jason polan has drawn every person in new york (almost)

The illustrator talks to i-D about why Taco Bell is the best place to work and make new friends.

by Sarah Moroz
07 September 2015, 1:30pm

Illustrator Jason Polan likes to play with his food: from drawing Tom Selleck on a TOMato ("Haha this is a good joke") to making Mickey Mouse slash Princess Leia configurations with his home fries. He started the Taco Bell Drawing Club - a regular meetup for fellow doodlers - with the fast food chain's "free refill" policy in mind. He makes cheeky jokes ("Check out this triceratops skull I just found in the backyard just kidding it's a brownie"), and always infuses this playfulness into his work as an artist. He has done drawings for Nike, Criterion Collection, Audubon Society and The New York Times, and he reviews burgers for Lucky Peach. Sometimes he leaves his drawings around New York for others to find, tucking treasure hunt-like clues between the pages of books by Jean Dubuffet or Etgar Keret.

His ongoing project "Every Person in New York," in progress since March 2008, has recently been published by Chronicle (with an intro by Kristen Wiig). Its 408 pages include quick, freeform black-and-white drawings of New York's varied denizens. Organized chronologically, the density of characters changes per page, just like the NYC landscape. Polan's keen observations are visual and textual - an authentic encapsulation of city life and the many creatures that roam it.

There's a notable celebrity presence in your work, from Jake Gyllenhaal to Rachel Dratch to Judy Blume to Rafael Nadal. Do you take a different approach to capturing someone whose face or silhouette you're already somewhat familiar with?
I think about likenesses a lot (and often have trouble with them). I find that sometimes I want to cheat - if I am drawing a nose, I want to draw a nose the way I think a nose looks, rather than how the nose on that person looks. I don't consciously draw famous people differently than non-famous people, but I think I worry more about that "likeness" because a lot of other people already know how that person looks. Usually the drawing looks better if I am not thinking too hard and just make it.

How do you know when a drawing is done, or when to abandon it?
Often, the drawing is done when the person walks away or moves. Other times, it is when I just feel like I covered everything.

Tell me about Taco Bell Drawing Club - how did it come about? What are the advantages of using Taco Bell as a clubhouse?
I started drawing at a Taco Bell near Union Square in Manhattan about ten years ago. I have always liked Taco Bell. They had pretty good tables for drawing and free drink refills. After not too long, I thought it would be fun to invite people to draw with me. There are over 250 members around the country. I have met a lot of my friends through the club.

On Instagram, you are wonderfully anecdotal and almost stream-of-consciousness in your captions. Have you always been that way, or does the public platform bring out something extra?
I used to do a weekly project for The New York Times called "Things I Saw." I would draw things I noticed. Some of the things were pretty notable (Mount Rushmore) but other things weren't necessarily terribly important if you were just looking at them (a ping-pong paddle, for example) but everything had at least a bit of a story to me (the ping-pong paddle was in a friend's studio and he had just demolished me at a game of ping-pong). I think that project really pushed me to look a lot more, and Instagram has been an extension of that.

The titles of your books - Every Person in New York, Every Piece of Art in the MoMA - evoke a completist desire. Where does this come from?
I like collecting things and I like the idea of sets. For the MoMA book, I initially wanted to get a job at the museum, and to prove how serious I was (and how much I loved MoMA), I decided to make that book. I didn't get much of a response on that end, but I was really proud of the book, so I decided to publish it and make it available to people. I like the idea that you can hold everything you would see during a visit to MoMA in your hands.

On your Instagram, you cite Sol LeWitt murals, a favorite Mike Kelley book, a Robert Frank encounter, a Gustave Courbet painting... What are some of your other favorite references?
Some artists I like are Derek Erdman, Robin Cameron, Tauba Auerbach, Rich Jacobs and Jay Ryan. Fritz Swanson was a writing teacher in college and we became friends and the way I look at things comes a bit from him I think. Peter Meehan is really good at writing about food and all different other things. I like my friends and family a lot and get ideas from them.

Tell me about your habits. Is regularity important to you? What makes you reach for your pen?
I go to the post office a lot. I eat a lot of sandwiches. I like things that are normal and regular sometimes, because I know what to expect (like going to Taco Bell), but I also like things that are weird and not normal because they make me think a little bit more or differently.

Do you dabble in other artistic practices beyond drawing?
I like taking pictures, making prints (silkscreen/letterpress/etching/lithography/potato), painting, making little sculptures and other things. I like science too.

How did you start out as an artist? Did you have any terrible jobs before becoming an illustrator?
I have always drawn. I wouldn't say the jobs were terrible (but I was maybe terrible at them). I was an umpire in the little league where I am from, and I remember being very bad at that. I worked at the Borders bookstore in Manhattan not too long after moving here. It was the one in Columbus Circle in New York, and a lot of famous people would come in, and the people I worked with were cool, so I guess it was usually pretty fun.



Text Sarah Moroz
Images courtesy Jason Polan

New York
Jason Polan
Every Person in New York