Jason Van Hoose, while sitting inside his cluttered, hot studio on Youngstown's West Side, said that he has Jim Traficant to thank for keeping him in paint and rent money through the last nine years.
His strange, cartoonish paintings of Traficant, which he started for a group of friends just as Traficant's indictments were coming in, can be seen hanging in bars, tattoo parlors and offices throughout the Mahoning Valley.
He's painted Traficant as a Catholic martyr, riding in a UFO as aliens blow trumpets behind his toupee, or angrily smoking a stick of dynamite.
Jim Traficant is depicted as an explosive iconic personality in this Jason Van Hoose artwork. Van Hoose said his paintings are meant to show both the good and bad of the man he calls a hero for the Mahoning Valley when it needed one.
"They've been so popular," Van Hoose said, pulling up his religious icon painting of Traficant on his computer. "I have to give him credit for keeping me from being a starving artist."
If former U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant's antics and strange speeches on the floor of Congress ever seemed larger-than-life, he was doing half the work for artists, writers and directors who wanted to spring something strange on their audience. Though not a national cultural icon, Traficant has been intriguing for artists familiar with Youngstown's history.
"This was real history of the Valley as opposed to stuff you heard at the bar or around the dinner table," Warren-born director Eric Murphy said. "I was just totally infatuated with this Traficant character. He was present all the time on television and I was starting to understand the dichotomy of this guy ... (and how) holding up both facades really wore him down."
Murphy, as part of a film school project, directed "Steel Valley," a short film loosely - he wants to be clear on that - loosely based on U.S. Rep. Timothy J. Ryan's, D-Niles, run for the Ohio Senate in 2000, for which Murphy was a volunteer.
"I don't want to say that we put Traficant on the screen. We just used the essence of a very powerful guy. ... We took a lot of liberties," Murphy said.
But he draws that back to watching Traficant's trial unfold and wondering how the charismatic and popular Traficant could be the same person accused of corruption and racketeering.
Murphy cast "Married With Children" star and Youngstown native Ed O'Neill to play Congressman Cardone, a character inspired by Traficant, who, when the short premiered in 2005, was well into his prison sentence.
"Ed brings a lot of the same qualities Traficant has, charisma and a commanding presence," Murphy said, talking about how O'Neill would give him pointers of how Valley politicians from Traficant's generation would have talked and acted.
The Cardone character showed the rift between John Brennan, the younger politician, and the older Youngstown establishment, Murphy said.
Cardone is a populist and a likable person, but he attempts to bribe Brennan in a car. Murphy said this was the point where his protagonist needed to break off from his mentor and make his own way forward, or else face a slippery downward slope. Murphy said he believes that's also a broader generational sentiment in Youngstown.
"I think there's a different way of doing business now. The expectations are different," Murphy said.
The short was seen at about 20 festivals and earned Murphy good remarks on his thesis, but instead of bringing it back out the director said he has a full script of the film which he is sending different producers and managers.
But while Murphy uses Traficant for introspection, history might not have such a nuanced view of the former congressman.
"Definitely the crazy part. That's what got out to the rest of the world," said Zack Parsons, author of books such as "Your Next-Door Neighbor is a Dragon" and writer on the comedy Web site SomethingAwful.com.
Parsons grew up near Dayton but was turned on to Traficant after stumbling across the site FreeTraficant.com. Parsons, whose political satire creates bizarre characters out of national news figures, read some of Traficant's famous one-minute speeches, then posted what reads like a love letter to Jim Traficant, calling him an "American treasure."
"Congressman Traficant, your famous and daily one-minute speeches briefly changed the face of our government from oppressive and monolithic to schizophrenic and comically unbalanced," he writes.
He then wrote a one-minute fictional Traficant speech in which the congressman suggested dolphins were being trained to fire poison darts at terrorists.
Parsons said that he was impressed by someone who could out-weird anyone else in the House, and he was sad when the racketeering charges put an end to Traficant's bizarre speeches.
Years after Traficant was put away, Parsons said he may have got his wish to see that kind of rhetoric return to national politics. Today's political rumors of health care bill death panels seem to come from the same wildness Traficant had, but they seem less fun than he hoped, he said. Parsons said he thinks Minnesota Republican Michelle Bachmann is carrying Traficant's torch for that kind of public speaking, but he doesn't seem happy about it.
"The fact that it became such a driving force in politics is kind of disconcerting. ... 'Death panels' are kind of humorless. I guess I got what I wished for and it turned out not to be so good," Parsons said.
Back in his studio, Van Hoose said it may be true that the world outside of the Mahoning Valley would pigeonhole the congressman's legacy, but the artist said he feels sympathetic to Traficant.
Van Hoose was planning to work in the steel mills when they closed, which pushed him to follow his dream of being an artist. As he was learning to paint by watching Bob Ross on PBS, Traficant would come on soon after with messages that he was on the side of the Mahoning Valley even though it seemed like no one else was.
Van Hoose said that's something people needed to hear. So today he says he'll take Traficant's good along with his bad and hope that the former congressman has something else to contribute once he's home.
"In a lot of ways these paintings aren't about Traficant. They're about us and the way we perceive him,'' he said. ''After steel collapsed, we needed a savior and there he was refusing to evict people from their homes (as sheriff). Right away, we had a hero just as we needed one."