Boston’s ‘$1 portrait guy’ brings community to locals, tourists


Nick Shea draws a portrait of customer Iliana Vidal in the Boston Common. Photo credits to Cathy Ching.

Cathy Ching, news staff

Nick Shea, dubbed the “$1 portrait guy” by supporters on TikTok, has been attracting locals and tourists from all over the world to Boston Common to get a $1 portrait of themselves.

Shea, who is 25, started his $1 portrait business in 2017 at Washington Square Park in New York City. It was an on-and-off hobby until he decided to pursue it more consistently in June 2021. Since then, Shea has been highlighted in many videos on TikTok of supporters going out of their way to wait in line in Boston Common, sometimes for hours, and spend $1 for a custom portrait.

“The TikTok videos are like 10 seconds long,” Shea said. “So the fact that what I’m doing translates in that short amount of time — I think they just see something in me.”

After running the business for five years, Shea said his favorite part is meeting people from different countries and having his drawings distributed all over the world, such as Hong Kong, Paraguay and Colombia.

Shea recalled many customers telling him that they visited Boston just for him. This was the case for Nikki Beros, a physical therapy graduate student at the University of New England in Portland, Maine. Beros took a weekend trip with her friends to explore Boston and get her portrait drawn  — she waited in line for almost an hour.

“I like that he’s taking his time with [his drawings] and he’s not pumping them out super quickly to get everybody through the line and make money off of it,” Beros said. “That’s why it feels genuine to me that he wants to give everybody a little piece of art to make them feel special and that is worth waiting in line for.”

Aside from tourists, people who are from the Greater Boston area come to Boston Common for Shea’s drawings. As an East Boston native, Shea is grateful that his drawings are attracting people to the park he spent most of his free time during his childhood and adulthood.

“There are people who live in Boston that don’t explore the city too much,” Shea said. “It’s really cool to be like, ‘Wow, this is getting people out of their houses to explore the city.’”

Iliana Vidal, an employee at a non-profit organization called La Colaborativa, took a day trip to Boston Common from Chelsea to get her portrait drawn by Shea. 

“He brings a sense of community to people who have been here a while and people who are just visiting,” Vidal said. “It’s a great opportunity just to know the area and get used to the surroundings but also meet people from the area.”

Vidal had seen Shea on her Instagram and TikTok, but she knew she wanted to meet him when she read about his “engaging” character in an article.

“He’s a very chill, mellow person,” Vidal said. “He makes you comfortable when you’re sitting there.”

Although Shea will sit on a bench with his index cards and markers for hours at a time, he does not feel the need to raise his price of $1. 

“It’s gotten me this far. I think if I change up [the price] now, people will be like, ‘Damn, it got to him,’” Shea said.

His $1 portrait idea originally came from what he would want to see if he was walking through a park, so he intends for his business to be something simple that doesn’t “interrupt” anyone’s day.

“I just want to be accessible. Young people don’t have too much money,” Shea said. “I want people to walk away and be like, ‘Wow, that was the best dollar I’ve ever spent.’”

Other than the young people who come to Boston for his drawings, Shea has also caught the attention of a New England restaurant chain: Sal’s Pizza. When Shea arrives at the Boston Common ready to draw, he sets up a pizza box from Sal’s Pizza with “$1 drawing of you” written on it. Because of this, the Sal’s Pizza restaurants in Boston have reached out to Shea, telling him that he was the reason they are getting good tips and reviews.

“I don’t know if I can take credit for that, but that was really gratifying to hear,” Shea said.

Nevertheless, Shea’s supporters from social media and beyond credit Shea with the sense of community he has brought to Boston, as well as his ability to make his simple drawings unique to each person.

“It seems like no matter what you look like, you would see that picture of yourself and feel like he captured some of your good qualities,” Beros said. “I really think it’s something that I’ll keep forever. I think it will boost my self-confidence and make me feel good when I’m feeling down. I think that’s worth having.”

Shea has been drawing since he was two and said he is grateful for the opportunities he has had, all because of a spontaneous idea he put to the test five years ago.

“I never thought it would really mean something to people,” Shea said.