A gifted painter born with a rare birth defect sells his paintings on Yangon’s streets. Words by Myat Theingi Khine and Lorcan Lovett. Photos by Rasmus Steijner.
Sat between two parked cars on dusty black tarpaulin, Ko Tint delicately lifts a paintbrush with his toes and dabs it on a wet felt cloth.
He is surrounded by about 30 detailed paintings of bucolic scenes; banyan trees, rivers, mountains. Some are cast in the shadow of a nat shrine tree; its falling leaves and twigs decorate others.
“I have a passion for painting,” says the 53-year-old. “And it is suitable for me because there are not many other things I can do.”
Ko Tint was born with phocomelia, a rare birth defect that caused the bones in his arms to be shortened. Brought up in a church-based orphanage in Shan State capital Taunggyi, he learned to use his feet for hands from a young age.
Pausing between questions to work on a monochrome painting, the stoic artist recalls a meeting between the then Philippine ambassador to Myanmar and himself in Taunggyi, which led to the ambassador sending Ko Tint to Yangon to enroll on painting classes in 1992.
A crowd has gathered to watch as he slips a palette knife between his toes; a red cap and umbrella stand helping to shade him from the scorching sun.
His “easiest” works take him about 20-30 minutes to finish, he explains, and more complicated paintings take 45 minutes. He sells them for only 1,000 kyats each, although his watercolors, which take the whole day to complete, are sold in local galleries for 60,000-80,000 kyats.
“On a bad day, I can merely sell five or six paintings, sometimes just three or four. On a really good day I make 50,000-60,000 kyats, but that’s only in the summer. I cannot sell during the rainy season.”
Monsoon season is spent mostly painting at his home in Mingaladon Township, building up a bank of works to sell when the rain clears. He slings his work and brushes around his shoulders or sometimes his son helps carry them to spots around Yangon like 42 Street or Pansodan.
“I did not sell much at either of those places so I tried to find another place and finally got here. I sell quite a good amount at this place.”
Getting to this spot next to Maha Bandula Street near Sule Pagoda takes three hours each way, including a motorbike taxi to the number 37 bus stop.
When money is running low, he sells at night bazaars at Theketa, Kyaik Khauk in Thanlyin, and Botahtaung. But the rental prices are often too high, so he opens shop at “random places” on the market outskirts.
“Most of the places are far and difficult for me to go home. Because of that, I have to build a tent and sleep at the night bazaar.”
Ko Tint, a father of three, was regularly joined by his wife until worsening diabetes limited her travel. Of the six-brush set, he selects the smallest and puts the finishing touches onto his latest painting.
It is a beautiful landscape heightened by depth and perspective, but Ko Tint plays down the quality.
“At home, I practice painting with watercolors. When I paint the paintings of fruits and flowers with watercolor, I put those paintings in frames. But there are still so many things I need to learn. I am not very skilled at painting yet.”
Amazed, the onlookers would disagree.