Flea Market Follies: Hunting for Kitsch with Mitch O'Connell

Going to a flea market with Mitch O'Connell is a bit like trying to get high with Willie Nelson: you can take pride in saying that you did it, so long as you don't get your ass kicked in.

I came close enough. We had come across a table with a full spread of frayed Ringling Bros. posters and rusted novelty pins. The owner had a neck like a big toe, a true runt of a man who looked like he had been in no less than five parking lot fights at Chicago sporting events in his lifetime. O'Connell seized the opportunity: "Now don't try to steal anything at this one," he whispered loudly to me, just within earshot of the owner.

The runt sidled up to me, smiling mean. "Had this guy break into my garage in '95. Heh, he didn't know I'd be getting up at four in the morning."

Before I could reach for my teacher's ID, as if that would somehow help me, he continued.

"So dis guy, he's messing with my Buick LeSabre, so I had to kick his ass up and down. By the time the cops arrived he was beggin them to take him away."

I'll never know if this Chicago native, this hardcore ogre of fine vintage goods, was putting me on. It didn't matter, because O'Connell was smiling that keen Irish smile of his, having incited the whole episode. In this, MOC is like a friendly demon, a Batman villain from the Adam West days who is perfectly happy to lead you into trouble for his own amusement.

To be fair, Mitch O'Connell has made most of his trouble from a drafting table. From prints to pin-ups, he has been a visual alchemist of the garage sale sect for over forty years. By his estimate, the pop artist has produced some 10,000 sketches of rock gods, manic clowns, hissing hussies, groovy goons, and outright cartoon smut.

His father was an ad man in Chicago in the 1970s. He gave us the "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop" campaign that anchored our correlation of cartoon owls and mortarboard hats. His mom was an Avon lady who toiled to bring up her kids while grinding through grad school. These elements, along with a deep obsession of horror hosts and comic books, helped shape O'Connell into the scallywag that he is today.

Much of O'Connell's aesthetic roots in the physical pieces of 60s and 70s kitsch so readily embedded in his work: big-eyed Margaret Keane prints, long-neck ceramic cats, and gurgling Magic Eight Balls. He and his livewire son, Aiden, have been spending their Sundays scouring the flea markets of greater Chicago for these treasures and sharing them on Instagram.

I reached out to ask if I could come along for one of these digs. He told me to meet him at Wolff's Flea Market in Rosemont at 6 a.m. the following week. I winced when I saw the invite time, but to wander these stacks of crap with a master means to score some of the finest in existential American shit.

1.) McDonaldland Name Plate:

We were barely at our second table when MOC pointed to a corner of a glass display case. "Hey, there you go." The providence of this item almost frightened me. I don't need to tell you how hard it is to find a "LEE" in any form of name-selling product, let alone one from the sacred confines of your fast food childhood. An entire generation of middle-aged Lees were vindicated on that day. 

2.) Marilyn Monroe Nude Painting:

O'Connell spotted this early, somewhere along our second row of tables. Given his oeuvre, it was a natural fit. He haggled some dude in a Starter jacket down from $240 to $200. Later on, I found out that this piece was done by a retired dentist, the otherwise-squeaky-clean Dr. Bernard Widen. Oh Bernard, you cad!

3.) The Perfect Bacon Bowl:

We didn't buy it. We're not monsters.

It's safe to say that O'Connell is a regular, if not an outright fixture of the seedier elements of this scene. We were at least twenty feet from a table when I heard a voice in the distance welling up, "Therrrre's the man, the man I've been looking for! And I've got something riiiight here for the man!" and by the time we reached the table, the seller had extended his hand with an old photograph that was facing downwards, the white side daring us to turn it over.

It was a lewd act, involving two men and one woman. Considering that it was a black and white print, and the sheer amount of lower body hair, I'd say it was from the 70s.

O'Connell posed for this picture, smiled, and kept walking. He said nothing to the man, and the man said nothing to him. There was no transaction.

An old woman, also manning the table, piped up as we departed. "I didn't see what was on that," she said.

