Seaman/Artist Tony Diwaten talks about his passions: his career on sea, and his art inspired by his roots

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Read the first part of Tony’s story here

Dreamweavers

The T’boli are among the most renowned tribes of the Philippines, famed for weaving T’nalak, intricate abaca tapestries inspired by visions which unravel in dreams. Garbed in colourful attire which often feature jingling brass bells and bracelets, they are deeply spiritual and animistic, believing that spirits reside in trees, rocks and animals – elements they further emulate when singing and dancing.

The T’boli people, dreamweavers of Lake Sebu and makers of the fabled t’nalak fabric, provide the inspiration for Tony Diwaten’s upcoming comic book universe. ( Gregg Yan)

“The central characters in my universe are based on T’boli deities. One of the heroes is Viktor Litik, newly-minted God of Thunder. Exiled from his kingdom, he’s on a temporary quest to redeem himself and regain the respect of his people, using just his wits and a pair of enchanted arnis sticks. While he’s an initially-arrogant hero, he evolves over the course of the series. I present Gods and Goddesses as flawed characters. They shouldn’t be over and above the human condition. This makes them more relatable.” 

Armed with a pair of arnis sticks, Viktor Litik was wrongfully accused of abusing his privilege. Stripped of his nobility and powers, he’s on a temporary quest for redemption. His tight-fitting aquamarine bodysuit is inspired by real T’boli tattoos. (Tony Diwaten)

Mindanaoan mythology is a particularly rich brew, the story of Indarapatra and Sulayman an indicative example. The tale tells of how the people of Mindanao lived in peace and prosperity until four monsters appeared to terrorize and devour them by the bushel – Kurita, a multiple-limbed monster who hid amongst rattan thickets, Tarabusaw, a man-sized creature who lorded over Mt. Matutum, Pah, a bird so large his wingspan blotted out the sun around Mt. Bita, plus a seven-headed bird who lived around Mt. Gurayn. Indarapatra and Sulayman had quite a few epic battles to vanquish the beasts and restore peace to Mindanao.

“I often wondered what made Pinoy mythology so interesting and diverse. It struck me that we live in one of the world’s largest sprawling archipelagos. A nation of scattered islands, tribes and cultures, further influenced and spiced-up by the traditions of China, Spain, America, Japan and Malaysia. A melting pot is a great place to find diversity.”

Tony also draws on actual mystical experiences too. Once, his brother-in-law was nearly taken by encantos during a vacation to the woods. “He fell asleep in a hut near a forested area – a trancelike, dead-to-the-world slumber. No one could wake him until he did on his own accord. He said white beings were asking him to stay in their realm forever. Immediately after they left the area, a lone tree fell. Could’ve been a coincidence but the circumstances just seemed too closely connected.”

Born from the love of a mortal man and a moon goddess, Mer works to preserve peace within the realm. Her belt is adorned by traditional T’boli brass bells. (Tony Diwaten)

He also believes in traditional medicine. “We used to have Faith Healers in our area. I can attest to the fact that at least some of the treatments work. One healer used a palm leaf to heal me. Another – a Tandok or Mananandok, used goat horns to suck out poisons from my body. I know Western medicine is more consistent, but our Faith Healers wouldn’t have been so highly-esteemed if what they’d been doing for centuries didn’t work.”

Drawing from his personal experiences, Lumad beliefs and his own vivid imagination, Tony is currently plotting out the stories of his characters, much like a T’boli dreamweaver. “I want the story to appeal to a wide range of readers while paying homage to Filipino and especially Mindanaoan mythology. The series shall also tackle the struggles faced by our first-nations people, such as deforestation, river and coastal degradation, land-grabbing and the struggle to retain their identity amidst the coming tide of modernity.”

Tony plans to first disseminate his comics online, with limited-edition print runs for events like Comic Con and Toycon when the series finally cultivates a sizeable following. He dreams of being read alongside successful Pinoy titles like Trese, which will be turned into an animated series on Netflix this year.

Teme Lus is the warrior-brother of Viktor Litik. Armed with a shapeshifting staff, he searches for his kin after the latter was exiled from the seventh heaven. (Tony Diwaten)

Advice for Seafarer Artists

For fellow seafarers who wish to practice art at sea, Tony recommends a consistent routine and simple equipment like mobile phones and tablets with good graphic design apps like Gimp or Canva. “You really have to work on improving your craft day-by-day and week-by-week. Just as we seafarers memorize and internalize systems for our vessels, so too must seafarer-artists hone their skills by practicing day-by-day. Just remember to back up your work by regularly uploading to the Cloud – I’ve seen the ocean claim too many accidentally-dropped mobile phones.”

Tony says practicing hobbies like drawing or painting is crucial for seafarers to stay happy and productive on long voyages. “Hobbies keep your mind sharp and help you retain your original identity, instead of becoming just a drone. They don’t have to be about art – you can practice dancing, singing, drawing, music or whatnot to become a truly well-rounded seafarer and individual.”

With proper time management he says, seafarers can pursue the majority of their interests while enhancing their worth as professionals. Aside from art, Tony is learning to play the guitar and keeping fit by jogging every chance he gets.

Stay tuned for the launch of his comic series. “I want to emulate the movie Black Panther, which capitalizes on African culture while creating the wondrous high-tech world of Wakanda within the larger Marvel universe. If Africa can have Wakanda, then shouldn’t we have a cooler version for the Philippines?”

Seafarers and comic book junkies alike might soon see the day when the Gods and Goddesses of the T’boli people share their adventures beside other Pinoy classics. Heck, they might even fly their way to Netflix.

Catch more of Tony Diwaten’s work on Reddit, Facebook and Instagram.

Tony Diwaten has lofty dreams for the Philippine comic world. ( Gregg Yan)

Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan is an award-winning writer and photographer who covers marginalized groups and environmental conservation issues. His work has been featured by National Geographic, Discovery Channel, CNN plus over a dozen books – including Into the Wild, his first coffee table book. He also has a monthly magazine column on wildlife.