Interview with Seymour Yang aka Meerkatsu

Seymour Yang aka Meerkatsu

See that guy in the picture above. That’s not just posing. Well, maybe it is just posing in that picture but what I mean is that while he may be a bit of a poser like to do funny poses for the camera he really is a tough guy. That’s right. How do I know this? Well, it’s on the About page of his blog. He studied Karate and later ran his own traditional Jiu-Jitsu club for 10 years before switching to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in which he holds (wears?) a purple belt. What’s a purple belt? I don’t really know but purple is closer to black than it is to pink so I guess it means he is a right hard bastard. And when a right hard bastard offers to do an interview you don’t refuse.

I probably would never have seen the tees he designed if he hadn’t contacted me but luckily he did because not only does he revel in the destruction of his opponents he is also quite creative. He has been putting his talents to good use designing tees too! Until now he has designed almost exclusively for fighting sports but who knows, he may branch out into other areas in the future. In the meantime, you can read this interview with Seymour Yang and next time you watch UFC keep an eye out for his designs.

— ABOUT THE MAN —

You use the name Meerkatsu on the web. What’s that?

I added a ‘su’ at the end to make it sound all exotic and Mr Miyagi like.

I have a distant memory as a kid of visiting London Zoo and seeing a family of meerkats in a pen out the way from public gaze, I thought they were the most awesomely small, inquisitive and intelligent animals there. I’m small and I can do inquisitive pretty well, not sure about the intelligent bit though. I’ve used the Meerkatsu alter ego ever since I began frequenting martial arts forums. I added a ‘su’ at the end to make it sound all exotic and Mr Miyagi like.

The name Seymour Yang suggests mixed ethnicity. If it’s not too rude: what’s your background?
Well deduced! My parents came from China and Hong Kong and landed in the UK in the 60’s when London was swinging, Beatles fans were rampaging, England ruled the World Cup (soccer) and men wore cool black polo necks and the girls wore cool miniskirts. Can’t imagine what attracted them!

Octodragon Wallpaper
Octodragon – An octopus dragon hybrid? Now that’s badass!

Where are you from/where do you live?
I’m a born and bred Londoner. I live right now outside of London with my wife and two kids.

Are you multilingual?
I speak a bit of Chinese Mandarin, only because I was forced to attend Chinese Sunday school for years, even though I only just used the time to doodle and be cheeky to the teacher.

Let’s get to the punch. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. That’s your thing. Is that like regular Jiu Jitsu but with more waxing?

it’s like judo but with more of the men hugging men in a prone position.

Worse – it’s like judo but with more of the men hugging men in a prone position. Literally. I could write a book here on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) but to sum up its importance on the world scene, the techniques and the training methods form the bedrock for many of today’s top mixed martial artists (cage fighting in common parlance). If you don’t watch much UFC or StrikeForce etc then this means nothing, but it’s worth noting that the UFC is the highest pay per view event on American TV – it beat heavyweight boxing couple years ago by some way. So by association, BJJ is very big and getting bigger. Quote from Wikipedia on UFC: “the UFC had already broken the pay-per-view industry’s all-time records for a single year of business, generating over $222,766,000 in revenue in 2006, surpassing both WWE and boxing.”

Do you get odd looks when you say you enjoy a good BJJ session?
Haha, I try not to bore civilians with my BJJ exploits, but the jargon can sound crummy to non-BJJers. We often talk about tapping, choking out, passing guard, turtles, butterfly, spider, anaconda, half guard, tornadoes, elevators, rolling, etc etc. It sounds like a flipping zoo…which is why I guess the BJJ peeps like my animal inspired art so much.

It seems that you enjoy kicking ass. Do you get paid to do this or do you have other sources of income?
BJJ is an amateur sport and that’s how I approach it, it is a very passionate and thoroughly involving hobby. I think this is the case for most people who take part, but a few decide to dedicate all their time to competing and teaching in the sport. My day job is a feature writer and photo editor for a picture agency.

How close have you come to death on the mat (in the ring?)?
BJJ is very safe because the rules are very clear. Obviously the idea is to win by submission and this usually means a technique where you restrict your opponent’s blood supply with a neck strangle, or cause pain by attempting to snap their joints apart. The reality is that rarely does anything get broken or ‘choked’ unconscious if they follow the rules – this means the person who is ‘losing’ ie getting choked out or having a joint lock applied to them, ‘taps’ at the right time. It’s all a game of skill and technical ability, clearly, no one is going to simply let themselves get submitted so a ton of defences and escapes are learnt to thwart ones opponent. The whole thing is very cat and mouse.

