Enrico Miguel Thomas, 39, 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: an easel, every existing Sharpie in the color spectrum, acrylic paint, MTA subway maps, and endless determination. Thomas can be spotted at Union Square or by the 72nd street station meticulously recreating cityscapes as perspective drawings and transforming subway maps into masterpieces.
When I arrive at Thomas’ Red Hook, Brooklyn studio he is waiting by the elevator wearing a New York Yankees hat and a friendly smile. He takes me down long labyrinthine corridors to room 90, where the walls are colored with some of his favorite pieces and a framed New York Times article, in which he is featured.
“Art mimics life,” he says, explaining how drawing on subway maps turns one man’s trash into another man’s treasure. With expressive eyes and a calm, clear voice, Thomas has survived by doing just that. “It is like turning your life around,” he adds.
Art is more than a breadwinner for Enrico Miguel Thomas, it is an escape from a world that has left him physically and emotionally scarred. At the hands of his biological father, Thomas was driven into a coma with burns on more than 60 percent of his body when he was only three years old. 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 abuse, Thomas is rarely seen without his Yankees hat.
“Art provides a therapeutic refuge so that the world essentially disappears—because my father is still in this world and 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 others or what happened to me. [Art] is absolutely wonderful and powerful, and it has never failed me.”
Desperate to “make it to the big city” and escape a Staten Island home “run in a military fashion” – his mother remarried, and his stepfather was strict – Thomas ended up at Covenant House, a young-adult shelter on Manhattan’s West 17th street. “Finally,” he says, “I was completely free.”
“[Covenant House] didn’t feel like a shelter,” he recalls. “They had rules and requirements, but they created an atmosphere that helped [me] thrive and embrace [myself] as who I was. This was completely non-existent in the home I grew up in.”
Thomas never turned back, and claims to feel more at home than ever. “There is a logo that says ‘the spirit of NYC,’ and it’s true, … whether it’s the firefighters from 9/11, the police officers, the commuters in the subway or its entertainers. The spirit associated with NY is contagious and you become inspired simply by living here.”
He says there is no solitude in the city’s subway art world. “It is a vast world below. There are a lot of artists down there, all with big dreams of making it. When you see them, either as a commuter or as a fellow artist, you don’t feel so alone.”
With few exceptions, New Yorkers have welcomed Thomas’ work. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support 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, [knowing] that my art is hanging on someone’s wall and that they see that piece every day.”
Thomas realized early on that the best way to attract potential buyers was by working instead of sitting and 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. 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.”
Thomas believes his duty as an artist is to communicate the state of our world, to show that adversity can be turned on its head and conquered. “I have come from really nothing,” he says, “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. This is all because I never gave up. I fought so hard and I never took no for an answer.”
A conqueror of life’s hardships, Thomas refers to himself as the Rocky Balboa of the New York City art world: “You take the punches, you are all pummeled, but you keep on going.”
This article was published by Columbia University's Communique.