- Liz Publika
Monsters in the City: New York City-based artist Subway Doodle talks art, humor and amusement
Subway Doodle’s journey began in the burbs, passed through Brooklyn, and ended in Manhattan. Along the way, a monster was born.
Considering that the Big Apple is usually swarming with a few million people, along with their pets, strollers, and idiosyncrasies, having a sense of humor helps New Yorkers navigate their metropolis. It’s especially beneficial when taking the train. The rapid transit system transports the hefty majority of the city’s occupants by pouring it under the pavement and rolling it down the tracks. Being packed into a moving vessel like a bunch of sardines can make tempers run high, but a little fun can help diffuse the tension.
Subway Doodle is a Brooklyn-based artist who takes a lot of meetings in Manhattan. The long commute between boroughs gives him plenty of time to sketch. So, a while back, he began snapping photos of his fellow riders and, using his tablet, drawing in imaginary creatures — mostly monsters — interacting with them. Due to the shaky rides and a slight hand tremor, taking non-blurry pictures of his subjects takes some work. But the effort is worth it. Using Instagram as a repository for his shots, he’s gaining a lot of fans.
“My main goal is to amuse people,” bluntly states Subway Doodle in an interview with ARTpublika Magazine. And, his work appears to do exactly that. The character pops up in public and private spaces, including businesses, galleries, theaters, and parks. From Brooklyn to Dubai, the doodles that originated on the subway have spread across the world. The artist, nevertheless, was initially surprised at the popularity of his beloved blue monster and its humorous entourage.
Much like all artists, he has a system. “I take hundreds of pictures, but only a few become doodles. And I have piles of sketches and paintings that will never be seen. Not because they are terrible, or failed experiments. They were all part of the process that leads to the final product,” shares the artist. “Picasso created 50,000 pieces of artwork in his life, but how many are well-known. A handful? We are all searching for that iconic image that strikes a chord. To find it you have to do the work.”
The artist grew up in a New York suburb near Wards Castle, a 19th century mansion in Port Chester once owned by Mort Walker (1923 - 2018), the creator of comic book character Beetle Bailey. Though Walker purchased the property to house his National Cartoon Museum, which was open from 1974 to 2002, its extensive collection of drawings and books is now at the Ohio State University in Columbus, as part of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.
As a youth, Subway Doodle frequently visited the castle, pouring over the original comic books. Walker, after all, was “reputed to be the most widely distributed cartoonist in the history of comic art,” wrote Eleanor Charles of The New York Times. And so, he spent much of his time admiring Walker’s collection. "It's a powerful way for young people to learn history," once stated Jack Tippit (1923 - 1994), the museum’s co-founder and first director. Indeed, at the time, none of the big museums were serious about cartoons.
The now-established artist began volunteering at the museum when he was twelve years old. “I did a lot of polishing of wood and removing fingerprints from the glass display cases,” recalls the artist. Over the next six years, the young creative was able to gain a lot of valuable experience. The museum’s directors were good about providing an educational environment and assigning tasks that were both informative and entertaining for the aspiring artist.
“One summer I was assigned to take inventory of a pile of donated comic books and artwork stashed in the spooky attic,” he recalls. “I spent a few weeks going through a lot of unremarkable stuff, occasionally finding treasures, like a background painting from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, or very early copies of popular comic books.” Once, he even “got to hold Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #2 at the same time.” As a comic book collector, that was very exciting,” reminisces Subway Doodle.
With time and experience, the hardworking volunteer was even entrusted with helping curate exhibits. This allowed him to meet and work with well-known illustrators, some of which worked at the museum after their full-time jobs. There were get-togethers where the creators would jaw a bit. “They’d tease me saying: ‘Don’t get into the business, kid!’” he recalls. But, the fact that they supported themselves by doing just that taught the teen that earning a living as an artist was possible.
Wanting to pursue art professionally, and having learned the basics of navigating the business side of being an illustrator, Subway Doodle decided to study art in college. “I worked on a self-portrait, trying to emulate Rembrandt’s style and techniques. I fiddled with it for months, never feeling like it was quite right,” states the artist. “[Then] I moved on to another self-portrait [painted] in what felt like my natural style. It had a loose, expressive feel, and I finished it in two days.”
It was an important moment for the artist. “My professor,” shares Subway Doodle, “said it was better than the one I had spent months on.” Though analyzing and replicating techniques of other accomplished artists helped the student cultivate the skills he needed for actualizing what he imagined, it also made him realize that trying to be like someone else was setting him back. “This event stuck in my mind because it was the beginning of me recognizing the emergence of my own style,” he elaborates.
Finding his own style wasn’t easy. One of the artist’s hands, which is arguably one of his most useful tools, has a slight tremor that cannot be medically treated. Although Subway Doodle initially longed for the clean lean lines he saw at the Cartoon Museum, in magazines, and in school, he was unable to duplicate them. Finally, after much trial and error, he created a shading technique to define his edges that became the signature style of his work.
Today, Subway Doodle is an accomplished multimedia artist, writer, editor, animator, director and producer. The Mint Farm, his Brooklyn-based creative marketing studio, produces short-form content for the web, television and social media. He mixes photography, illustration, and digital collage to create imaginative depictions of New York City. His work has been recognized with dozens of media industry awards and displayed at the Museum of the Moving Image.
When asked what advice he’d give to young artists, “Art is a business,” states Subway Doodle. “Sometimes it’s a grind, and you have to get through it. It’s a job.” Indeed, it is. While Subway Doodle has certainly found success, he keeps finding ways of challenging himself creatively. His latest project is documented on Instagram, under the @RawHistory handle. There, he combines his interest in history with dark humor and a new cartoon style that features a more refined line.
Note* Subway Doodle prefers to go by his selected moniker.