Dubai: He once sold popsicles on the streets as a boy and peddled bags of charcoal on a rickety wooden push cart in the Philippines as a young man.
Now, Dubai-based painter Tom Alvarado is selling his art to some of the biggest names in the UAE. He sings, too!
Video by Irish Eden Belleza
His work was recognised by art enthusiasts and shaikhs in Al Ain this year when he was handpicked to create a surreal painting of the late Shaikh Zayed for a local charity event. "There were buyers but in the end, I just couldn’t bear to sell it,” he told Gulf News' #Pinoy.
He has recently been commissioned to create a giant mural for a school in the emirate, while talks are underway for an artwork featuring horses for another shaikh.
"Art is a big part of who I am," said Alvarado, who made his first millions exporting hand painted wooden gift boxes to Europe and Asia before losing it all and being forced to seek his fortune in the Middle East.
Just like the strokes on his paintings, life has been a series of twists and turns for Alvarado.
“Life was a bit of a struggle growing up, but my parents tried their best to raise our family. When my father died, we later learned he was the heir to a big plantation in the Philippines but chose to walk away from that life,” he said. “Art had been our lifeline,” he said, adding that his siblings all dabble into art, including his eldest brother, Nenelucio Alvarado, a popular contemporary artist in the Philippines.
“I guess I took after my father. I don’t want life handed to me on a silver platter. I prefer to work after what I want,” he said. He was a one-time security guard in the Philippines before being discovered for his creative sketches and promoted as a provincial artist. “Then I met someone who helped me set up the handicraft exporting business, which also helped me open four restaurants,” he said.
"Even when I was a child, I loved creating art from discarded objects. I loved arts and craft, and after I finished college and got married I got into the business of exporting painted gift boxes. That was where I made a lot of money as the orders were in the thousands," he said.
But his fortune changed just as quickly as he found it. “With some bad luck and some bad business partners, I was forced to shut them all down and start from scratch,” he said.
He had a two-year stint as an artist for a firm in Saudi Arabia before moving to the UAE in 2008. “I took an artist’s job that paid me Dh1,000 per month for six months before I opened up my own interior decoration company,” he said. He has since decided to focus on his art.
Alvarado said he didn’t plan on becoming a singing painter. It was an accidental performance in front of the Philippine ambassador in the UAE seven years ago that kickstarted his unusual career, he said.
While painting a portrait, he regaled the crowd with his rendition of Filipino singer Freddie Aguilar's soulful ballad Bulag, Pipi at Bingi (Blind, Mute and Deaf). The crowd loved it.
Since then it has been a series of art shows and commissioned work for this Filipino master of musical strokes. There are also plans of creating a new Guinness World Record in Dubai with his brand of art.
For now, he just wants to enjoy the work he loves and let his art do the talking (or singing!).