Hanging out with New York’s subway portraitist
“Isn’t it funny how people don’t like their profiles? Bumps, hooks—people hate those things,”Roderick Anthony Perry says, baffled. He loves bumpy noses and dimpled chins. “To me, that’s what makes people beautiful. Otherwise, it would be like a race of robots.” He pauses and grins. “That was the problem with fashion.”
Perry, who goes by the nickname Orin, says he used to work as a freelance fashion producer for magazines like One World and Inner City. He describes the job as “glorified messenger.” For the last three years, he has supplemented his income from various projects (most recently, murals for a clothing store in New Jersey) with donations he receives for portraits he draws on the subway.
I spent a few hours with Orin on a recent Thursday, riding the R train from City Hall to 59th street and back. “I like the R,” he said while we waited on the platform. We had barely met before the bumps in my nose were being celebrated (politely) on his clipboard. “Where is your family from?” he asked. This is a game he usually plays in his head, trying to guess the ethnicity of various straphangers before he gets any clues from talking to them.
Perhaps you have been the unwitting model for one of Orin’s works. Considering his gregariousness, he has a surprising ability to disappear in a car full of weary commuters and wide-eyed tourists. Sometimes he draws the pretty young woman painting her nails and listening to headphones, but he usually goes for faces with character, or whoever is closest to him.
The sketches, done in black marker on white computer paper, take a stop or two to complete. Starting with broad strokes—the hair, the jaw line—and then filling in with small, quick lines, the face emerges, like magic. The window behind the person, or the ad, fills in the background. Suddenly, he places a drawing on the seat next to his subject, with a note reading something like “Feel free to tip if you like the picture.” The reactions he gets vary—occasionally this creeps people out, but most often, a look of wonder spreads across the face of the muse. A dollar usually appears. Sometimes five.
On this particular Thursday, Orin chose as one of his subjects a curmudgeonly looking older man (Orin guessed that he might be Russian) with thinning hair and heavy eyes. The man watched him draw, looking annoyed, but when presented with the finished work, the frown lines in his face shifted into a beaming smile. Orin wasn’t as surprised as I was, saying later that it’s often those who look the least happy who are most pleased. But the man had no cash on him, and his smile quickly turned into an expression of unbearable guilt. Orin told him not to worry about it, and moved on to his next drawing, but the man (whose accent did indeed sound Eastern European) insisted on getting the artist’s phone number so he could somehow get the money to him later.
“How much is it?” he asked. Orin tried again to explain that donations were optional, but eventually he wrote on the paper: $1,000,000,000. “I can understand that you might not have that kind of cash on you,” he said. The man erupted into laughter, and Orin joined in. This is one of the great joys of New York, one that people unfortunately avoid too much—talking to strangers.
Later, a woman got on the train with six shaggy-haired blond boys, wallet chains dangling from the pockets of their shorts. Now, Orin found himself challenged to draw each one of them in just a few stops. “Draw me! Draw him!” they pleaded. The other passengers in the car moved closer to watch. The bolder boys posed eagerly, chins up and shoulders back; the littler ones were shoved in front of the clipboard, held up by the backs of their shirts by the older ones. Before rushing off the train, they compared their drawings. “Wow—you really look like you!” they said. “Thank you, sir.”
Afterwards, Orin talked about the difficulty of getting one of the boys’ eyes right. They were big but deep-set, and he should have used more shading. He says the subway is like an art class for him. “At some point, the train became my studio.”
Faster Than a Speeding Train: Artist Man
Published: July 06, 2006
When Rodrick A. Perry rides New York’s subways, his friendly face masks Polaroid eyes that can capture a rider in the time it takes to travel between two stations.
In that same time span, Mr. Perry, who has adopted the name Orin, will rough out a sketch of that rider, hand it to his subject and move on to draw someone else. His work is at once a solicitation and an act of altruism: a note at the bottom of the drawing suggests that tips are welcome but that in any case, the sketch is the rider’s to keep.
Soliciting tips for services may fly in the face of the Rules Governing the Conduct and Safety of the Public on the city’s subways and buses, Part 1050.6, to be specific. But so, it often seems, does smiling at and talking to strangers on the subway, which often happens among riders watching Mr. Perry work. They usually start out smiling at each other’s sketches, work up the nerve to comment on each other’s features and then share laments that they gave up their own tendencies to draw years ago.
On average, Mr. Perry said, he uses a pack of 500 sheets of laser-printer paper in a week. He said that about half the people whom he sketches reward him with a tip, usually $1 or $2. ”I set how much I want to make for the day,” he said, generally $50. He rarely collects that much, but as long as he brings in enough to pay his share of the rent, he says, he is satisfied.
His day on the subway can last two to four hours but he will work considerably longer if he is motivated by a particular theme. ”Some days I’ll just draw large women,” he said. ”Some days I’ll just draw kids. Most days I draw everyone.”
”I’ve been doing this full time for about a year, but I was always doing this between jobs,” he said. ”For 20 years I lived differently. I was a nine-to-fiver. I worked sales, I worked all these kinds of jobs and I would get up early in the morning, go to work and do what everyone else was doing.”
His former life, Mr. Perry said, has allowed him to ”totally understand when people are not receptive to what I’m doing.”
”This person’s had either a hard day; they don’t want to be bothered,” he said. ”It’s their option; it’s their privacy.”
He favors the R and the N trains in Manhattan, and in Queens, because he likes the view of Long Island City from the elevated track. He used to ride the E line, which runs from Queens to the World Trade Center, but has not returned since September 2001.
The R train is also one of Mr. Perry’s favorites because the cars have colored, individually molded seats rather than lines of bench seating. ”The way things are lined up in the R, people can be in their own space, be doing their thing and not so superconscious of you looking straight at them,” he said.
The setup also makes his stealth approach easier. While even the hint of objection from his subject will send him moving, he can often finish a sketch before his model is even aware of his presence, leaving the person to decide how to respond to his or her new likeness as Mr. Perry searches for another face. ”I try to be discreet about it, but I also have an aim,” he said. ”I try not to make it too much of a hustle for them. Like I try not to set a price for them because I think to myself: ‘People should have a right to decide. They don’t need art; it’s not like bread.”
Sometimes, Mr. Perry is unable to finish a sketch before his subject gets up and walks away. When that happens, he flips the unfinished drawing down to the bottom of his stack of paper and moves on. He keeps all the partial works, as well as those drawings that are left behind. ”I’ll file them away,” he said, ”thinking to myself that if I’m ever doing commercial work, I would use these faces to make the illustrations a bit more realistic.”
Mr. Perry has been sketching riders for so long that some recognize him, and either move away or signal that they would like a paper portrait.
On an uptown R train in Manhattan one recent afternoon, a young girl giggled and blushed a bright red as she watched Mr. Perry sketch another rider. Then she moved into a seat across from him, cajoled her severe, matronly companion into sitting beside her, and asked Mr. Perry to sketch them. After asking where they were getting off, he took what is for him an unusual amount of time– five stops, from Herald Square to Lexington Avenue and 59th Street. Clearly pleased, they handed him a few folded dollar bills as they got off the train. Mr. Perry got off too, then boarded a downtown R train and continued sketching.