At the foot of a Union Square subway platform staircase, an artist focused on his delicate work, maneuvering a fold of black origami paper along half-open scissor blades.
“Scissor doesn’t move, only paper moves,” he said to the rider posing for him. “Nice young man,” he bantered. “How old are you? Like your hair.”
The paper’s border flutters to the dirty, gum-tacked floor. He peeled open the fold to reveal an intricate, slightly caricatured portrait of the rider’s face, down to the hairs and wrinkles. He taped it to a white-tiled wall beside him, joining it with others, oblivious to the gusts from the passing trains that threatened to blow his frail creations onto the tracks.
On a foam board below were dozens more subway characters: man with dreadlocks, woman with hoop earrings, bald man with spectacles. He offered to repeat the feat without looking at the rider’s face. “In America, just me,” he said of his skill. “In China, just me. This unique.”
In the congested world of subway performers, where dance troupes, conga circles and violin players blur, Ming Liang Lu, 57, is an alluring presence. A self-described “master paper portrait cutter,” he has the ability to trim facial portraits out of frail paper within minutes, compelling some riders to willingly miss their trains.
Mr. Lu practices several ancient Chinese art forms, and says he hails from a noted Shanghai teaching lineage. On weekends, he teaches calligraphy, painting and cutting at the New York Chinese Cultural Center. He said that in Shanghai, his birth city, he was renown for stone sculpture and stamp seal carving. He credits the facial portraits to his formative training in a three-dimensional form.
Paper-cutting dates to the Han dynasty but it is traditionally associated with designs like animals and flowers. But Mr. Lu has adapted the technique for facial portraits. “You’re not going to see anybody doing the faces,” said Alex Gombach, one of Mr. Lu’s oldest students. “That’s really his own thing.”
“When you see those subway faces in their totality, it’s a New York portrait,” Mr. Gombach continued. “You’ve got a young black woman, an Orthodox Jew, a white guy. It’s a New York story.”
On a recent Thursday night, Mr. Lu, Chinese-language newspapers scattered at his feet, trimmed the visage of a rider while Jason Kraut, 39, filmed it on his smartphone. An L train blasted off into the tunnel, threatening to dislodge his works, but Mr. Lu swiveled the folded paper through his scissors, paying no attention to the ruckus.
Mr. Kraut, who often passes Mr. Lu on the L platform on his commute to Park Slope, Brooklyn, analyzed the cutting as if he were in a museum. “This makes me think of Chet Baker blowing those changes,” he said, referring to the jazz trumpeter. “I have no idea what’s going on. Same with this.” He decided: “I need to have one.”
Mr. Lu is pleased if a rider wants a portrait — he accepted $20 for a small, live portrait — but he is also content just cutting an interesting face.
“Not about money,” he said. “About face.”
Another session drew a crowd of backpack-wearing riders, complete with shushes and quiet faces of awe. Mr. Lu recognized one of the audience members, Kristen Mucci, and gave her a hug.
“How’s your husband?” he asked her before returning to his work. Two years ago, Ms. Mucci hired Mr. Lu for her birthday.
“He was a big hit,” she said. “We had it at a bar in Williamsburg. Something different. Half the payoff is watching him create such frail, delicate things. It looks like he’s just touching a piece of paper, but they all come out different. It’s not canned.”
Mr. Lu is not as dainty as his creations. He has cropped black hair, and a scent of cigarettes follows him. His English is rudimentary, but effective enough to plant disarming compliments to charm riders into modeling for him.
He resumed his routine the following night, turning from his Sing Tao Daily upon noticing a possibly trim-worthy face. “I love your face,” he said as he started trimming the likeness of the bearded man’s face. The rider abandoned Mr. Lu when his train arrived. Mr. Lu completed the portrait accurately without visual aid. He taped it to his wall and returned to his newspaper.
Later, Raymond Colletti, intrigued by the three-dimensional portraits popping up from the subway wall, approached.
Mr. Lu turned from his newspaper. “How you, my friend?” he said. “How old? Very nice young man.”
Mr. Colletti had little say in the matter. Mr. Lu started cutting as a rackety train dashed past.
ocused on his delicate work, maneuvering a fold of black origami paper along half-open scissor blades.