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Vietnam student turns fish scales into art

Monday, August 27, 2018, 11:38 GMT+7

A young Vietnamese man has come up with a creative idea to make paintings from fish scales, after seeing the beautiful shiny parts of the aquatic creature usually thrown away as food byproduct.

Le Ngoc Biet now runs a startup, selling his unique paintings on orders from customers and companies.

Third prize in a competition

Biet, a marketing sophomore at HUTECH, a Ho Chi Minh City-based university, brought the ‘fish scale painting’ to “Toi khoi nghie”, a local startup competition at the end of his freshmen year, and snatched third prize with the innovative idea.

Coming from a coastal area of Vietnam, the young innovator has always has a soft spot for anything related to marine and oceans.

One time, he noticed that his landlord had thrown away beautiful, crystal-like fish scales after cleaning the fish to cook it.

As he saw the fish scales gleamed under the sunlight through the garbage bag left in front of the house, Biet asked himself why such beautiful things could remain unnoticed and be thrown away.

He soon came up with the idea of using fish scales to decorate paintings and participated in the startup competition with it.

“When I took part in the competition, I only bought and asked for the fish scales in [Ho Chi Minh City]. When I wanted to expand my business, I started going to my hometown to collect the necessary materials,” Biet shared his experience.

When he first started doing the art, he bought paintings and put each fish scales on to decorate it.

Later on, the young entrepreneur decided to expand his business and started working with a group of friends, some of whose expertise is designing.

Currently, Biet’s group consists of ten people who call themselves VAVA, an abbreviation of Vietnamese word “Vay Vang” (golden scales).

After winning the competition, Biet decided to keep his startup running while he continues college.

Most of his current works are done on orders from companies and customers.

The pictures are decorated with recycled consumption waste including fish scales, shrimp antennae, and fish bones, among others.
The pictures are decorated with recycled consumption waste including fish scales, shrimp antennae, and fish bones, among others.

Precision down to every detail

It is far from simple to have a piece of art made of fish scales.

The young entrepreneur has to purchase untreated fish scales at the cost of VND 10,000 (US$0.5) a kg. But it is a long way to go before the raw material can become usable in Biet’s artwork.

The scales first need to be separated from the waste such as bones, skin, or fish fat, which requires high concentration and extreme precision.

Many people also find this part of work unpleasant thanks to the unbearable smell of the scales.

Implementing his chemistry knowledge, Biet uses enzymes to treat the already separated scales before coloring them using food coloring.

After finishing the cleaning process, the scales need to be dried without exposing them to the sun, and Biet also has to keep a close watch on their moist.

Even a trivial mistake can cause the scales to be too wet and unusable.

Usually, in one afternoon, Biet can get up to one kilogram of fish scales from the original five kilograms of purchased waste.

“I grew up in a coastal area of Phu Yen Province, a region full of wind and sun, where fishery and shrimp farming have raised me and finance my college education so I can see the simple beauty of each scales taken out of the disposable waste,” Biet said about his work.

“In each painting, I use fish scales, shrimp’s antennae, and fish bones so that the picture will have a soul of an ocean and look as real as possible.”

So far, Biet has collected over half a ton of fish scales to decorate paintings.

The most important step, among all, is to start attaching each scale to the painting. The young artist will pick out different sizes of scales and different methods of attaching, depending on the picture’s details

Besides three main materials, which are pictures, glue, and fish scales, Biet also recycles other non-disposable seafood waste such as fish bones, crab shells, and shrimp’s antennae, among others.

“This work requires extreme precision,” Biet said, implying the importance of aesthetics when it comes to art.

“Only a milimet-long distortion can impact aesthetics of the artwork.”

Paintings iconic to Vietnam

Biet chose scales paintings to compete in the startup competition because of the idea’s novelty and its ability to represent Vietnam, a country known for its beaches with more than 3000km coastal length .

Biet hopes to be able to introduce Vietnam to other countries through his form of art, as well as create many job opportunities for others.

“If India is known for their rice paintings [Rangoli], I hope that people will think of my fish scales paintings as iconic when they think of Vietnam,” says the ambitious young man.

Depending on each picture’s details, size and intricacy, the price will vary, with the average cost being VND4.9 million ($210) per square meter.

Smaller paintings have a starting price of VND300,000 ($13).

Biet predicts each painting to last for at least 20 years according to the materials’ longevity.

The sophomore hopes to be able to open a painting manufacturing unit when he becomes more successful.

Biet has already introduced the project to THE Handicapped Employment Center in Ho Chi Minh City, hoping to be able to create job opportunities for the unfortunate ones.

In the upcoming time, Biet is going to work with the center to instruct the participants to do the work so that they can become the main workforce of the Biet’s project.

The project not only benefits the society, but it also benefits the environment by reusing material that is difficult to decompose.

“What makes me happiest about this startup is creating jobs for others,” he said.

“The income might not yet be very high, but everyone can do it, including handicapped people. Moreover, it can be done in free time.”

“Toi khoi nghiep” is a competition co-organized by the Student Culture House of Ho Chi Minh City and Banking University Ho Chi Minh City aiming at encouraging students’ creativity and courage to turn their ideas into a startup business that Vietnamese market lacks.

Participants also have a chance to meet mentors, receive constructive criticism to improve their ideas.

The competition was first held in 2015 and attracted many talented participants.

Biet also won a prize at another contest, “Tourism Ideas” competition.

He and his friends intend to introduce the products as souvenirs in Ho Chi Minh City, then Phu Yen and other coastal touristic destinations.

The group hopes that their products will ultimately be known and sold nationwide.

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Ha My / Tuoi Tre News


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