Draw the Line

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.

An Orin original
photo: Nina Lalli
An Orin original

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."

 
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