Drawing Every Person in New York: Talking with Illustrator Jason Polan About an Impossible Project

Photos: Jason Polan

Drawing every inhabitant of New York City is an impossible task, but illustrator Jason Polan is still sketching his way through largest metropolis in the United States, illustrating the city’s eight million denizens a few scribbles at a time. He’ll probably never get there, but at least his project will forever be immortalized in a book, which will be the first in an eventually sprawling series.

Every Person in New York, Vol, 1 is perhaps the only act of pure voyeurism that could also be seen as a study in demographics: Polan admits to spying on people as they sit on park benches, or when they walk their dogs or sit munching on nachos at Taco Bell. Many of the people included in his work had no idea they were being illustrated.

Polan is no stranger to cataloguing seemingly uncountable objects, as he once drew every work in the MoMA, twice. The nature of his project, which mirrors the grand scheme Sufjan Steven’s once had to record an album in honor of each state in the US, is mathematically impossible, if not admirable for its quirkiness and variety.

Polan’s drawings sometimes veer down a more abstract path, but they nonetheless convey the broad spectrum of life we’re confronted with here in New York. Some of his illustrations are minimalist while others are heavily intricate and more detailed. While most of the figures he draws are the city’s everyday people, a handful of them are notables like Louis CK and Hannibal Buress.

Below, we ask the artist a little bit about the ideation and process behind the book, and also showcase some select illustrations featured in Every Person in New York, Vol 1. 

When and why did you decide to undertake this particular project?
I started the project in March of 2008.  I had been thinking about it for a bit before that–I wanted to do a project that included a lot of people but in a not terribly aggressive way.  I also wanted to get better at drawing people.
I’m assuming you had to delve into voyeur-mode to draw certain people in New York. What was it like sketching unwitting strangers?
The drawings look better if the people I am drawing do not know I am drawing them–usually they do not notice me.  
You obviously haven’t drawn everyone in NYC, but do you think your book represents a pretty accurate cross-spectrum of the general population?
I do not know.  That is why we called the book Volume 1.  It is just such a tiny beginning to the project.
Do you think you’ll continue to work on this project even after the book is published?
Yes, I am still working on the project (I drew people yesterday; I just haven’t gone outside yet today).
What’s special about drawing New Yorkers as opposed to people from another city? Are New Yorkers special? 
I am not sure but I do like drawing people here a lot.

Photo: Jason Polan

3486. Robin at Five Guys on 55th Street 9-25-2013


3515. Woman on 21st Street 10-1-2013


2511. Hannibal Buress at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre 3-27-2012

5-20-2012 Man in Prospect Park

+8-7-2013 Man at Whitney Museum

polan drawing 1

3-10-2014 Louis CK on MacDougal


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