Nora Zeid in Starbucks going through her digital sketches she has done on the Metro. Feb 12, 2020. Raghad Murad

Commuting to Work, a Time to Create Art

On her daily commute in the Dubai metro, Nora Zeid, 22, draws on an empty white page in a thick sketchbook. An elderly woman, seemingly sleeping on the seat across from her has caught her attention. Nora is now fully concentrated on drawing the portrait of the woman, with fast strokes on the paper.  She has learned to sketch people quickly, as she never knows at what station they will get off. 

Today, the Egyptian graphic designer has a collection of some 60 drawings of random passengers from the metro. “I like hard features — people with angular noses, high cheekbones, or strong jawlines … people with round features, round noses or big brown eyes,” Zeid said in an interview.  

Illustration of a man on the metro courtesy of Nora Zeid.

The Dubai metro provides a public space that inspires “commuter artists,” like many trains and subways around the world.

A commuter in both Barcelona and Paris, a 38-year-old French artist known as Lapin published 30 books with his illustrations, including collections of works about metro commuters from different countries.  

“I started sketching the commuters in the subway in Paris 18 years ago, on my way to work every day. I might have filled about 70 sketchbooks in the subway over the years,” Lapin, who’s artist name means rabbit in French, said by email. “It takes me one or two metro stops to capture someone in my sketchbook. I can focus on faces, hands, clothes — a never-ending inspiration.”  

Image of metro sketch courtesy of Lapin

Based in Cologne, Germany, Tim Piotrowski, 33, published a book about his “underground” art. “The idea of the book came from a friend because with time, many pictures were created. I wanted to show a little bit of the process of drawing,” Piotrowski said in text messages. 

Picture from Project Subway Studies, an exhibition initiated by Tim Piotrowski in Cologne, Germany in October of 2017. The exhibition featured his digital drawings as well as his self-published book Subway Studies. Image courtesy of Herz Herz Hurra website.

In the United States, artist Sarah Kahle has been drawing during her daily commute since 2016. “I was frustrated with not having enough time to dedicate to my art practice, and decided to use the time to draw during my commute to work,” Kahle said in a text message.  

Picture from the EF Language Center in Washington, DC that featured Sarah Kahle’s metro sketches in 2018. Image courtesy of Sarah Kahle.

Also in the States in New York, Jasmine McAllister, 26, has also been doodling in the subway since she moved to the city three months ago. “I was in the subway drawing someone, and someone else was drawing me,” she recalled over a Skype interview, laughing at the comical incident. McAllister worked on a special piece dedicated to love. “I took a lot of the places I drew from the metro, and I made them in the shape of a heart. Now, I have prints of them and it’s the favorite thing I made.” 

Because metro artists often observe closely other commuters as they sketch them, the response isn’t always positive.

Bharvi Dasson, 24, recalls an incident in the New Delhi metro. “Once an aunty thought I was a police officer trying to spy on a couple in the metro,” Dasson said over text messages. “I just laughed it off, and said that I’m just an artist and a working professional.”  

Metro art is not limited to sketches and can involve photography like the ones taken by Samar Khan, 26, a commuter in the New Delhi metro. “I became an artist when people on Instagram started calling me that,” Khan, an engineer, said during a Skype interview. More than the people, it is the scene that’s interesting for the photographer who is “taking hundreds of pictures every day.” 

After taking hundreds of pictures every day through his commute in the Delhi Metro, Samar Khan picks a few to illustrate on. His pieces take three to four metro rides to render completely. Image courtesy of Samar Khan’s Instagram profile (@metrodoodle).

In Dubai like elsewhere, Zeid has found more than inspiration in the metro. It has become a way of life that brought her some unexpected recognition. “Someone saw my metro doodles and asked me why don’t I do live drawings at an event (…) at DIFC Art Night, and this led to another live drawing event with Chalk at AlSerkal,” the art district of Dubai, she said.

Edited by: Mais Othman

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