Photos: The painter who wields a brush in his mouth

VietNamNet Bridge – After an accident in 1991 that left Do Minh Tam a quadriplegic, he began painting with a brush in his mouth. He has since sold many paintings, which are priced from hundreds to thousands of US dollars. Tam is now one of Vietnam’s most notable artists.1262730-20140807092103-1

His contemporaries not only appreciate his triumph over such a severe disability, but also his sophisticated and creative paintings.

After the accident, which occurred in the Central Highlands, Tam woke up five days later at a friend’s house unable to move his body.

Tam did not seek any medical support as he was poor and felt depressed. He describes the two years he spent at his friend’s house as existing, rather than living. He thought about death frequently, all too aware of his misery.


Tam was born in Thanh Hoa province and later adopted. His adoptive father was a veteran and his adoptive mother was a babysitter.

Graduating from high school, Tam joined the army. After returning from military service, Tam went to Saigon to start his business. He did a lot of jobs, hoping to save enough money to marry a girl and settle down in this land, but then disaster struck.

One summer night in 2001, Tam drove his motorbike home after a tiring day of work. Then suddenly everything crashed down on him. When he woke up, he did not remember how the accident occurred. He just knew that its consequences were devastating. His spine was broken and he lost feeling over this entire body, from the neck to the feet. For almost two years, doctors worked hard to save Tam.

Then, his father died. Not wanting to burden his old mother, Tam did not contact her again to hide his illness. In his patient’s record, he said “have no relatives.”

For that reason, the Sung Chinh Hospital (now the HCM City Center for Trauma – Orthopedic) sent him to the Chap Canh Center, a shelter for unfortunate and disabled people established in Ho Chi Minh City in 1993 and which now has branches in the US, Australia and Europe.

Tam started painting at the center in 2007 after seeing several other disabled people do so. It soon became his means of self-expression, which he has used to call for world peace and environmental protection. At the beginning, he only painted to kill time. It took him months to master strokes that an able-bodied person can achieve in a day.

Drawing by mouth, of course, is extremely difficult. It took him a lot of time and effort to be able to hold a brush, and even more time to master the basic techniques in painting.

But the desire to live has inspired Tam to overcome adversity. Tam’s brush is also different: the lower part of big palm leaves includes a layer of soft rubber, so that when he “bites” it, his mouth will not be hurt.

Tam said he could not eat during the first days as his teeth and mouth went numb from holding the brush, and he also suffered dizziness from constantly shaking his head to move the brush.

His first painting from pencil was finished after a year and it was a surprise to his teacher, who concluded that Tam had a gift for art. It was selected from 15 outstanding works in Vietnam to join an international exhibition of disabled artists in Japan in September 2008.

He does not have many chances to move around to learn from others, so he usually creates his own techniques, such as mixing lighter water colors with darker ones such as brown and grey to create a 3D effect.

Being confined in space has also given his paintings a depth that interests many artists, who said they can see his pain in the strokes, shapes and colors of the paintings.

In October 2010, Tam’s painting “The turning point” won first prize in a painting competition organized by the German Government in collaboration with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

Since then, the name Do Minh Tam and his paintings, drawn by mouth, has drawn the attention of art collectors. Tam’s works brought overseas are usually captioned “orally” (painted by mouth) and they are sold at very high prices compared to the purchase price in Vietnam.

Tam’s greatest desire is to have an exhibition. And if his paintings sell well, he will spend the money to build a nursery school in his hometown, where he has not returned for over 10 years.

Source: VietNamNet/Dantri/Zing

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