Drawing and Hustling in Washington, D.C.

BY Kurtis Lee  February 9, 2011 at 3:32 PM EST


Video by Mike Fritz, Kurtis Lee and Tom LeGro.
Nikita Z. Murray sees dollar signs — not faces — when he sits down to draw a portrait.

It’s a Friday afternoon in Arlington, Va., and Murray is working the shopping mall food court. He’s sitting at the center of a long table, close to two teenagers eating sandwiches three seats to his left. To his right is an older gentleman wearing some gold jewelry and sipping coffee.

Murray digs into his fanny pack for a piece of charcoal. He’s been using this piece for two days and it’s almost gone. He opens his 17×14-sketch pad.

He’s ready to push the pen, as he likes to say.

Murray begins to draw the teenage girl seated to his left. He starts with her eyes, then her nose. He constantly looks at her, then back to the sketchpad in front of him. Unaware, the girl continues to eat and chat with her male companion. But the man sipping coffee has taken a keen interest in his sketch.

“This is a profile portrait, because I’m looking at her from the side,” mutters Murray.

He outlines the girl’s face and fills in her hair, capturing exactly the way her ponytail is positioned. In the bottom left corner, a single stroke marks his signature.

Murray is finished in less than 10 minutes.

“Wow, looks just like her,” says the older man. Murray, ignoring the comment, rises from his seat, rips the piece of paper from his sketchbook and hands it to the girl.

“This is for you,” he says.

Taken aback by the abrupt introduction, the girl smiles once she sees her reflection sketched on the paper. She nods pleasantly as Murray returns to his seat.

“You next,” Murray says to the older man — a statement, not a question. The man obliges, and Murray goes to work.


***

“Pushing the pen” is Murray’s full-time job: street hustle mixed with artistic talent. Murray’s studio is the shopping mall and the subway trains that crisscross the nation’s capital.

Murray, 49, catches the metro near his apartment in Southeast Washington. En route to popular hang out spots, Murray sizes up his subjects and manages to draw them in a frenetic fashion before they get off the train. He targets people he believes will be willing to pay him something.

Sometimes a picture will go for $2, others for $20. Sometimes he gets nothing. But he always gives people their portraits, no matter if they pay. He estimates he usually draws 150 a day.

Growing up, Murray split his time between New York and Washington. As a kid he watched artists at work in Manhattan spots like Bryant and Washington Square Park.

He enrolled in portrait drawing at the Art Students League of New York. Paying by the session, he attended classes where he learned to draw faces and the human figure. Instructors and more advanced artists in his classes taught him short cuts for how to draw quickly, a skill he would begin to master on the 1 Train through Manhattan. Some days, he says, he would earn a couple hundred dollars.

“When I first started off, I’d draw you and you wouldn’t know who it is,” says Murray. “But I never gave up.”

But he began hustling for all the wrong reasons. He started running in the streets, eventually becoming homeless and addicted to crack cocaine. For much of the 1980s and ’90s, Murray’s life was a drugged and boozy blur. He drew to support his habit.

“All the money I was making from the portraits was going toward that stuff,” he says, referring to crack. “I was sick of going to jail and living on the streets.”

After numerous stints in jail, Murray decided to change.

He moved back to Washington for good, to be closer to his mother, get clean and find stability. He now shares a two-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend.

Murray says he’s left street life in the past. He says he’s been sober for 12 years. But he still drinks regularly, and sometimes heavily. (He insists it’s not a problem.) He says having a tall boy and some liquor puts him in the zone to draw.

“I ‘push the pen’ now so I can pay the bills,” says Murray, whose other income comes in the form of a small Social Security check. “I got to pay my phone bill and electric bill…I put the money toward something positive, not toward what I used to do.”

***

When the man’s portrait is complete, he asks Murray how much one goes for.

“Usually goes for $20,” Murray replies, stone-faced. The man reaches into his wallet and pulls out $15.

“It’s all I have,” the man says.

“Well then, I’ll take it,” replies Murray with a grin, quickly folding the two bills into a tiny square. He never counts the money in front of the customer, just folds it and shoves it into his sock.

Minutes later, when the girl gets up to leave, she hands him a $5 bill.

Two pictures, $20.

“See, it’s all about position,” he says later, between sips from a stainless-steel water bottle filled with Velicoff vodka.

“I knew [the man] had money, but I had to prove myself first. So I drew the girl. I ain’t care if I make a sell with her, but I know that he would watch and I could then make money off him.”

At the end of 90 minutes, he’s made $64 from six portraits and decides to call it a day, aside from probably knocking off a few more portraits on the train ride home.
Just then he spots a woman and young boy sit down with a tray of food at a nearby table.

“Women with little kids usually always give something big,” he says, reaching for his piece of charcoal and opening his sketchpad. “Maybe, I’ll hang out a little longer.”