A New York City artist is blowing up online for his hand-drawn subway portraits.
Devon Rodriguez was always interested in art. The Bronx native’s father was a tattoo artist, and Rodriguez says the interest in art was always there for him.
“I always loved art my entire life,” said Rodriguez. “My dad was a tattoo artist — he left when I was 3, but I always knew of him as an artist. It was a natural passion, I drew my entire life. When I was around 11-12, I got into graffiti because that’s what I saw my friends doing in the Bronx.”
Rodriguez’s adventures in graffiti ultimately got him arrested when he was 13 years old. After that experience, Rodriguez says he started to shift gears in his art because he started growing an interest in portraits.
“My teacher taught portraits in oil, and I got really into it. Ever since, I started to take realism and portraiture very seriously,” said Rodriguez. “I always loved portraits, I thought they were incredible as a kid. People are drawing like they are photos, I didn’t know it was attainable.”
Rodriguez initially applied for the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan in 2010, but was not accepted. He then attended Samuel Gompers High School in the Bronx, where he built up his portfolio to tray and give the High School of Art and Design another shot.
“I told my art teacher, Jeremy Harper, I didn’t want to be there. He asked to see my portfolio, and said ‘Of course you didn’t get in, it’s not diverse enough.’ He was the first art teacher that was tough with criticism,” said Rodriguez. “He told me that he was going to help me to reapply and teach me everything I needed to know. I got accepted the second time, and when I transferred there, I met my painting teacher.”
During his time at the High School of Art and Design, Rodriguez built up a portfolio of subway portraits, painting straphangers and passersby on their daily commutes as a part of his senior concentration. Rodriguez also began to do portrait commissions on the side, building a following online and expanding his portfolio further.
Upon graduating high school, Rodriguez enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). However, Rodriguez found that his time was not best suited in the world of academia, especially with his commission work picking up more steam.
“There were a lot of kids at FIT who never went to an art high school, they decided to go because they love art. There were a lot of foundation courses that I thought I was passed, I was very bored,” said Rodriguez. “I was already getting portrait commissions by then and the commissions took up so much time. I was getting paid for artwork, and getting grades for art I made at school — I couldn’t balance both. I thought, why am I in school if I can make it without school?”
Rodriguez says that he kept trying to stay in school to get the degree but ultimately dropped out, knowing that if he ever needed the degree he can go back and earn it.
“I was 18 or 19 when I dropped out, and it’s been fun ever since,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez spent his years after dropping out dividing his time between commission work and painting New York City’s subway riders. Though he loves doing the subway paintings, Rodriguez says it became more of a passion project and the finished projects were not guaranteed to sell, so he picked up more commissions to pay the bills.
However, once the pandemic hit New York City Rodriguez found himself just doing commissions because he couldn’t ride the subway anymore. Once restrictions started to ease, Rodriguez made his way back to the subways once again, but this time, his art was doing more than just creating a piece that was just a snapshot of someone’s day.
“When things calmed down, it was a no-brainer,” said Rodriguez. “Now that everyone is wearing a mask, it was so obvious. It would capture a moment in history.”
Rodriguez started incorporating New Yorkers wearing masks into his art, which he would post on social media. Though he already has a solid Instagram following, Rodriguez started to post his work and behind the scenes of painting his pieces on TikTok, with not as much success.
“I started posting commissions and me painting on TikTok, none of it went viral,” said Rodriguez. “I started to learn how to edit to make the videos better, but I wouldn’t get that many views. Once I was finally done with commissions, I figured I can make more subway stuff and post everything on TikTok.”
Rodriguez decided to experiment with his content, taking a small sketchbook with him onto the train and drawing his fellow riders.
“The first one I did, I didn’t want to wait,” said Rodriguez. “I did it in a little sketchbook. I posted it on TikTok and it got millions of views. I’ve been passionate about this for years. I kept the pandemic series going, and it has been going viral ever since. That really blew everything up for me.”
Rodriguez has built an audience of 14 million followers on TikTok, plus 2 million on Instagram and over 707,000 on YouTube, where he posts clips of his TikToks and his subjects’ reactions to their drawing. Rodriguez is grateful for the following he has gained because it helped him start to make bigger moves in his life and career.
“My entire life changed. I was at the gym one day and someone recognized me,” said Rodriguez. “A woman came up to me in Union Square and said I was one of her biggest inspirations. I had a friend introduce me to some of his friends, and when I said I paint people on the subway, they said they saw me on TikTok or Instagram. My income went up dramatically, I moved from the South Bronx finally. I’m at 14 million on TikTok and 2 million on Instagram, I never would have thought this would happen in my entire life.”
For more information about Rodriguez’s art, visit www.devonrodriguezart.com. Follow Rodriguez on social media @devonrodriguezart.