Brooklyn-based Pinoy transports PH culture through art

Victoria Herrera
For this Filipino artist in Brooklyn, 'It's More Creative in the Philippines'

SALAMAT, RIZAL. A bad experience with the police and a discovery of an antique copy of Jose Rizal's 'Noli Me Tangere' sparked a flame in Anthony Castro that never stopped burning. All images courtesy of Anthony Castro

SINGAPORE – You can take the artist out of the Philippines, but you can’t take the Philippines out of the artist.

The creative that I am referring to is Anthony Castro who, despite being based in Brooklyn, New York, still ties his Filipino heritage to the work he creates.

SUN WITH 7 RAYS. Anthony Castro at work in MaharlikaAnthony is currently the art director for Filipino restaurants Maharlika Filipino Moderno and Jeepney Filipino Gastropub, both located in New York City. [In their September 2013 issue, Details magazine featured Jeepney Gastropub in their article “The Next Great Asian Food trend is… Filipino Cuisine.”] 

Through this job, Anthony keeps his mind inspired by Filipino themes, linking the Filipino community overseas to the culture back home. At the same time, he introduces Philippine history to New York’s multi-cultural audience. 

Anthony was born in Romblon, Philippines but was raised in San Jose, California. He holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Painting degree from The Claremont Graduate University in Los Angeles and Bachelor in Fine Arts in Painting from San Jose State University. 

For two years, he worked in Prague creating murals for nightclubs. Afterwards, he worked for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where he handled the visual direction of the MoMA design stores. 

Anthony Castro talks to Rappler about his Fiipino-American childhood, unforgettable journeys and artistic inspirations.

Rappler: How was your first experience with art? Did you always know you were going to be an artist?

Anthony Castro: My earliest memory of art really came with my father. He was a weekend painter and a pretty good one. He had this mini studio set up in our basement growing up. This was his respite from the daily grind as a career military man [US Navy]. The scent of linseed oil and paint always lingered. It still triggers memories whenever I smell it. He painted a lot of romantic subject matter: still life, bullfight scenes, Filipino cockfights…

I knew I was pretty artistic even since my first art class in 6th grade, but didn’t really make a serious decision until my initial art classes in undergraduate school.

You were born in Romblon, but grew up in San Jose, California. How did you stay connected to the Filipino culture growing up?

Through my parents, plus I grew up with a lot of other Filipino kids with similar backgrounds: retired Navy fathers stationed in the Bay Area, at the heart of the defense industry.

Although my parents stopped speaking Filipino to their children, they continued speaking the language to each other and among their Pinoy friends and relatives who would visit the house. The chatter was prevalent. [To this day] my mom still loves to chismis for hours on end on the phone. Ha-ha! 

My parents’ social life was centered on the Filipino-American community, culture and church. Filipino food was our daily meal — fried Spam and eggs with onions and champorado topped with tuyo for breakfast! 

Catholic icons and the rosary prayer were ubiquitous in the household. The statue of the Virgin [Mary] still stands in our front porch along with a mini altar in the backyard, not to mention the pervasive Last Supper sculpture that still hangs in our dining room. 

During high school, I was involved in a club, The ASU (Asian Students Association) that was pretty much all-Filipino. We organized school dances, talent shows and lumpia or pancit sales to raise money. All the Filipinos in the high schools in North East San Jose were uniquely interconnected through all the garage parties and fiestas.

Philippine culture plays a large role in your current artwork. However, the spark for merging the culture with your art began with a negative experience you had with the Los Angeles Police Department [LAPD]. Can you tell us what exactly happened?

It was during my studies at The Claremont Graduate University in an affluent town just east of downtown Los Angeles. I was house-sitting for a colleague and was profiled by the neighbors for breaking in. When I left the house to get into my truck, two patrol cars rolled up and all the cops drew their weapons and told me to show my hands. I just saw the barrel of their guns pointing directly at my head, they were pretty fired up and I was thinking, “I’m gonna die right here, right now.” 

I was detained, handcuffed in the vehicle for a few hours until the whole mess was cleared. This happened during the day for the entire neighborhood to view. I filed a formal complaint to the city to no avail. Pretty humiliating. 

During this period, I was also discovering a lot about Filipino history and investigating the notion of identity and abstraction in my paintings. I came upon a beautiful rare vintage copy of Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” at the school library. 

The book jacket was exquisite: a letter-pressed deco era illustration and the name “Rizal,” a motif adorning the lower right. The “R” was a beautifully exaggerated script with the tail curling the length of the name. I became so obsessed with that letter and couldn’t resist sampling it in a painting.

That gesture, connecting Rizal’s name and blowing it up large enough for all to see was a personal symbol of defiance and pride after that experience with the police. Ironically, the painting happened to be chosen to be exhibited in the library.

Tell us about the art you created for two restaurants serving Philippine cuisine in New York: Jeepney Filipino Gastropub and Maharlika Filipino Moderno.

Each restaurant maintains its own décor identity. 

The imagery of Maharlika is really a nod to Philippine kitsch/pop culture, from the ubiquitous Last Supper relief to the dignified photo blow-up of Miss Universe 1972 Marjorie Moran adorned with a Miss Philippines sash. Design value is key. 

