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Images: Courtesy @DevonRodriguezArt

The NYC artist that's gone super viral drawing strangers on the subway

Devon Rodriguez's sketches have brought moments of joy to commuters during anxious times.

Will Gleason
Written by
Will Gleason

Riding the subway over the last year has been a draining experience, with limited service, necessary social distancing and a pervading sense of anxiety throughout the system. However, one talented artist has worked to bring a sense of light into the underground tunnels, and his actions have catapulted him into super viral social media stardom.

Devon Rodriguez has been drawing strangers on the subway as part of his “Subway Series” since 2010 when he was a high school freshman in the South Bronx. Hoping to transfer to a different school in midtown, he sought help from his high school art teacher to develop his portfolio. The teacher showed him some subway sketches he’d done and Rodriguez began doing similar sketches himself. 

“I’ve been doing these sketches since 2010 but they really just started taking off online in the last five or six months,” Rodgriguez says. “Six months ago, I only had about 30,000 followers on Instagram and now I have 1.6 million.”

At the beginning of the COVID crisis in the city, Rodriguez had about three months worth of commissions that he had to finish, but after that he was itching to get back down into the subway to capture this historic moment. Since then, he's created fascinating work capturing the face of the pandemic in the city's subway system.

“I just thought this would be a perfect way to cover this moment in history,” he says. “I love the concept of it and I like the idea of seeing my work before and during the pandemic. It was a no brainer to do it with everyone wearing masks."

Crucially, Rodriguez also started a TikTok account at this same time which helped him reach a much larger audience. Though he hadn’t done much video content in the past, he began posting short videos of himself creating his art which soon reached millions. 

 “I started doing them as drawings instead of paintings since they were faster and every video I put up was reaching millions and going viral.”

In case you’re hoping for some insight on which subway lines have the most interesting characters, you’re out of luck. Rodriguqez says he mainly sticks to the 6 train for his drawings—a remnant of his many years commuting between the Bronx and Manhattan. Currently, he’s averaging about one drawing a week, including a recent one which may have been his most viral yet thanks to its recipient’s teary, overjoyed response.

“I try to pick people who look nice and for the most part everyone’s amazed by it,” he says. “Most people appreciate the drawings or at least they pretend to appreciate them.

Though he says the subway looks a lot different in its current form, with its empty cars and nervous riders keeping their distance, he’s hopeful New Yorkers’ commutes will one day return to something that feels more normal.

“I hope everything goes back. I didn’t think it would last this long,” he says. “But whether it does or doesn’t get back to normal, I”m still going to be doing this.”

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