How many people have you killed, either on the mat or as your superhero alter ego protecting the denizens from the forces of evil?
I haven’t witnessed any deaths, but I can show you a ton of nasty crap that does happen to BJJ fighters, like this one:

eyes

and worse stuff that I shall refrain from linking to cos your readers will puke at the sight (clue: nasty skin infections).

How long have you been putting on pajamas waaaay before bedtime?
I began BJJ in 2003. Us BJJ folk like to call our uniforms kimonos, cos pyjamas sounds way too sissy. Mind you, kimonos are what geisha girls wear, so, umm, yeah, our world is all messed up ha!

Gi Guitar with Seymour Yang aka meerkatsu

— ABOUT THE ARTIST —

When did you start creating art?
I have a distant memory of being a small child and severely punished for crayoning on the walls by my Mum – Chinese mums are hardcore tough. So it’s nice to know that life runs full circle as I watch in horror now as my kids happily draw all over my house. They draw on everything EXCEPT the paper I provide, unless it is daddy’s ‘special’ paper (expensive £3 a sheet Bristol Board)!!! Um, but as for commissions, I hand painted t-shirts for my friends at school when I was around 14 or 15. I’d buy cheap blank t-shirts from a local store and paint all manner of crap using fabric paints. I earned £10 a tee, good money in those days. At University, I was drawing non-stop for flyers, posters, rag mags, rock band promos etc. A free pint of beer was enough payment in those days.

Where do you get your inspiration?
I’m a botanist by education, so naturally, I draw everything EXCEPT plants. Brrrr. Haha, I guess I’m a frustrated zoologist so I pretty much specialize in drawing cartoon animals. Beastly creatures real and mythological are ubiquitous in martial art circles, so there’s no shortage of inspiration and ideas. On a wider level, I find I draw inspiration from the huge pool of artistic talent out there. I especially dig really good tattoo artists.

Do you ever take a break in the middle of a fight to sketch up an idea?
Nah, jiu-jitsu time is totally consuming, every part of one’s body and mind is focused on developing technique and trying not to get killed during sparring. Of course, as a funky combat sport, BJJ is very inspiring creatively.

Octjitsu T-Shirt
White Ocjitsu tee worn by Shinichi “BJ” Kojima

Have you ever sketched out an idea in your opponents blood or would that be frowned upon?
There is very little blood spilled in BJJ. Despite all the machismo and locker-room talk of so-called jiu-jitsu athletes, you should watch how we all squeal when a tiny speck of blood is spotted soiling our pristine white uniforms. Hilarious! But, ahem, accidents do happen.

How often do you create art?
Morning, noon and night. Because I have a day job, hectic family life, and BJJ training, all other spare parts of my day is used to sketch and draw. On the bus to work and at lunchtimes is when I work concepts and ideas in my notebook. I then work late at night on the final versions. I get a commission request almost daily, so sadly I have to decline a lot of them purely due to lack of time. I pick projects that pay well and offer me a broad canvas creatively – a rare combo admittedly, but I’ve been very fortunate so far.

Tengu Wallpaper
Tengu Desktop Wallpaper available on his blog

Do you create art other than for tees or apparel?
Most of my freelance work is for illustrating magazines, designing t-shirts, jiu-jitsu uniforms, rash guards and other items of combat sport clothing. Recently I’ve been working on various personal projects that are less restricted by the limits of clothing. I’ve been offering these as desktop wallpaper artworks for my online followers. Way back in distant past, I have created work for album covers, posters, greetings cards, magazine illustrations, and a whole bunch of crap.

Photoshop or illustrator? Why?
I freely use both on most of my projects. Typically I’ll ink up a design using fineliners, scan it into Photoshop, clean it up and then live-trace it on Illustrator. From here I have the best of both worlds – a clean PSD file and a clean vector file. So I’ll play with both depending on what I want to achieve and what the application is. If I HAD to make a choice, I could live without Photoshop but I could not live without Illustrator.

Design Process
Design Process: From Pencil to Vector with Illustrator

— ABOUT THE TEES —

You design almost exclusively for fighting sports brands. How did this come about?
My blog, meerkatsu.com, which I began in 2004, is actually more well known in the BJJ community as a review website. BJJ uniforms are much more expensive than many other martial arts uniforms and there are hundreds and hundreds of brands out there, all vying for custom. The comparatively loose restrictions on attire design also means most students can wear very creatively designed models. As a product reviewer, my blog tends to get read by fightgear companies, students and instructors so I started posting my own artwork on there too, so naturally I soon received frequent requests to design stuff. It’s kind of grown from there.

