Before he was Damaso, before he toured us around the most historic places in Manila—with his barong, abbreviated trousers and jazz hands—and before he was maestro of the first Manila Biennale, Carlos Celdran was a cartoonist.
He began his career at 14.
The husband of his aunt Patis Tesoro, the Filipiniana designer, got him a job under the legendary cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo at the old Business Day. Carlos would deliver his works every week to the newspaper offices by hand. He would take the bus from Dasmarinas Village in Makati to the EDSA Business Day offices next to Philamlife. When Nonoy moved to another daily, The Manila Chronicle, Carlos would take the the bus and LRT to Port Area.
“It was inspiring for any bohemian," recalls Carlos of working for Nonoy. "First time I saw weed was in a matchbox on his drawing table. I opened it up because I needed a light for my cigarette." The cigarette, by the way, is Philip Morris which he bought by the stick on the bus to the Chronicle HQ. "I felt like such a rebel."
Carlos was then the youngest member of the Samahang Kartunista ng Pilipinas. He kept the cartoonist gig all the way until he left for further studies at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1992.
Carlos also completed a Fine Arts degree at the University of the Philippines. In 2018, there was a rare exhibition of his works at the Archivo Gallery in Makati. Entitled "Drawings: 1983-2016," select pen and ink pieces from the show were from a school project back in the day. "They were t-shirt designs from my past life as the illustrator for Island Spice."
He sold the shirts in the UP College of Fine Arts "to make extra money" until he and his sister Anna opened Island Spice, that iconic souvenir store, in Greenbelt 2. Anna provided the capital and Carlos was in charge of concept and illustrations. "It was a lot of work but I got paid P15,000 a month. A fortune back in 1991."
Of the images in the Archivo show, the jeepney drawing was inspired by his daily commute as a UP student. "I did a lot of black and white drawings about jeepneys and life on the streets of Manila that I saw on my way from my home in Makati to Diliman," says Carlos. While employing Philippine elements, the other images were inspired by book covers done by the Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada. "His works really resonated with me especially the themes of death and the La Calavera Catrina [a drawing of a female skull sporting only a hat in the European style]."
His fascination for Manila embodied in his works as a young man would evolve into a deep love for the city, and influence the kind of work he did, both as artist and cultural activist. In the past few years, Carlos has become known more as the Manila Biennale impresario, and the storyteller of Imelda Marcos’s foibles and fantasies via the touring one-man-show “Livin’ La Vida Imelda.” For years, he lived in Malate’s fabled Syquia Apartments, and was an important personality Malate’s nightlife scene during the 90s and early 2000s. In 2018, he said he was raising funds for a sculpture playground for the kids of Intramuros and was continuing his guided tours of the Walled City. It will be remembered too that he passionately campaigned against the building of the DMCI Torre de Manila which destroyed the public’s view of the National Hero Jose Rizal’s monument in Luneta Park.
Nobody loved Manila quite like Carlos did; a love that has no doubt helped keep people’s interest and fascination for the city when many businesses were leaving it for the more progressive centers like BGC and Makati. In 2017, in a Mabuhay magazine interview, he was asked about his relationship with Manila, and this was his answer: “It’s complicated. I love her and I need her, but sometimes I need to stand away from her to keep this affair alive. Manila is also the city where I grew up, where I discovered my passions and where I define myself today. I believe that if you cannot find beauty and poetry in Manila, you’ll never find it anywhere."