On a stool in the corner of his grandmother’s Mott Haven apartment, Devon Rodriguez sits in his makeshift studio, layering glistening oil paint onto a wooden block, the painting surface he prefers over the traditional canvas because it shows a finer texture. The subject – a departure from the artist’s other portraits – is his father.
Just as his father left tattoos on arms and across backs as a professional tattoo artist, Rodriguez is leaving his mark, but not in ink — in oil paint. The Mott Haven native is fast becoming a young artist to watch.
Rodriguez himself was tattooed by his father and is keeping the tattooed red Hannya mask on his arm despite currently undergoing the process of removing his other tattoos. The portrait of his father tattooing is his way of honoring his father’s artistic legacy.
“Everybody on the block would show me their tattoos and say ‘Your dad is sick. Your dad did this and your dad did that,’” recalled Rodriguez, 21. He reconnected with his father just two years ago, months before his father died. But his father left behind a legacy of respect for his talent here in Mott Haven. Rodriguez says that respect was his protector on a block where you have to be tough to survive – when he really wasn’t.
Rodriguez has had great success getting his name out on the streets of the Bronx and outside of the borough by being active on social media. He is regularly commissioned by families from all over the city to paint portraits, including a recent one of a client’s beloved dog. His work – and talent — has been covered by The New Yorker, The New York Times and Vice.
He was first exposed to painting as a child, observing his grandfather use oil paints. Rodriguez attended both elementary and middle school and his first year of high school in the borough. He first got into art as a teenager by dabbling in graffiti.
He transferred to the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan for his final years of high school. It was there that he realized both the multitude of possibilities for artists and that there were plenty of students his age that were just as good as he was. However, his experience as a student attending a specialized high school in Manhattan was filled with awakening moments for him, and also for those around him.
“It was a total culture shock. The first year, I didn’t have any friends because I had a tattoo at 14 and everybody knew I was from the Bronx so they assumed that I was a thug,” Rodriguez said with a laugh.
But he quickly adjusted to the academics, taking AP art courses that trained him in oil painting and other mediums. He also adjusted socially and continues to be friends with some of his classmates. They now look back and laugh at their first judgments of each other, he said.
Through his high school education, Rodriguez learned many methods to paint but has always been keen on oils. He uses the backdrop of New York City as his inspiration as he takes photos of people and scenes that intrigue him as sources for his work. He then sketches an outline using the photograph as reference before starting with paint.
Soon after graduating high school, he moved in with his grandparents in Mott Haven, setting up shop in the corner of their living room. His grandfather grew sick of the paint fumes, so Rodriguez migrated to Brooklyn, where he rented a painting studio. His landlord there introduced him to his ex-wife, because she was on staff at The New Yorker, and the two – an unlikely pair – became fast friends.
“I put off meeting him for a long time because I was like ‘Who is this kid?’” recalled Dianne Belfrey, who is a copy editor at The New Yorker and is currently working on her first memoir. “He was so aware when we walked past the wall of all of the magazine’s covers and so educated on the artists who created the illustrations. I was surprised by how much he knew and how thoughtful, intelligent and poised he was.”
Not long after the two befriended each other, Rodriguez ran low on funds and Belfrey offered him a place to crash and a place to create. They spent many late nights talking about the struggles of being an artist, which led to the discovery of many similarities between the two – such as their keen eye for perfecting their craft and the shared struggle of living as an artist in a business-driven city.
“Dianne has always been supportive of my career and has introduced me and my work to all of her friends,” said Rodriguez. “I’ll never forget seeing the inside of a mansion for the first time in New Orleans when she introduced me to the amazing Jennifer Coolidge,” he recalled.
Just weeks after the duo met, Belfrey spontaneously invited Rodriguez to join her on a trip to New Orleans for a Halloween party hosted by Coolidge. Although the two laugh at the oddity of their cross-generational friendship, she knew it was important to expose the young artist to a world outside of New York City. For Rodriguez, he was exposed to much more than just a mansion for the first time, as he was among Hollywood’s elite and held close conversations with Coolidge and many others.
“It was exhilarating to see this young person out in the world,” recalled Belfrey. “Everywhere I take Devon, people like him but he isn’t trying to be liked. There is something deeply authentic about Devon.”
After his grandfather passed away, Rodriguez moved back in with his grandmother in the Bronx, but the two remain friends as she helps him network and offers advice. “My goal as his friend is to get him away from commissions because Devon has something to say with his art and people look for that,” said Belfrey.
The artist’s iPhone is his other window outside of the Bronx — so much so that he advises other young artists from the Bronx to be active on all social media in order to gain a following.
“When you grow up here, this is all you know so you don’t know how good people can really be,” he said. Instagram has allowed him to post his paintings and gain a decent following – he currently has 14.2k followers. Many of his commissions come from Instagram and one of his first gallery shows was a product of his social media exposure.
“We first discovered Devon’s work on Instagram,” said Dave Ethridge, co-curator and co-owner of Abend Gallery in Denver. Rodriguez was 18 when the gallery started showing his work, the youngest artist they had ever represented. “It’s exciting to work with a young artist like Devon. He is a prodigious talent and we are thrilled to be one of the first galleries to have shown him.”
Despite being featured in gallery shows as far away as Colorado, Rodriguez firmly believes that although creativity runs in his blood, the borough that raised him pushes him to keep succeeding.
“I think I would have become an artist if I was from anywhere else,” Rodriguez said. “But the Bronx motivated me to try to be the best and to push myself to the highest level of anything I pursue.”
The borough’s first Uniqlo, located at Union Bay Plaza, has picked one of his paintings to kick-off the Japanese clothing store’s artist-in-residency program. Rodriguez also recently returned to his middle school to speak to young art students.
“I just hope that I can keep up as an artist financially and to be able to paint whatever I want,” he said. “But I do feel blessed versus where I was.”