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Restaurateurs Mourn Death of Artist Jason Polan, a Fixture in NYC’s Food Scene

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The beloved New York illustrator was known for hosting drawing clubs in Taco Bell near Union Square

Jason Polan, wearing a blue jacket, holds a sketchbook inside a busy Grand Central Station. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Jason Polan, a beloved New York illustrator known for hosting drawing clubs in Taco Bell restaurants, died of colon cancer on Monday at 37 years old, his family tells the New York Times. In the day following his death, there has been an outpouring of remembrances for the artist on social media, particularly from New York City restaurateurs, whose walls, windows, and menus Polan’s work touched.

When Polan moved to Manhattan from suburban Michigan in 2004, he wanted to learn as much as possible about New York City. Drawing New Yorkers — and writing about the food that they ate — quickly became the way for him to do it. In his lifetime, the artist drew more than 30,000 New Yorkers rushing to work, sleeping on the subway, walking too fast, and eating alone for his project Every Person in New York. Polan also periodically wrote burger reviews for Lucky Peach, the now-closed food magazine started by chef David Chang and writer Peter Meehan.

Polan’s work as a writer and illustrator brought him to subway stations, street corners, and the Museum of Modern Art — where he drew every piece of art on the museum’s walls — but no place in New York City made an impression on the artist quite like Taco Bell.

Beginning in 2005, Polan hosted the Taco Bell Drawing Club, a motley crew that assembled once a week at a Taco Bell off of Union Square. The group — which first consisted of Polan’s friends and, later, his social media followers — was less about producing great art as much as it was about finding a moment to come together, talk, and draw. Polan, who lived in Manhattan, chose Taco Bell because it reminded him of his hometown in suburban Michigan, he told the New Yorker in 2018.

Like Every Person in New York, the Taco Bell Drawing Club was founded on inclusivity: All one had to do to join was show up. Polan had laminated cards on-hand that read, “Official Member, Taco Bell Drawing Club.” Some people would bring an object with them to sketch, while others opted buy one. “A lot of people draw what they eat,” Mr. Polan said in 2018. “We get a lot of drawings of burritos.”

In addition to Taco Bell, Polan frequented countless restaurants in New York City, including Momofuku, Superiority Burger, and Russ & Daughters cafe, the latter of which hangs his art on its walls.

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