The cover image for Arte Agora captures street artist Tay producing work on a downtown street during the summer of 2018. Credit: Daniel X. O'Neil

“Basically: if you’re selling art in the street, I’m going to buy it,” is the blunt way Daniel X. O’Neil summarizes his habit of documenting, purchasing, and otherwise archiving art made, sold, or placed in the public way. O’Neil’s years of walks around Chicago and other cities in search of articles of self-expression have culminated in his self-published book, Arte Agora. On a spring afternoon, a few Fridays back, O’Neil invited me to his place for a tour of his collection and a talk.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, O’Neil’s parents took him to museums often, so he had an early awareness of art. But it wasn’t until the family’s move to Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood in the 80s that he started to actively engage with the creative community. O’Neil always harbored literary ambitions and Chicago’s burgeoning poetry scene provided him with an outlet and inspiration to express himself. Marc Smith’s Poetry Slam at the Get Me High Lounge was an influence, as were the many street characters making their presence felt in the neighborhood. “It was the Chicago thing: doing poetry in bars.” O’Neil spent hours at CopyMax designing illustrated pages of his poems, then plastering them to walls or selling them for $3 a pop on the street. Artists like Wesley Willis, who would park themselves on a busy corner and make their art in full view of passersby, made an indelible impression on O’Neil.

David Leonardis, a local gallerist and champion of outsider art, got O’Neil into collecting. The idea that art made on the street was worth preserving and valuing in the same way as that made in the established art world took root. After starting a family in the 90s and building a career in tech, O’Neil stepped away from the poetry scene, but continued to keep an eye out on what was happening in the streets.

O'Neil says of this piece, "Honestly I'm not sure if the yard sign [under the stenciled popsicle] is legit. I can find no reference to a politician by the name of Todd Jailer."
O’Neil says of this piece, “Honestly I’m not sure if the yard sign [under the stenciled popsicle] is legit. I can find no reference to a politician by the name of Todd Jailer.”Credit: Daniel X. O’Neil

From a New York City street
From a New York City streetCredit: Daniel X. O’Neil

The idea of Arte Agora came to O’Neil gradually. There is tons of literature on graffiti but very little written about art made by the homeless, mentally ill, and otherwise-vulnerable people who cobble together a living by placing themselves on city sidewalks. Their work often lacks the polish of more codified genres of art, but there is an undeniable courage to putting oneself literally out there.

O’Neil has no firm aesthetic criteria for the work he collects. Basically, if he happens upon someone selling something they’ve made, he’ll buy it, often paying more than the artist asks. “I wanna be their best person that day,” he tells me. The idea of brightening someone’s day goes back to his mother, who worked at a TWA call center, handling complaints from disgruntled customers. Her work stories instilled in O’Neil the value of treating strangers well. A large part of his mission with Arte Agora is to make marginalized people feel seen and appreciated.

A portrait of Tony Montana in <i>Scarface</i> is part of a display for the artist zebra at State and Madison.
A portrait of Tony Montana in Scarface is part of a display for the artist zebra at State and Madison.Credit: Daniel X. O’Neil

Unlike the average art collector, O’Neil gives little thought to the monetary investment he has made over the years in this work, saying, “I don’t like thinking that shit will be valuable in the future. It gives me the skeevs.” But he doesn’t pay for all the work he finds. An aspect of his project is removing and archiving gig posters and wheat-paste art. This practice has occasionally gotten him in hot water with artists, who feel his absconding with their work runs counter to their intent. “I have a feeling that some artists now avoid areas that I frequent.” O’Neil feels that as actors in the public way, everyone is allowed to do as they wish with street art. He thinks his rescuing this ephemeral work from the elements and ravages of time and the city’s infamous Graffiti Blasters gives it the best chance to live on.

“I want to know what is true.” Buying, photographing, and ripping art off public walls is proof that the moments of his and the city’s life happened and provides a palpable, measurable way to document this culture. O’Neil also sees his project as a reaction to the current political/social reality and as a protest against the meanness and ignorance directed toward poor and disadvantaged people. “I want to let people know that this existed. That somebody made something.”  v