The Subway Surfers: Strangers, Art, and Public Transportation

Orin at work on the subway, Image courtesy of Artnet News and Christiane Paul Krenkler.jpg

We’ve all been there—sitting on public transportation, consciously avoiding eye contact while simultaneously observing those around us. Humans are curious, and public transportation offers a unique setting to capture a glimpse into the lives of people we may never see again. This unique ever-fleeting environment allows artists to hone in on observation and capture people in their most unguarded and natural states.


Perhaps artists sketching strangers on public transportation has been an established practice. However, in recent years, social media pushed this phenomenon to the spotlight, rendering it a viral sensation.


With wide varieties of subjects as far as the eye can see, public transit provides the perfect setting for artists to tap into a state of observation for extended periods of time, hone their craft, observe new subjects, and capture the world around them.

Image courtesy of @DevonRodriguezArt

In addition to this unique setting, public transport sketching captures otherwise fleeting and mundane aspects of life that are often overlooked or forgotten. There is something so beautiful about capturing ever-fleeting, seemingly boring moments like this. While commuting home after a long day or riding the subway to a yoga class, we often forget to be present and enjoy the simplicities in life we often take for granted. This kind of art reminds us to be present.


Some artists record the drawing process on public transit and later post it on social media platforms. These videos generally include the moment the artist presents the sketch to the subject. Every time, the person radiates excitement and happiness. Sometimes the person is even brought to tears. The videos transport the viewer into the scene alongside the artist and overjoyed subject. Viewership and audience engagement in these videos prove how captivating it is to watch the sketching process and the end “reveal.” Each time, artists immortalize moments that would otherwise be unseen.


Artist Devon Rodriguez has swept the internet with his subway drawings. When he presents his sketches to his subjects, they are thrilled.

Some ask, “Can I keep this?” And the answer is, of course, yes. Rodriguez makes people feel seen.

Another public transport sketcher, Orin, succeeds in this style of art making. These artists, or ‘subway surfers,’ have perfected and transformed the public transport art game.


When the final products are presented, it is almost unbelievable how realistic the portraits are. So much so that many viewers question the authenticity of the drawing processes. One viewer @regina_carmina commented, “I've read comments from people who ride subways (am not from the USA btw so I wouldn't know) that considering the movements of the train they're riding, anyone will def be affected by the wobbliness and inertia. yet somehow their art comes out clean and super finesse. Also, the changing light reflections on their sketchpad (meaning there's been a cut in between frames) kinda gives it away tbh.”


Another viewer, @CacophonyofDelusions continued the thread and replied by stating, “Yeah, other famous artists have raised concerns about his art, but he always removes those posts. The main concern is that the level of rendering in his drawings isn't possible for the allotted time of a real transit sketch and how that distorts the perception of skill/speed to newer artists trying to emulate him or even reach that level.”


Whether the drawings are completed in real time or not, artists Orin and Devon Rodriguez have perfected a fascinating form of art making that translates beautifully on Youtube and TikTok, and in this day and age, that’s what really matters.

The pandemic caused a monumental shift in the viral public transit sensation. In a time when connecting with strangers felt impossible and social distancing was at its all-time high,  and we all felt lucky to be on public transportation after almost a year of lockdown, these sketch artists provided a sense of connection people were lacking. Many of the viral videos from this time feature subjects with masks on. These artists act as a documentation source for future generations. Masks in many parts of the world were largely unseen in public transportation before this time, and these drawings will serve as historical documentation.


The public transit art form fosters connection and inspires introspection amongst viewers, artists, and people alike. In capturing these moments, artists bring to life a part of humanity that we all experience but may overlook as an essential part of being human. The subway surfing artists remind us that even the most mundane task is a chance to be present and grateful—even during fleeting moments.

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