Chicago artist Tony “720” Collins, 47, is a living testament of the power of art. He never attended art school, yet Collins’s murals, identifiable by his signature 720, have adorned Chicago walls for more than 20 years. Some murals stand for a long time, while others are only up for a few weeks, yet for Collins, art is not about time or fame. 

“Being able to make something out of nothing and your canvas is a wall of a building that nobody cares about, and somehow I made it beautiful, it’s a sense of power,”  Collins told the Austin Weekly News at his studio located in the Lacuna Lofts, 2150 S. Canalport Ave., a multi-purpose shared workspace and event venue in Chicago’s Lower West Side. Besides the artwork in his studio, eight murals created by Collins are displayed on the inside and outside walls of the Lacuna Lofts. 

“I use my voice, I use my talents for something in a world that will literally tell you that you are nothing.” 

Collins was born and raised on the West Side and has painted graffiti murals since his early teenage years. He started painting graffiti on CTA buses and cars, that he knows was vandalism, with a group of friends, many of whom later also became artists, writers, poets and painters. They would meet up in the city to find a space where they could paint and create art pieces that often were taken down a few weeks after.

“Some of the coolest cats were graffiti writers, so we would inspire each other,” he said. “So that was pretty much my school because I never went to art school like I wish I had.”

His teenage hobby turned into a lifelong career in the arts, one he has maintained while also working as a barber, and that has earned him recognition in the Chicago arts scene. Collins has painted dozens of murals throughout the city, participated in several art festivals and created work for more than five art competitions. He also created artwork for OVO, the brand owned by Drake, the world-famous hip hop artist. In 2014, he collaborated with artist Jas G to create an installation honoring Chicago music artist King Louie. 

Yet, art also helped him survive Chicago’s West Side, Collins said. 

“Art has basically saved my life because when I was out there just doing graffiti, I would come back to the block and guys would be like ‘Man, someone just got shot. They just drove by and shot him.’ And I missed that completely because I’m off painting somewhere.” 

 His grandfather was his early introduction to art. Collins said he remembers his grandfather’s intellectual conversations in the living room of their Lawndale home. 

“We would hear jazz in the front room and back then, nobody linked smoking to cancer, so it’ll be like this big cloud in the front room and they’re smoking pipes and having these intellectual conversations with his friends,” Collins recalled. 

“Normally, men are attracted to their future selves, so I wanted to be just as loud, just as smart as him.”

He was also inspired by the emerging hip hop culture, where graffiti was notable. 

“A lot of times, driving through the City of Chicago, I would see maybe a mural of Che [Guevara] and my grandfather just dropped his name,” Collins said, adding visual art helped him learn better. “So, I’m like, ‘OK, boom.’ So, the art was a connection to the intellectual part and the intellectual part was definitely connected to art.”

Collins realized that art helped him overcome the challenges of learning disabilities. He said because he had difficulties with fundamentals like spelling or reading comprehension, visuals helped him learn. Instead of writing a paragraph, Collins would spell out one keyword and draw a backdrop or a portrait to remember historical moments or figures.

One of Collins main inspirations is the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who inspired his mural on the outside wall of Lacuna Lofts | Francia Garcia Hernandez

In addition, his education on the West Side inspired him to pursue a career in the arts. In the 1980s, he attended Westside Preparatory School in Garfield Park where renown educator Marva Collins helped provide quality education to students with learning disabilities. 

“Art literally saved my life, it opened up doors that, Miss Collins, Marva Collins had opened up,” Collins said. “I’ve never made an A and that’s no exaggeration.”

  “I’ve never made an A in my life in anything but I’m in rooms where they’re geniuses and stuff, all because a woman instilled in me that I’m brilliant and I could do whatever I want to do.” 

The hardships of living on the West Side also helped Collins’ develop valuable skills. With limited resources to afford expensive art supplies, Collins often turned disposed windows, doors or boards into art canvas. 

“I didn’t know that I was being trained to think on my feet or try to use scale or perspective, I didn’t have the vocabulary but I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. But creating art also helped him make better choices, choices that people on the West Side and across the United States are often “almost forced to” because of systemic racism and inequity.

“We’re at least 5 minutes away from either making the right choice or the wrong choice.” 

“I could have very well been on the block when everybody was getting shot or arrested, I could have hung around spending my time selling drugs to feel like I was somebody,” he said. “But I was somebody because I made people that I don’t even know smile and talk about [a mural] like ‘Yo, this **** went up here yesterday, but damn, this is dope.’” 

Throughout his career, Collins has learned not to let any barriers stop him, a message he wants to share with youth. 

“At no point should you wait for anything,” he said, adding that with some Sharpies, spray paint and a desire to express themselves, anyone can create. “All you hear is the despair in our communities. And to some extent it is real. You never hear about what you can do about it.”