts]. I ended up writing him for five years. He hooked me up with other serial killers like Richard Ramirez, Charles Manson, the Son of Sam, Henry Lee Lucas—quite a few. It was a kick to write to people that murdered people. A lot of people who write to serial killers say its because they're interesting or they want to find out why they did it or what made them do it. I'm just interested in them because they killed people. I collected their letters and artwork and started trading with other collectors. It's my hobby.
I like horror. I like real horror and I like fake horror, but I can divide the two of them. I have an evil side to me; I just know how to contain it. But it comes out in my artwork. Maybe I would be one of those people if not for my artwork. I'm 55 years old now. People ask me when I'm going to retire and I tell them never. I am going to draw and paint until the day I'm dead.
To learn more about Jeff Gaither visit his website here.