Have you ever sat next to a man in a bear suit on the subway? It happens more often than you might think.
Sophie Blackall, the artist behind the new poster that’s all over MTA subways these days, has been subtly observing New Yorkers on the train ever since she came to the city from Australia 12 years ago. Blackall has literally written the book on anonymous New Yorkers on trains. Her work, Missed Connections, is a series of illustrations based on the Cragislist posts that New Yorkers write hoping to find that someone they shared a connection with.
Blackall’s artwork depicts a “smattering” of the typical and not-so-typical New Yorkers we see everyday. The Orthodox Jew reading, the fashionista applying make-up, the family of tourists scouring the subway map and that one couple making out who always block the doorway.
To speak about her latest subway art, Blackall met with the Queens Beat at a pie shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, surrounded by noisy trucks and gritty vans which contrasted Blackall’s sunny Aussie disposition. Ever the artist, Blackall wore a necklace made up of five white, colored pencil tops. In one hand is an iced coffee, in the other, her book.
How was your design selected for the subway?
I just got a call out of the blue from the MTA Art for Transit program. They commission two artists a year and then the posters are up for the whole year. They have this magic list of people they want to work with.
It’s a fantastic, fantastic opportunity and a thrill. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. As an illustrator you have your few dream jobs and this is definitely one of them.
What inspired this specific portrayal of New Yorkers?
It came out of the book I did, which in turn came out of a blog called Missed Connections, which is about the anonymous posts people put on Craigslist, Lovelorn strangers writing to one another. So I wanted it to be in that similar vein because it’s the subway train where most of the missed connections in New York City happen.
I wanted to portray all these people with all these subtle interactions, which is what I love about the subway generally. And they’re not all romantic interactions, you just see beautiful, wonderful, odd, bizarre, crazy, funny, sad things every subway ride, if you’re looking for them.
One of the weird, funny things that’s come out of it is seeing people who are exactly like someone in that line-up of people sitting directly underneath the poster.
Just the other day I got on and there was a woman who had a coughing fit, and a man about six people down, an elderly black gentleman, got a handkerchief out of his bag and passed it along to this lady and it was just this little act of kindness. And then there was this businessman reading some kind of economic financial newspaper and he looked incredibly conservative and then he had green nail polish. There are things like that I think are particular to New York.
Were the people in your poster based on real people?
They’re based on people who I’ve seen, since I’ve been riding the subway. I’ve lived in New York twelve years now since I came from Australia. In that whole time I’ve filled sketchbooks and my head with these characters. So they were just waiting for a place to sit together.
Do people ever notice you sketching them on the subway?
Occasionally. Sometimes people are fine. Sometimes I give the drawing to the person. Sometimes they’re not fine and you can tell pretty much straight away. There are a lot of people who draw on the subway and they have their ways of drawing in subtle ways.
With so many characters in your book, how did you choose?
Well, I wanted it to be as diverse a group as possible, which is what the subway is. You don’t often get everybody in the same car but you often get a good smattering of people who represent the entire citizens of New York
I actually went about it in a methodical scientific way. I drew the architectural background of the subway car first, measured it, counted it and came up with thirty people. I had maybe 50 or 60 characters in mind, and then I broke down into columns just the different things I wanted to make sure were represented. So gender, age, ethnic background, religious background, different occupations, tourists, locals, all those different categories. They were the 30 I hoped were a decent group. You can’t possibly get all of New York into 30 characters. I had to leave some people out that I was particularly sad to leave out.
Is there any character you like the best?
I’m very fond of the guy in the bear suit. He was one of the original Missed Connections. I actually met him in real life. He came to the book launch, which was fantastic. Actually, one of the many bizarre things that have come out of this was once the poster went up in the trains, I got an e-mail from a guy who said ‘I’m just so blown away that you’ve put me in your poster.” And he sent me a photograph of him on the train in the exact position in a bear suit with a bear head on his lap and he even looks like the guy I drew. It’s just so bizarre. It was a completely different guy who just happened to be on the subway on day wearing a bear suit. You would think out of all of them that that would be the one that would totally be made up, yet, it’s actually true.
What are you working on now?
Another thing that’s happened from this poster is that somebody from an organization called the Measles Initiative saw the short film that was made by Etsy about the making of the poster and asked me to go visit equatorial Africa to visit remote communities that have been affected by measles and to design and draw a series of posters which are illustrations based on that, which will be used for advocacy awareness to raise money and help the vaccination in other third world countries. I’ve never been to Africa and I would never otherwise have had the opportunity to go into these remote villages and meet people and hang out with children. It’s been amazing. Hopefully it’ll bring down the numbers because at the moment there are about four hundred children dying a day. It’s pretty intense.
What has the response to the poster been like?
The response to it has been absolutely extraordinary. Completely, overwhelmingly lovely. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that’s had this much exposure and that has made me so happy. It sounds really sentimental or something but I get e-mails almost every day from people riding the subway who have noticed it and have taken the time to write down my name and then bother writing to me when they’re above ground. That’s quite an effort and I’ve really appreciated it. I think people thinks it’s genuine. It seems authentic to them. They recognize themselves in it and they recognize New York in it. And that’s what I was really hoping for.