Sketching the Subway: How a South Bronx Artist Went Viral During the Pandemic

New York City’s subways have changed since the pandemic hit – platforms are littered with dropped masks, cars are rarely packed tight – but some things have remained constant. “People sit the same since before COVID,” said Devon Rodriguez, who’s been observing the city’s subway commuters and making artworks about them since 2011. 

When the pandemic prompted him to move from large oil paintings to small pencil sketches that he can finish in half an hour, his audience also changed.   

Now, millions of people watch him create his art via TikTok videos, and he’s attracted the attention of traditional media, as well: ABC7 recorded him in action. CNN wrote a feature story. Gov. Andrew Cuomo even included one of his sketches in a September COVID-19 update email.

One of Devon Rodriquez’s sketches appeared in a Sept. 2 pandemic update from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Art/Devon Rodriguez)

“It doesn’t even feel real,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “It’s almost like…” he paused. “Like I hit a glitch.”   

Nearly every day, Rodriguez rides the subway from the South Bronx into Manhattan and searches for “anybody that looks cool or different.” He tries his best to go unnoticed. “I try to make sure the person I’m drawing doesn’t look like they wanna fight me,” he said with a laugh.

He first sketches out a basic silhouette – an oval for the face, an amorphous blob for the torso, overlapping rectangles for crossed legs – and then layers in shadows, the curve of a knee, a furrowed brow, a Nike swoosh on a sneaker, individual strands of hair. 

An image of the commuter soon materializes on his sketchpad in black and white. If he likes what he’s done, Rodriguez will hand the sketch to its subject and record their reaction so he can upload the video to social media.

Rodriguez, 24, said a high school art teacher gave him the idea to portray straphangers. He began taking photographs of commuters who stood out – usually those with emotive body language and facial expressions – and creating colorful oil paintings of them. Lifelike and detailed, each painting took around a month for Rodriguez to complete.

Devon Rodriguez previously portrayed subway riders in oil paintings like “Friday Evening,” which measures 30″ by 24″ and took a month to make. (Art/Devon Rodriguez)

Once the pandemic hit, Rodriguez was eager to create a series of paintings featuring commuters wearing masks. But he wasn’t sure how long the pandemic would last, so he turned to pencil sketches to maximize his output.           

“I wanted to capture this moment in history,” he said. He liked the idea of juxtaposing drawings created during COVID with the paintings and sketches he had created in years prior.               

In June, a friend convinced him to share his work on the social media app TikTok. At first, Rodriguez featured some of the oil paintings he was most proud of. These videos drove a few thousand views each, worth mere pennies on a social app. So Rodriguez decided to upload a video of his process for creating a subway sketch. It got nearly 5 million views.               

The artist couldn’t believe that a pencil drawing would garner so much attention. “I wonder what it is,” he said. “I do paintings that I still think are better than my drawings.” He posted a second video the next day, to see if it was just a fluke. That one got nearly 18 million views. He was certifiably viral.

Devon Rodriguez, 24, has gained new attention for his art through TikTok videos. (Photo/Ralph Bavaro)

“I was like, damn, that’s insane, that’s crazy,” Rodriguez said. In late August, he shifted more completely toward pencil drawings, aiming to produce one each day. He uses his iPhone to record snippets of the artistic process, which he later splices together into 20-second-long videos he can post on TikTok and Instagram. Nearly every one has gone viral. 

After a few weeks, his account was verified on TikTok, the blue check mark next to his name an official sign of Rodriguez’s growing authority across the platform.

Rodriguez’s most popular TikTok video so far has 88 million views. It features a sleeping commuter sitting upright, clasping a to-go coffee cup in her hands. As the video progresses, Rodriguez captures the folds in her mask, the rips in her jeans, each individual curl on her head. His fingers fly gracefully across the page as if of their own accord. 

His tools are humble: a simplified pencil, eraser, sharpener and his secret weapon, a fresh Q-tip. “It just softens everything, helps with a smoother finish,” he said.                   

Rodriguez has never taken a full-time job outside of art, keeping his costs low by living with his grandmother. But his growing social media audience, including nearly 10 million followers on TikTok and over a million on Instagram, has provided unexpected opportunities. Companies began paying him to play their songs in the background of his videos, giving him the financial freedom to start thinking about finding an apartment of his own. 

Still, Rodriguez said his craft is more important than the money. He often hands finished drawings to the subjects of each piece for free, passing up the profit of $500 or more he would gain by selling it on his website. “This is my genuine passion,” he said. “I love capturing New Yorkers.”