Mitch O'Connell proudly walks around his outwardly cozy, almost suburban Chicago home, showing off the latest acquisitions of his treasure trove of kitsch and self-confessed “poor taste.” His studio is watched over by a collection of gaudy Jesus heads, his living room sports shag lamps and a velvet painting that lights up when you plug it in.
Striking? Certainly, but hardly unexpected from O'Connell, a proud producer of art that takes as much from his love of old comics and “cheesy” men's magazines as it does from the gallery shows he went to in his youth. His platforms for promoting himself have been as uncommon as his tastes, in addition to gallery shows, and books, he's gained renown for his work on tattoos, advertising, greeting cards, coasters, and skateboards.
“I learned pretty early that if you wanted to make money as an artist you can either do your big gallery painting that is going to sell for 2,000 dollars, which I've never gotten the hang of, or you can create one image that is going to be used 2,000 times,” O’Connell Jokes. “I still haven't gotten the hang of the first one.”
“A lot of the things I like were burned into my head by the time I was 11 or so. My mom took me to a lot of galleries and I was influenced by the Pop Art movement, but I also liked the things most kids were into back then; monsters, comics, old mad magazines,” says O’Connell. “Then as I got older, I saw that the obvious things to like seemed to be liked by enough people. For me, the odd things became appealing, intriguing, and very humorous.”
He speaks of a plastic radio shaped like a pair of breasts (one nipple controls the station, the other volume) and tries to explain his love for the bizarre and says, “I look at this and I just think 'Wow, whoever designed this really left their mark on the world.' There's enough bland stuff out there, so I'd rather ere on the side of going too far. Being mediocre is as good as pointless. I think tacky is being bad, but with energy and vision.”
His books have titles like “Good Taste Gone Bad” and “Pwease Wuv Me: more 'art' of Mitch O'Connell.” A recent gallery show was called “God Has Forgiven Me, So What's Your Problem?”
Surprisingly though, what has become on of his primary mediums found him more than a decade after he began his professional career by illustrating comics and doing small gallery shows in the 80's. In 2000 O'Connell had begun receiving photos of people who had gotten tattoos of his iconic work, which has been wildly seen through his work on advertisements, magazine covers, and clip art. Intrigued, he decided to try his hand at designing them, and found that illustrating specifically for the medium imparted lasting change to his artistic style.
“What I like about tattooing is that it's a craft,” says O’Connell. “It's art that's meant to be used for something. I love that simplicity to them, having to create something that can be reproduced by a tattoo artist working with just a single-thickness needle.”
Since then his art has continued to spread widely: lately, he's been seeing it on cigarette cases, jewelry, and several skateboards which were sold online. In the beginning, this process was an informal one. In O'Connell's words, “I'd see somebody who sells skateboards, I'd tell them I wanted to do one and mail them my artwork.”
Now, O'Connell has a representative for merchandising, and is considering offers to have his work reproduced on everything from apparel to wrappers for condoms. Ultimately though, he says that as an artist, he just wants to do a piece that makes him happy and satisfies him.
“I've always wanted to draw,” O’Connell adds. “But it was a very slow process to get to this point. I think I'm more on the ball now, I think stylistically I have a much clearer idea of what I want to do.”
He looks wistfully at one of his collectibles, one in particular is a painting purchased on Ebay after the artist died. He says with a smile, “Hopefully, I'll have a better end to my career than the Salvation Army.”