Artist Devon Rodriguez Draws Portraits of Strangers on the Subway As ‘A Random Act of Kindness’
South Bronx-born artist Devon Rodriguez, 26, has become a social media sensation for drawing surprise portraits of strangers on the New York City subway. Posting seriously-heartwarming videos of the interactions on his viral TikTok page, Rodriguez explains that he was a “starving artist” up until recently.
Rodriguez sat down with NowThis to talk about how drawing portraits of unsuspecting strangers “created this effect in the world where [he] just uplifted so many people.” For the young artist, it wasn’t about money: “I wasn’t charging them a dollar.” Instead, the purpose of the “random act of kindness” was to “connect with people” through his passion.
Meanwhile, uploading videos of the interactions to TikTok made them exponentially positive. As Rodriguez explains, followers often write comments like, “These videos cure my depression,” “These videos help me with my anxiety” or that they make them cry and smile in equal measure.
The artist’s feedback on TikTok was “overwhelming” from the very beginning. He talked to TODAY about how he first posted a TikTok video drawing a stranger on the subway back in August 2020, and it immediately went viral. Now at 5 million views, the video got thousands of comments like, “I love your content so much don’t give up.”
Rodriguez talked about the feeling going viral for the first time: “Once it got a million, I was like, ‘I can’t believe this.’ I was watching it all day. I went, ‘Oh, my God, it’s still going, it’s still going. It’s crazy.'”
The artist usually draws people on the number 6 train from the Bronx to Manhattan, but has since expanded his horizons and posted videos drawing people in other cities, such as the Parisian metro.
Even with an unbelievable 27 million TikTok followers (and a few million on Instagram, too), Rodriguez’s start as an artist was quite difficult — and his success today comes after rising up from all kinds of adversity.
As per TODAY, Rodriguez moved in with his grandmother at 14 years old after growing up with an abusive mother. Meanwhile, his father left the picture when he was 4. He described, “My grandma saved me from that terrible situation. She was always extremely poor. She came here from Honduras 30 years ago.”
The artist shared that prior to his artistic fame, he was just “a kid from the South Bronx” and a “starving artist” who still lived with his grandmother and could not afford rent. He “couldn’t afford” to leave his grandmother’s house, and decided to dedicate himself to drawing portraits day-in and day-out.
Even more, Rodriguez told the New Yorker that he got his start doing graffiti art, explaining, “Because I’m from the South Bronx and that’s the only art those kids do.” However, he soon “got arrested” at 13 years old, and “started doing portraits.”
Attending Samuel Gompers High School in the South Bronx, Rodriguez first started drawing people on the subway as part of art class assignments. His art teacher Jeremy Harper helped him improve his talents after Rodriguez was rejected from the High School of Art and Design.
“I brought it to him and he was like, ‘Of course you didn’t get in. This is not good enough.'” He continued, “I thought I was good and I wasn’t.” Still, Harper taught him “portrait drawing and still lifes and drawing realism,” and Rodriguez eventually attended the prestigious school.
Today, Rodriguez is a highly-acclaimed artist, bringing oil painting into his subway portraits, and is signed to United Talent Agency. Still, it seems like his heart is still in making people feel less alone. He told NowThis, “It’s the most incredible feeling when I finish a drawing… and to see people’s eyes light up, seeing a big smile… or a tear coming down their face.”
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