Enrico Miguel Thomas is popularly known to New Yorkers as the “Subway Map Artist of NYC”. His studio: the city’s subway cars, platforms and train stations. His tools of choice: an easel, every existing Sharpie in the color spectrum, acrylic paint, MTA subway maps and an endless determination. He can be regularly spotted at Union Square, or by the West 72nd street station, meticulously recreating cityscapes as perspective drawings, transforming subway maps into masterpieces.
When I arrive at Enrico’s 183 Lorraine Street, Brooklyn studio, he is waiting for me by the elevator with his habitual NY navy-blue hat and friendly smile. He takes me down long labyrinth-like corridors to room 90, where the walls are colored with his favorite pieces and a framed page of the April 22, 2010, New York Times, in which our artist was featured.
On the floor is a giant subway map on which Enrico has drawn train cars and commuters in silver marker. He stares at the finished work and utters, as if in disbelief, “they were going to throw this away at the MTA museum because it had a tiny crease. Now I have turned it into something beautiful.”
Part of Enrico’s philosophy is to recycle, making “something great of what others consider utterly useless” – like subway maps, which commuters simply discard and he transforms into priceless works of art.
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” he says. “And art mimics life. So this is like turning your life around. Taking something bad or negative and turning it into something positive and beautiful.”
Through kind and expressive eyes and a calm, yet brutally honest voice, I would soon learn that Enrico has survived and lives by struggling to turn adversity on its head and constantly fighting to conquer it.
Now 39, Enrico started drawing more than three decades ago by mimicking images from comic books strips and enrolling in every possible poster contest in his native Houston, Texas. Wherever he would be, art was always a part of his life.
Growing up in a military family, Enrico did not have much choice but to move with his mother and siblings, when his stepfather was stationed in Staten Island, NY, in 1985. While living in “complete suburbia”, he would get hints “here and there of what Manhattan had to offer” but would mostly dream of making it to the big city.
Eventually Enrico did make it, only not in the way he had envisioned. Desperate to get away from a home ran in a “military fashion”, Enrico ended up at Covenant House, a young-adult shelter on West 17th street. “At least I was in Manhattan,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe I was in the city, finally, I was completely free.”
“[Covenant House] didn’t feel like a shelter. They had rules and requirements, but they created an atmosphere that helped [me] thrive and embrace [myself] as who I was. [It was a place] for my personal growth and self-realization. This was completely non-existent in the home I grew up in.”
Enrico never turned back, and claims to feel more at home than ever in New York City. “There is a logo that says ‘the spirit of New York,’ and it’s true. The people in NYC have this spirit, whether it’s the firefighters from 9/11, the police officers, the commuters who take the subway each and every day or its entertainers. The spirit associated with New York is contagious and you become inspired simply by living here.”
He guarantees there is no solitude in the city’s subway art world. “[It] is a vast world below. You know there are a lot of artists down there – singers, musicians and visual artists – all with big dreams of making it. And when you see them, either as a commuter or as a fellow artist, you don’t feel so alone.”
With very few exceptions, New Yorkers have welcomed Enrico’s work and given him strength to continue fighting. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support that has been given to me by the city’s population,” he admits. “Even little kids are inspired by my work, intrigued and amazed by it. So many people have bought my pieces. This means so much to me, to know that my art is hanging on someone’s wall and that they see that piece every day. It’s really something when you know you have made a contribution to humanity. In some way, in any way that you want or chose.”
Enrico considers himself a self-made entrepreneur with a unique sales strategy. He realized early on that the best way to attract would-be buyers was simply by working instead of sitting, wondering when someone would purchase his work. “That is not the energy I want to emanate,” he claims.
“When you are engaged in your work, it becomes contagious. I think that when people see that you love what you are doing, it is so attractive that they will approach you, ask you questions and even want to purchase something. The love of something really and truly overpowers anything else. It is really not that complicated. When you really love something, it monopolizes any other doubts that you might have about what you are doing, to the point that you become successful.”
But for Enrico Miguel Thomas, art is more than a passion and breadwinner, it is an escape from the evils of a world which has left him physically and emotionally scarred. A victim of child battery in the hands of his biological father, Enrico was driven into a coma with burns over more than 60% of his body. Three facial reconstructive surgeries followed, leaving scars covering his scalp and running down either sides of his face. “A bit self-conscious” of the marks of repeated abuse, Enrico is rarely seen without his navy-blue New York hat.
“For me, art provides a therapeutic refuge, so that the world essentially disappears. Because my father is still in this world and even my body that was severely injured is still in this world. But when I am doing my work, my body seems to disappear and my spirit comes out, and that is what is doing the drawing. So I don’t care how I look to other people or what happened to me.”
“Magically and mysteriously this dominates the period of time that I am working. It will completely take over the moment and obliterate anything that was once bothering me. This is absolutely wonderful and powerful, and it has never failed me.” Through a daily psychological struggle, Enrico claims to be emerging “a new person, a better person, a person that is more enlightened.”
Enrico believes his duty as an artist is to use his talent to communicate the state of our world. And this is precisely what he seeks to accomplish by working in the city’s dark, dirty undergrounds. “Working down there is sometimes impossible, you have the wind, trains, crowds, dirt and rats. But […] if I can overcome these difficult conditions, I can show the world, metaphorically, that adversity can be turned on its head and conquered. And that you can aspire to become whoever you want to become, no matter how hard the conditions are.”
Working on the streets and undergrounds of Manhattan has posed all kinds of challenges. Enrico tells me of two distinct episodes which left him emotionally distraught. Once, a passerby threw ice at him while he was kneeling down on the A-train platform, finishing a beautiful piece, which now hangs on his studio wall. On another occasion, an inebriated woman took some of his markers and drew on a completed cityscape drawing, claiming “to want to finish his work for him.”
“Oh my God, I was absolutely crushed,” he laughs. “I mean, this is just the kind of stuff you encounter in Manhattan.” Despite the shared amusement, Enrico admits both episodes were emotionally challenging. “There is an extremely intimate relationship I have with my work, as far as being therapeutic for me [and] considering my history. [They] didn’t know that. But I did.”
Enrico just kept going. A fighter and conqueror of life’s hardships, he likes to refer to himself as the Rocky Balboa of the NYC art world. “I have come from really nothing, from being in a coma with tubes connected to me so that I could breathe, to being a Pratt Institute graduate, to being featured in the New York Times. And this is all because I never gave up. I fought so hard and I never took no for an answer. There have been so many enemies who have tried to take me down, and doubt me and my abilities. And I’ve always said ‘no’ to them. But ‘yes’ to myself.”
“Life is hard, and art is life. I don’t feel I can separate the two. [But] you keep going, you have to keep going. Like I said, the Rocky Balboa of the NYC art world. You take the punches, you are all pummeled, but you keep on going.”