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Portrait of an artist as TikTok star

When Max MacAulay looks for subjects to draw, he tries to find people who look interesting and will likely stay still for more than five minutes.  

Typically, MacAulay finds these people at the Halifax Public Gardens, the Halifax Waterfront, local bars or on busses. Equipped with a pen and paper, he draws his subjects and films their reaction when he hands them the finished work. If they give him their permission, he will post the video to his TikTok and Instagram accounts.  

 MacAulay, a second-year business major at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC), says he was motivated to start posting videos after noticing how superficial social media can be.  

“I find that there’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way or act a certain way [on social media], and a lot of it’s staged, a lot of it’s fake. So I thought OK, how can I go against that?” MacAulay said. 

A drawing MacAualy created of a person studying at Starbucks. He tends to draw unsuspecting strangers and then hands them the completed artwork. (Photo by Geoffrey Howard)

Making strangers’ days  

MacAulay has been posting on TikTok since 2019, but only started drawing strangers around March 2020 shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He explains that in addition to wanting to post genuine content, he was inspired to spread positivity in light of all the negative news.  

“I’ve had people reach out to me like, ‘Oh my god, thanks so much. It’s made my day.’” he says.  

MacAulay recalls one of the first times he drew a stranger in the food court at the Halifax Shopping Centre and the positive reaction the stranger had.  

“It was just totally genuine,” MacAulay says. “I think if I didn’t have that first reaction, I probably wouldn’t be drawing other people now. It kind of motivated me to do more. I was like yeah OK, it was pretty fun to do that. Let’s do some more.”  

One of the most popular videos on MacAulay’s TikTok page is of a man and a woman sitting together at a Halifax bar. In the video, MacAulay draws the couple and notes with humour that the man is wearing a pair of shiny shoes.  

“I bet he’s talking to his wife all the time like ‘Oh, look at my shoes!’” MacAulay explains with a laugh. “So I added him saying that [in the drawing] and they really liked it.” 

In the video, MacAulay presents the couple with the picture, to which the man happily exclaims, “Are you serious?”  

The comments are overwhelmingly positive.  

“So wholesome,” one user comments.  

“Doesn’t take much to make someone’s day,” another one agrees. 

As of early November, the video currently has about 5.5 million views and 1.1 million likes.  

Max MacAulay is a Halifax-based artist whose videos of drawing have gone viral. He has an impressive 220,000 followers on his TikTok account @slick.skills. (Photo by Geoffrey Howard)

Finding motivation again  

MacAulay has lived in Nova Scotia his entire life. He briefly attended Dalhousie University before dropping out and taking a couple of years off. He says he’s always loved art, but started taking it seriously about three years ago when he began drawing every day. He prefers to do all of his drawings with a pen.  

“If I’m using a pencil, it kind of makes me feel like if I make a mistake, I’m allowed to erase it. Whereas with a pen, you can’t,” he explains. “So if I make a mistake I work with the mistake.”  

He got the inspiration for his TikTok username, slick.skills, from a childhood nickname given to him by a basketball coach.  

“I don’t know how he came up with that. I think it’s because I was stealing the ball all the time. So I’d be ‘slick,’” MacAulay says with a laugh.  

MacAulay describes his childhood self as a “super determined kid,” noting how he was always active, excelling at school and generally felt very positive. When he got to university, he began struggling with depression and grappled with a lack of motivation. After taking a couple of years off school, he decided to rebrand himself on social media as a fresh start.  

“When I started NSCC and made a new Instagram I changed my name to [slick.skills],” he says. “I called myself that again, hoping to get my motivation back, even if it’s just in a small way of nicknaming myself again.”  

MacAulay plans on continuing to make art and TikTok videos, hoping he can continue to spread his message of positivity and authenticity. He says he would like to collaborate with other artists in the future.  

“I might even collab with people who don’t even do art,” he adds. “People that I find who are genuinely creative or actually post good stuff on TikTok, that’s in the future. Here in Halifax, I’d really like to get some mural work, if I can.”  


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