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Meet the 25-year-old artist behind those viral subway drawings on TikTok

Devon Rodriguez spoke to TODAY about his wild rise to fame.
/ Source: TODAY

During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and pride. We are highlighting Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the month of September and October. For more, head here.

Last summer, Devon Rodriguez's life changed in an instant. He remembers the moment like it was yesterday. The aspiring artist posted a video to his @devonrodriguezart TikTok account on Aug. 10, 2020, and the next thing he knew, he was racking up millions of views.

"I did the first subway drawing. I posted it and it got, I think, 4.9 million views," Rodriguez told TODAY. "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.'"

Rodriguez says he loves "drawing everyone" and doesn't choose his subway subjects in any specific way.Courtesy Devon Rodriguez

A year later, the Bronx native has gone from 35 TikTok followers in June 2020 to nearly 20 million. The 25-year-old has built a name for himself drawing strangers on the New York City subway, filming parts of the process and the reactions when he shares the finished product with his subjects. Rodriguez, who's partial to the No. 6 train that runs between the Bronx and Manhattan, is still shocked by how far he's come in just 13 months.

Rodriguez says his favorite subway line is the No. 6 line because that's the one he would always take in the Bronx.Courtesy of Kreg Franco

"It's so insane. Some days I wake up and I can't even believe it," Rodriguez said. Getting recognized for his art on social media is something he dreamed of. "I always tried everything and then TikTok was the thing that worked for me."

Fans message Rodriguez and leave comments telling him his videos motivate them, cheer them up or otherwise touched them in some way. One wrote, "Love the reactions and smiles you can see under the masks."

Another commented, "So talented, you bring joy to others."

Rodriguez said, "They'll send me paragraphs and paragraphs, and I read a lot of the DMs, so I'm like, 'Wow, that's so crazy that they think that I'll never see this but they still feel compelled to send it because they feel like they have to. It's so amazing."

Rodriguez first got the idea in 2011 to draw people on the subway, a common exercise assigned to art students, from his former high school art teacher, Jeremy Harper, whom he first met a decade ago at the now-closed Samuel Gompers High School in the South Bronx.

Rodriguez told TODAY he's wanted to be an artist since he was a young boy. He's pictured here at age 7 riding a subway car in New York City. Courtesy Devon Rodriguez

Rodriguez hadn't even wanted to attend Gompers at the time. He had set his sights on the High School of Art and Design in midtown Manhattan, which required prospective students to submit a portfolio of illustrations, but at the end of eighth grade, Rodriguez didn't make the cut.

He recalled telling Harper about what happened, and it was Harper who helped transform his life and introduce him to a world outside the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, where Rodriguez grew up.

"He was like, 'Well, bring your portfolio and we'll go over it. So I brought it to him and he was like, 'Of course you didn't get in. This is not good enough.'" Rodriguez recounted. "I never had anybody tell me that. My whole life, everybody always told me that I was the most talented person. So I thought I was good and I wasn't."

Harper helped Rodriguez sharpen his skills for the next six months, both in class and after school. "All the stuff he was teaching me, like portrait drawing and still lifes and drawing realism, that's when I started to take it (seriously)," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez's work isn't limited to pencil drawings. The artist also creates hyperrealistic oil paintings.Courtesy Devon Rodriguez

The work paid off, and later in 2011, Rodriguez transferred to his dream school. Around this same time, his home life was changing as well. He was 14 at the time and had just moved in to his grandmother’s home. He said his mother had been abusive toward him and his father wasn’t in his life, after leaving the family when he was about 4 years old.

In addition to his art teacher, Rodriguez credits his grandmother for supporting him, and now that his art career is taking off, he's determined to give back: "My grandma saved me from that terrible situation. She was always extremely poor. She came here from Honduras 30 years ago and was always in poverty in the Bronx so I get to help her financially."

Rodriguez with his grandmother, Maria Estrada, who helped raise him and opened her home to him when he was a teenager.Courtesy Devon Rodriguez

Before he captured the internet’s attention, Rodriguez would sell portrait commissions. He used to do oil paintings and was even featured in The New Yorker and The New York Times prior to his online fame.

"Nobody really knows about that so I want to go back to that and do more oil paintings," he said. "I feel like my real art is more elaborate."

Even still, he never gave up on making it big on social media. Since going viral, Rodriguez has garnered TikTok and brand deals and is now signed with United Talent Agency. In the near future, Rodriguez hopes to travel outside the U.S. for the first time and expand his famous subway portraits beyond New York City.

“I'm always getting all these comments saying, ‘Oh, my God, come to the Tube in London or come to the Paris subway.’ So I want to do that and I want to create a series," he said. Maybe one day, he added, he'd be able to combine his painting and sketching talents for an art show.

“I would love to be in the art world too," he added. "That would be so cool to be a social media star and also a real artist.”

For more of our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, tune into TODAY All Day’s special, “Come with Us: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” hosted by Tom Llamas. Watch Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. EST at TODAY.com/allday.