Before the age of anodyne stock images and computer-generated cartoon characters, human beings were charged with illustrating government copy. So it was in 1974, when the NYPD tapped Patrolman Leo Poulsen to draw the accompanying images for a pamphlet designed to improve the safety and security of businesses and their employees. His illustrations depict a New York of shady, bell-bottomed operators, cartoonish Bowery tropes, full-figured women, and fairy tale characters, all rendered in that bizarre '70s-style caricature that is that is both playful and unsettling.
Poulsen, who joined the NYPD in 1959 after serving in the Korean War, also wrote the gossip column for his station house, Brownsville's 73rd Precinct, in the police trade magazine Spring 3100. His columns string together memorable arrests and events with references to works from Steinbeck and Kipling, and inserted his colleagues into his own world of "deranged British horsemen" as they defended what he called "Fort Z." His humor and stream-of-consciousness style stand in stark contrast to the chummy repetition of names that seem to be the norm for other precincts [PDF].
"He was a real cop, a real hard-nosed cop, and you wouldn't know from his hard-nosed cop attitude that there was this artistic side to him unless you saw that edge to him in his writing or his art," Poulsen's daughter Ellen says. "He was interested in law and order and the accoutrements of the military lifestyle, but at the same time he had this artistic bent. There was a zany side with a deep interest in art and writers."
Ellen Poulsen says that her father, who lived in the Cypress Hills section of East New York, often drew and painted in his free time, and won an award for his work the same year this pamphlet was published. Eventually he was transferred to the Graphic Arts Department downtown, where he depicted scenes and characters in safety and promotional materials. "He found his niche in the art department," Poulsen says. "I think he found a certain peace there."
Poulsen, an author, says The New York Times published the image of the characters in the elevator, uncredited ("He got a kick out of that"). She calls her father's figures in the pamphlet "off-the-wall," and admits they probably wouldn't get past Human Resources today.
"Stuff like the women with the big breasts—it's funny to look at, but as a woman myself, I don't think I'd like to see it."
Leo Poulsen died of heart disease a few months after his retirement in 1980, at the age of 50. "He was a heavy smoker. He lit his cigarette off his birthday candles. That's just who he was.
"He never had the opportunity to be and artist and live that bohemian Williamsburg lifestyle that you see now. He had a family to support, and we were working class...But he depicted the life of a police officer with humor and some pathos, and he was very proud of that. To his credit, he always managed to find a way to create art."