"They were making cookies." I called back to her.

4.) Mr. and Mrs. Claus Nude Torso Dolls:

Just imagine how fundamentally different Christmas would be if these were in every home, just kicking it next to some Elf on the Shelf. We really didn't know what these were for, but we knew that they mean that Santa most definitely fucks.

5.) Leather T-Rex Statuette

As we made it to some of our last tables, I had been walking for hours, sleep-deprived and stupid from the sun. We were on hot concrete, and my brain had been pushed through a vortex of Boy Scout patches, moldy Nintendo cartridges, and tattered issues of Playboy. By the time we found dinosaurs covered in leather, I had gone full flea-market-fever dream. "That cracking on the skin is natural," the seller said, forcing them into our hands, "leather does that over time." O'Connell and I were somewhat speechless, aghast at what we were holding in both form and feature.

I could only wonder how bored one has to be and how much extra leather one has to have to even conceive of such an enterprise. I mean, there's a very real point in all of us where a hobby ends and insanity begins. In terms of process, did the artist start sculpting raw hamburger into a stegosaurus and then hit it with a blowtorch before landing on this more suitable medium? Does the deluxe T-Rex come in suede??

I once read that we have been going about this whole dinosaur thing all wrong, that most of them were actually covered in feathers. They were possibly just big killer chickens. Now here they were, rendered in cow skin with elephant stubs for arms.

"Well, I have to buy at least one," O'Connell said, snapping me back to reality. "Yeah," I mumbled, "you should."

I recovered at the IHOP down the street, where O'Connell treated me to chicken fingers and pancakes. His sons Aiden and Leo showed us their pulls for the day: bootleg Pokemon cards with weird, broken English syntax on them.

As the check arrived, I got invited back to the O'Connell house to see where these second-hand treasures have amassed.

It's like Pee-Wee's Playhouse if Quentin Tarantino took over, more or less.

Any open space is dominated by Mexican lucha libre film and schlock horror posters. There's an entire room devoted solely to black velvet nudie paintings. Next to that, a drafting room packed with Sacred Heart of Jesus statues. Next to that, a computer room haunted by hundreds of clowns. The dizziness from the flea market starts to creep back in by the time I hit the basement. There are stacks of board games and Aurora model kits that you always wished your older brother had owned. O'Connell guides me to a bathroom enshrined with souvenirs from Las Vegas. When you look up, there are metal plates with cartoon donkeys and phrases like "Lost my Ass in Vegas" on them.

He points up, "I started doing ceilings recently and it's opened up a lot more possibilities."

In all this sugar shock, I'm reminded of something my pal Robbie Hamilton once said: there's a fine line between a hoarder and an aficionado.

I ask O'Connell if he is worried about becoming a hoarder, and he shakes his head, "It's all part of an actual display in the house. Everything you see is everything I have. If there's a new piece that comes in, another one has to go." He gestures toward a wall of yellowed R&W Berries figurines of drunks and hobos with clever catchphrases. "I've given away about two or three hundred of these already."

With this vault of novelty toys, shrunken heads and Day-Glo dolls, I raise the prospect of turning the house into some kind of museum or opening a spot in Hollywood in which tourists can take selfies for social media. He chuckles and laughs it off, but I'm being serious. I've been to installations in northeast LA that have less physical content, and I had to pay twenty bucks just to go inside.

Our technicolor tour ends in the kitchen. I ask O'Connell if, after all these decades of digging pop culture gems from the bottom of cereal boxes to the top of Interstate 294, he still finds inspiration in them.

"Of course!" he barks. "I got inspired by things we found today," he pauses, that devious grin returning.

"How can you not be inspired by a Bacon Bowl?"

You can follow Mitch O'Connell on Instagram to check out Flea Market Finds every Sunday, along with other graphic goodies. His Etsy store is loaded with majestic screenprints, and http://www.mitchoconnell.com lists his upcoming galleries and appearances.


Lee Keeler is a writer and educator living in Northeast Los Angeles.