LAST FILIPINO MISS UNIVERSE. Margie Moran's mural in Maharlika

Jeepney’s interior reflects the identity and the spirit of the jeepney vehicles that the name suggests. The multi-layers and texture of hand-painted signage, stencils, vinyl pin-striping, photo blow-ups of the ’70s era Filipina pin-up dolls and kitsch objects permeate throughout the interior’s galvanized steel walls.

LIKE THE GOOD OL' DAYS OF SARAO. A tabletop in Jeepney

All these convey what a recent review in the The New York Times said: “Dinner at Jeepney, which describes itself as a Filipino gastropub, can feel like parachuting into Manila.” 

In terms of heritage and culture, people and social dynamics, which city from your travels has affected you the most and why?

Every city is so unique and inspiring in its own way. I’m going to have to go way, way back and say one of my first of two trips to Mexico City. It was a solo trip during graduate school summer break. I left on a total whim and pure wanderlust. 

The first day I arrived, I was pretty much in a daze from the visual energy. I remember just walking in the Zocala Square just fresh from my flight. I was literally mobbed by a mass group of huge butterflies. I got mesmerized by these intense Aztec dancers in full-on traditional costume and in a trance-like state, gearing up for the upcoming solar eclipse.

The city was blanketed by this ominous overcast sky. I saw these stunning ancient ruins exposed in the center of the square still fresh from excavation. 

I ended up staying about 3 weeks in this old colonial-style hotel for 15 dollars a day. It was a huge room so I managed to set up a makeshift studio, turning the tall dresser on its back to create a work table and produced a lot of drawings.

What really boggled my mind was how Mexico could have been any European city, from its architecture to the myriad of basilicas and mestizo features in all the people’s faces. I immediately drew parallels to the Philippines, of course, with both countries being colonized by Spain as well as the blatant poverty of the more indigenous class.

You were in Prague for two years working on large-scale graphic murals for nightclubs. Afterwards, you worked for MoMA design stores, creating their visual displays. How were these experiences like for you?

I had a unique opportunity to just travel after graduate school to Eastern Europe before settling into the Los Angeles art scene, which was my original intention. Prague was no doubt budget-friendly especially for a broke artist just out of graduate school. I bought an open-ended airline ticket, which is unheard of today and left for Prague, planning to stay for the summer — I ended up staying a year. 

The Czech Republic was still reeling from the shock of opening its arms to foreigners after being isolated for so long under Communism. I got a job the first week [I was there] painting graphic murals for a dance club run by these expats. It was was an exciting time. CNN even interviewed me while a mural was in progress. 

Like in exico City, I was pretty entrenched in the everyday life. I also turned my apartment into a makeshift studio and soaked up the visual energy of this beautiful city with so many layers of history and artistic tradition.

DANISH MODERNIST. Anthony Castro's window design for the MoMA design store

I got on board with MoMA immediately after their 5-year renovation hiatus so there was a lot of pressure to refresh the design stores from graphic design to branding identity, to merchandising and over-all service.

DESTINATION BERLIN. Anthony Castro's MoMA design store interior in 2007

It was an amazing experience working with curators, partnering with classic greats such as Artek, Eames, Kartell, Vitra, Alessi, and designing in-store exhibitions to launch all these new fetching design objects from all over the world.

Which Filipino artist, living or dead, would you love to meet?

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilisan, living. Juan Luna, dead.

A lot of young Filipinos want to pursue a career in art, but question the financial security of the career, with some parents doubting if art really is a career. What advice do you have for these kids?

I can sympathize, especially with my parents’ generation and the history of struggle in Philippine daily life.

If art is truly your passion and love, then do it. There’s no handbook to being an artist, just old fashioned hard work and honesty of the craft. Exposure is no longer an issue. We live in a globalized world where your work can viewed from every corner of the world.

Do you have an artist’s philosophy that you live by?

Paint what you love.

What else is in store for 2013?

Just generating more ideas for new works to execute in the studio and to continue to help boost the branding identity of Jeepney and Maharlika.

I got a solid proposal in the works for an interior mural project at a brand new cantina in Manhattan. It’s going to involve a lot of stenciling, wheat-pasting and masking, so I’m really looking forward [to it].

Also excited to be part of a group of uber-talented artists for a cool coloring book project called Outside the Lines.

If you were commissioned a project in the Philippines, what would your dream project be?

To curate local, homegrown creations of artists and designers that represent the core of Philippine art and design.

I would put together an eclectic group of artists from diverse backgrounds, disciplines, ethnicities, established, non-established in an exhibition/expo/market context, most likely a 3- to 4-day annual event that would take place simultaneously in different cities throughout the country.


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Victoria Herrera

Victoria Herrera is a TV and event host, model and writer. In 2011, she released her first book, ‘Unscripted,’ based on inspiring conversations from her previous radio show. In 2012, she hosted ‘Runway TV Asia,’ where she interviewed international fashion designers and celebrities. Shuttling between Manila and Singapore, she continues to explore the world of creativity, design and fashion as a contributor for several publications.

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