Arte Agoraphile—An Interview with Arte Agora Author Daniel X. O’Neil

Daniel X. O’Neil400 sees art everywhere, but not in that Bob Ross on ’shrooms sort of way. Mr. O’Neil is a connoisseur and curator of what he calls Arte Agora, art produced and found in the great wide urban outdoors.

For 20-some years, O’Neil has pursued Arte Agora two ways: by purchasing art from artists working on this and other cities’ streets, and prising gig posters and other street art from those same cities’ walls, fences, and utility poles. He recently published Arte Agora: Art Made, Sold, or Placed in the Public Way, a slim but thought-piquing manifesto about this unofficial, ongoing, worldwide art show; the art he’s gathered; and the artists he’s met.

Pittsburgh-born, O’Neil moved to Chicago with his mother and brother in 1980, and has lived here since. Attending UIC, he became involved with the Post Industrial Stage Theater Company, describing the experience as a mélange of “film, slides, video, live orchestra, taped effects, composed music run on a midi, and characters with masks onstage, inside clubs like Shelter, Dreamerz, and Medusa, all run by computer.” O’Neil’s theater experience led to a stint as a performance poet on the '90s Wicker Park scene, where he inevitably ran into artist/performer Wesley Willis. Perhaps better known as the frontman for the band The Wesley Willis Fiasco, Willis was originally active as a sketcher of highly detailed Chicago street scenes in ballpoint pen and felt-tip marker. From the book:

“Wesley Willis is one of the greatest outsider artists of my lifetime. I first encountered Wesley in the late 80’s on Milwaukee Avenue, which has become my church, my gallery, and my home base for Arte Agora. He is primogenitor of the form, and formative to me when it comes to plein air creation, the showmanship of the vendor, and a deep primal need for the artist to connect with the public.”

Touched by an outsider artist angel, O’Neil’s collecting of art in the metropolitan wild began in earnest in the mid-'90s, when he came across a gig poster created by Steve Walters of Screwball Press. The advertised bands—Baby Snufkin, Sabrinas, and Blanche—may strike few chords today, but it was the beginning of a quest for O’Neil.

I encountered work and started removing it from walls and placing them in my home. So I've been collecting this stuff—with a focus on gig posters—since then,” he says. Eventually, artists working and selling their stuff on the street came under his purview. “I have always purchased art from anyone who sells it on the street. It's just a core value—support artists in capitalism.

The O’Neil Collection grew, with additions from “caricaturists and portraitists” and myriad semi-anonymous purveyors of street art, who worked in print, paint, toner, scrap wood, clay, and other media, then wheat-pasted, glued, stapled, or nailed it to any available (or otherwise) space.

An epiphany alighted on O’Neil in January of last year: all his favorite art was born and thrived outside. He credits his wife Shawn-Laree with devising the term Arte Agora, or “art outside/art in the marketplace”. He Venn-diagrams it as a confluence of outsider, commercial, and street art. Defining Arte Agora was vital to him. Not just from a critical or historical standpoint, but also as a matter of “social justice.”

“It is bananas that there is a well-established, lucrative genre of art called 'street art' that specifically excludes whole classes of people who make and sell art on the street,” O’Neil explains.These people are almost invariably without power. They often are homeless, insecure, have medical and/or mental health issues, and otherwise are deliberately marginalized from society itself, let alone the art world. And that's bullshit.

Arte Agora gives several local street artists—who Loop- and Wicker Park-dwellers have likely seen without really having seen them—their due. Idiosyncratic pales in describing their works and techniques. Lajuana Lampkins, for example, who toils around Milwaukee Avenue. O’Neil glowingly describes her as a “towering, epic genius.”

She can be a breakout star, easily,” he adds. “Amazingly technically proficient. Great vision for what she wants to do with her art.”

Elsewhere, the distinctly dressed lady known as Peace Prophet can sometimes be seen wandering near Millennium Park and the Cultural Center, selling her dreamy, colorful, mystical paintings of floral arrangements and portraits of nameless women.

Then there’s Tay (“just so good as a ‘draw-er’, and again, he knows what he wants“, says O'Neil) who sets up a sidewalk studio near the old Old Navy store on State and Randolph, doodling in his sketchbook and surrounded by drawings for sale.

Not far from Tay, you might see John Marcus on State Street, vibrantly sketching a favored subject—superheroes. Labels are banal, but Marcus’ comic book style doesn’t really fall under the outsider or “fine art” headings. I asked O’Neil if he knows if Marcus is looking for work in the comics field. Yes, he says, Marcus told him about a woman who’d approached him, bought art, said she worked at Marvel or DC, and offered to connect him with someone seeking a colorist or penciler.

He gave her his number, she tried to connect, his phone got turned off/stolen/lost on Lower Wacker Drive, and nothing came of it,” he tells me. “That seemed to me to be an archetypal story of how incredibly difficult it is to get traction when you are subject to a series of conditions like homelessness and poverty.” *

Artist reaction to the book has been positive, though his collection habits rankled one creator.

People are pretty into it. I have tried to get to everyone,” he says. “One artist was less than thrilled to discover that I removed a piece 20 minutes after they placed it.”

I asked if, since publishing the book, he’d encountered any other types of Arte Agora that challenged his definition. He delivers a definitive, “Nope.”

It has held up, as far as I can see,” he replies. “My greatest fear is that this is dumb and someone else already proved that. But so far, it seems like this is a real thing and that the boundaries of the definition are durable.”

Arte Agora’s official release party is scheduled for Thursday, May 16, at 6pm at The Living Room (2423 W. North Ave.). Copies of the book will be available for purchase ($15), as are posters from Steve Walters. O’Neil and local writer/publisher/mayor impersonator Dan Sinker will read. Artist Lajuana Lampkins will also be present and selling her work. Food and drink are available, but RSVPs are required. Arte Agora can also be purchased online.

  * Writer's note. I sought out Mr. Marcus several times to verify his story, but couldn't locate him. I will keep looking and update this article if need be.
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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.