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A TikTok Subway Artist Finds His Way to the Lower East Side

At first, he posted time-lapse videos of his sketches-in-progress, set to a catchy song, offering viewers the chance to compare his portraits with their real-life inspirations — the pencil-shadow precision of the wrinkled jeans or the cockeyed face mask. He started getting more views but not as much as he hoped. “I was posting thinking, ‘Oh, I’m talented. This is going to go viral.’ But none of it went viral. If it’s not a spectacle, people don’t care.”

Then he noticed a comment on one of the videos: “You should give it to them at the end.”

At first, Mr. Rodriguez dismissed the idea. “I thought, ‘I’m not giving away my art,” he said. “This is how I make a living.’”

But soon, the comment itself garnered more than 32,000 likes and he knew he had to give it a try.

That was the second time his life changed suddenly.

“When I did that, it blew up,” he said. The first video, posted in August 2020, featured a young woman in a private security uniform. In it, Mr. Rodriguez sketched her portrait to the tune of “Renee” by Sales and even with her mask obstructing her reaction it’s easy to see that the young woman was affected by the sketch — and impressed with the detail: “You even got my tattoo.”

In little more than a day, the video had 8 million views. Soon it climbed to 49 million.

“The interaction just added a-whole-nother layer,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “So, then I thought, ‘All right, I’m going to keep giving them away.’ And the videos kept going viral. I was so hyped. This was all I wanted — all my life — all those eyeballs.”

He honed his process. He now gets advance permission from the person he wants to draw and asks how long they expect to be on the subway. He has trained himself to finish a portrait in 15 minutes, including pauses so he can film his progress along the way.

Mr. Rodriguez has accumulated more than 225 million likes on TikTok and as he started reposting his videos to other platforms his numbers grew in those places too — 2.7 million followers on Instagram, 1.4 million followers on YouTube.