Htein Lin was born in Mezaligon, Sagaing Region in Burma. From 1985, he studied for a Bachelor of Law (LLB) degree at Yangon University. Together with other students, he was expelled in 1988 for protesting about the lack of investigation into the death of another student.
Following involvement with protests, Htein Lin, together with other activists, withdrew to camps on the border with India. Here he became a member of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), opposed to the Burmese military regime. During this period, he studied with the artist Sitt Nyein Aye from Mandalay, learning about western artists such as Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. He used his skills to add illustrations the publications of the ABSDF. He was involved with internal conflicts within the ABSDF in 1991 and was imprisoned. In 1993, Htein Lin continued his law degree, which he completed in 1994.
Instead of working in the legal profession, Htein Lin became an artist and also an actor in comic films (as "Htein Htein") in the mid 1990s. He led the way with modern Burmese performance art. His artistic performances included The Little Worm in the Ear, in Yangon, and Guitarist in 1996.
Htein Lin spent 6½ years as a political prisoner in Burma from 1998-2004. He continued to perform for fellow inmates in prison. Officially, he was not permitted to paint while imprisoned. However, he managed to produce several hundred paintings secretly, using white cotton prison uniforms, as well as about a thousand drawings. He bribed the prison guards to smuggle paint to him, but it was too dangerous to have a paintbrush in his cell. Instead, he used various objects that were available to him, including cigarette lighters, pieces of glass, plates, nets, razor blades, syringes, or simply his fingers and hands. He used a monoprint technique.
After his release from prison in 2004, he returned to art and performance. His May 2005 Rangoon street performance entitled Mobile Art Gallery/Mobile Market meant he was interrogated by the authorities again.
He was introduced in 2005 to the British Ambassador in Yangon, Victoria Bowman, who took receipt of his prison paintings and ensured their preservation by loaning them to the Burma Archives Project at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. He later married Victoria Bowman and they moved to live in London for seven years.
He also had exhibitions and performed in Finland, France, Norway, Thailand, Czech Republic and the United States of America. In addition, he has performed at the 2007 Venice Biennale and at festivals in Finland, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. His performances draw on his artistic life as well as aiming to raise awareness of the Burmese political situation.
Htein Lin has continued to use the monoprint technique in his subsequent paintings. These draw on his Theravada Buddhist faith, Burmese symbols and traditions, his early experience as a comedian in "anyeint" satirical performances, and events such as Cyclone Nargis and the Saffron Revolution.
In 2013, Htein Lin returned to live in Rangoon, and commenced his project A Show of Hands Project. In 2014 he returned one week in prison to train prisoners to Vipassana meditation and monoprint painting techniques  In November 2015 Htein Lin campaigned in the delta area for the National League for Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi and his native township Ingapu.
Htein Lin has exhibited at the following solo and group shows:
- Solo and group shows in Rangoon, Burma, 1996, 1997, 2005, 2006
- Burma: Inside Out, Asia House, London, UK, July–October 2007 (prison paintings)
- Asian Attitudes (group show), National Museum, Poznań, Poland, July 2007
- Beyond Burma (group show), Chocolate Factory, London, UK, February 2008
- 20 Years On, Suwunnabhumi Gallery, Chiang Mai, March 2008
- The Cell, Karin Weber Gallery, Hong Kong, March 2008
- Out Of Burma, Quest Gallery, Bath, UK, May–July 2008
- Crossings (group show), Olson Gallery, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois, United States, August–October 2008
- 00235, Carcere le Nuove, Turin, Italy, October 2008 (prison paintings)
The US Embassy in Yangon has acquired two paintings by Htein Lin. Other works are held in private collections in Belgium, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
- Tina Gaudoin, Coolhunter: Htein Lin, The Times, July 21, 2007.
- Htein Lin, The way I see it: Htein Lin, New Statesman, July 26, 2007.
- Htein Lin, A prisoner's tale; Art in Myanmar. The Economist, United States, August 4, 2007.
- Jane Perlez, From a Burmese Prison, a Chronicle of Pain in Paint, The New York Times, August 13, 2007.
- Ko Ko Thett, Htein Lin: A Moving Monument, The Irrawaddy, July 15, 2008.
- Curriculum Vitae, Htein Lin.
- Htein Lin, Quest Gallery, Bath, UK.
- Htein Lin Archived 2010-04-30 at the Wayback Machine., Free Zarganar.
- Htein Lin Papers, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1988–2006.
- Htein Lin's performance in Trafalgar Sq 1/6/08, Flickr.
- Members of the Council, Britain Burma Society.
- Yuan, Elizabeth. "For ex-Myanmar prisoner, art is a uniform exercise". CNN. Retrieved 28 March 2012.