Charles Beau Hoffacker: Homicide Detective by Night, Artist by Day
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Charlie Hoffacker straddles the worlds of murder and art to make us all think just a little bit deeper about what goes on around us every single day.
For many of us, our only experience with murder — knock on wood — is through movies or episodes of Law & Order. For Charles Beau Hoffacker, murder drips into every crease of his life either via blood or paint.
Hoffacker is a New Orleans homicide detective. From 3 p.m. until midnight, he works homicides across the city. But almost every morning, you can find him at his studio at home, painting. His artwork ranges from comical depictions of political heads of state to AK-47s draped in Mardi Gras beads to a mosaic portrait of a well-known gangster that he created using thousands of bullet casings.
“I don’t think I would be as passionate about my art as I am, if I was not a policeman,” says Hoffacker in his self-reflective way. “I wouldn’t have the ideas, I wouldn’t have the passion, I wouldn’t have the pain.”
If it sounds dark, that’s because it is. But the man behind the art is not what you would expect.
“I go see young black men torn apart by gun violence every day in New Orleans,” he says. “I offset that by coming home, clearing my head and painting.” Despite a recent drop, New Orleans still has one of the highest murder rates in the country with the 2013 rate of 42 people killed per 100,000 residents, more than eight times the national average. Ninety-one percent of the murder victims from the past two years have been black.
His art is a form of therapy. Sometimes he paints murder scenes, although he keeps those private. Once after working on a still unsolved crime of an elderly, handicapped man brutally slashed to death, he went out and bought a replica of the murder weapon. He used it in lieu of a paintbrush to paint a sharp and haunting version of the victim’s body.
If it sounds dark, that’s because it is. But the man behind the art is not what you would expect. Hoffacker, 32, radiates an earnest joy and is one of those friendly people who constantly apologizes for everything. His sweetness makes you want to scold him for being too nice, and warn him to be a little bit more cynical — until you remember what he does for a living.
“We see horrible things every day. We see death and poverty and lack of resources, all these things that kind of fuel his creativity,” says Rob Barrere, a fellow homicide detective who has known Hoffacker for seven years. He and other police officers often stop by Hoffacker’s art shows to support his work.
He paints with colors but lives in the gray. Hoffacker’s conflicted emotions about being a police officer are plain, but Barrere says he is particularly good at comforting victims’ families. Once, he donated a charcoal portrait of a victim to the victim’s family, so they could auction it off and raise the Crimestoppers reward to find his suspected murderer. At the same time, Hoffacker feels pity for the people he locks up; in a way, that action also takes away a life.
He collected some 14,000 bullet casings, and spent 45 hours gluing them into a mosaic of a mug shot.
Hoffacker grew up in a small town in New Mexico, where he and his younger sister were raised mostly by his grandparents after his parents’ divorce. Their mother was in and out of rehab and jail. He and his sister lived in New Orleans briefly when their mother was clean, but when she relapsed, Hoffacker returned to New Mexico to attend college. At 19, he dropped out and returned to NOLA, joining the police force three years later.
“I grew up hating the police,” says Hoffacker, explaining he felt like they were constantly trying to take his mother away. When he joined the force in 2004, he thought he would try to change the system from within. He worked as a sniper for the SWAT team until November 2011, when he switched to homicide. It was then that he began taking art classes at Delgado Community College.
While a sniper at NOPD, Hoffacker met Telly Hankton, a convicted murderer known as New Orleans’ most dangerous criminal, who would eventually become the subject of Hoffacker’s most well-known piece. When they met, Hoffacker found the gang leader shockingly personable. He’s now locked up for life, but his crimes have left their mark. Hankton is a “ghost on the streets,” says Hoffacker, who wanted to honor the NOPD’s time and dedication in catching a man who had gunned down multiple victims.
The artist collected approximately 14,000 bullet casings used by NOLA police in practice, and spent 45 hours gluing them into a mosaic depicting Hankton’s mug shot. Pictures don’t do the work justice: It is impressive in its size and detail, weighing in at 250 pounds and measuring 5 feet by 4 feet. He used oxidization and polish to create the colors, and called the piece Ghost of Telly Hankton.
The $7,000 artwork, prominently displayed in Pauline Patterson’s gallery and bar Treo, has caused controversy in the city. Many people think Hoffacker is glorifying Hankton. Local radio host Denny Schaffer spent part of his show debating whether the artwork was out of line. “This seems ridiculous for a guy who used to shoot his victims in the face!” writes Schaffer on Facebook.
At first, Hoffacker was wounded by the criticism. His former art professor and mentor Holis Hannan says Hoffacker called her, upset, saying he didn’t want to make art anymore. “I’m like ’Whoa, whoa. Just like you can’t save everyone on the force, you can’t please everyone with your art’,” she says. ”Honey, just embrace it.”
I want people to be annoyed by my artwork.
— Charlie Hoffacker
And he did. ”It is opening up dialogue to talk about it, which is exactly what I wanted, so I shouldn’t be upset,” says Hoffacker. “I want to make people think, and in the end, the way you feel about a piece of art is the way you feel. I can’t argue with you.”
Hannan says in the past three years she’s seen Hoffacker’s art improve leaps and bounds, pointing to his hard work and ability to soak up advice like a sponge. “His devotion to painting is unbelievable,” she says, adding that his work has moved away from the flat graphic quality of his first art to his more “painterly” recent work.
He’s currently working on a series where he photographs homeless people, buys their signs from them, and paints their portraits on the signs using oil, typically a medium ”reserved for the rich and powerful.” He plans to donate half of the proceeds to a homeless shelter. His series depicting AK-47s draped in Mardi Gras beads is already getting requests from buyers, as well as drawing criticism.
One man called Hoffacker and said the beaded gun paintings offended him because they taint a tradition in New Orleans and say something bad about his beloved city.
“I want people to be annoyed by my artwork,” Hoffacker says. He adds, ”Does this bother you? Good. You shouldn’t look at a murder scene and like it. This is a problem that we have. I want you to get angry enough to change it. We live in a very violent city. To not make art about it is just to stand idly by.”
Update on 6/6/14: Hoffacker is currently under internal investigation by the NOPD, accused of violating the department’s rules governing professionalism. The Times-Picayune reports that at the end of a very violent Memorial Day weekend, Hoffacker touched a victim’s blood looking for bullet fragments at a murder scene. When he went to wipe his hands off on the sidewalk, he allegedly started writing the word “Help.” His attorney, Eric Hessler cites the conduct as an “isolated incident” which is “purely attributable to stress and to that particular weekend.”
Photographs by Lorena O’Neil