Have you designed for non-fighting sports brands?
Sure. I have a limited edition bar of soap coming out with my artwork on the pack. Ok, it is a soap aimed at the fight athlete so not quite answering the question there, but still, soap!

Fight Soap

it is all nursery rhymes and Barbie tunes in my house…sigh

Recently I was asked to pitch ideas to a well known Rugby League Club and a well known heavy metal band. Nothing came of it but it’s nice to know my style has wider appeal. I would definitely love to develop my non-fightsport, portfolio and I think my style would suit the current hard rock and metal scene (a musical genre I much enjoyed in my youth – less so as now it is all nursery rhymes and Barbie tunes in my house…sigh).

How many tees did you design last year?
I actually lost count, but specific t-shirt only stuff I would say about 12-15, and for projects where I simply designed a logo, that eventually made it to a t-shirt, another 20. So all in all around 35-40 t-shirts carry something I designed last year.

Seymour Yang T-Shirt Montage

Which is your favorite?
Well, it’s not a t-shirt, but the Honey Badger rashguard I designed was meant to be a one-off joke. The company, Tatami fightwear, wanted me to test their custom printing service so I submitted a crazy illustration that was nuts – even by my standards. I knew everyone would hate it and refuse to wear it, and that kind of was the point. And yet…and yet they didn’t hate it. Instead, I got hundreds of emails, comments and feedback from people all over the world demanding we make this project available to the masses. So we did. And it sold by the bucketload. I’m very proud of that. It still got tons of hate too 😀

Honey Badger rashguard
Honey Badger rashguard: Still some haters out there!

As for an actual t-shirt, it’s a tough call, but I’d say ’50 foot Lutadora’. Mainly because it’s a rare non-animal based outing for me, plus I spent loads of time composing it, re-drafting it, agonising over details. I even hired a translator to make sure the Portuguese was authentic. I’m not sure the BJJ community really got it in the end as I hardly see it out and about, but it was definitely a labour of love.

50 foot Lutadora
50 foot Lutadora: Click for full image!

Do you wear the tees that you design yourself?
Hell yeah, I only wear t-shirts anyway and I make sure the companies I design for send me lots of courtesy samples so I am never short on clothes to wear haha.

Can anyone buy the tees you design or do you have to be a lean mean leg sweeping machine?
Of course, anyone can buy the designs! Skullorantula seems very popular with the non-BJJ crowd, as does the Arte suave one. And who doesn’t love a mean looking primate wearing a wrestling mask, or a man-octopus?

SKULLORANTULA T-Shirt
Seymour models the SKULLORANTULA T-Shirt

What do you think of t-shirt design contests like Threadless or Design by Humans?
I think they are very good ways to showcase and reward the immense talent out there. I’m afraid if I submitted something, it would sink without a trace. In my goldfish bowl called the BJJ community, I like to think that my stuff stands out. In the real world, I suspect I would be exposed as a fraud and a charlatan. But who knows, if I can come up with a cool non-fightery design, I’d like to submit something.

— ABOUT THE WORLD —

I believe you live in London. Have you lived anywhere else? Would you like to?
What? There are other places outside London? Duh! No seriously, thanks to an extended family, I’ve spent much time in Hong Kong and China over the years and if money and time were no object, I’d definitely spend more time out in the East. Japan appeals to me in a big way so I’d like to live there for a while.

Do you travel to exotic international locations for fight tournaments?
There are BJJ clubs now in pretty much every major city in most countries around the world. I certainly intend to make my ‘pilgrimage’ to Brazil one day.

— ABOUT OTHER DESIGNERS —

Are there any t-shirt designers that have caught your eye?
Ooh, just to name off the top of my head a couple, in the non fightsport world, I’m a big fan of Hydro74 (www.hydro74.com) and PaleHorse (Palehorsedesign.com), both technically and artistically their work absolutely hits that sweet spot for me. Justin Kamerer (angryblue.com) is an impressive artist and the in your face majesty of Felix La Flamme (felixlaflamme.com) is brilliant. I love all sorts of illustration led tee designs. I was such a major metal fan back in the day so I love all the artists who worked on albums for Metallica (Pushead), Iron Maiden (Derek Riggs), Marillion (Mark Wilkinson) etc etc…It was a very rich source of imagery. In the fightsport world, I love the designs that come from Scramble (scramblestuff.com). I’ve worked on a couple of projects for them, but they also design a lot of stuff in-house which I think is fresh and originally executed. Veering more towards the ‘cagefighting’ fan, the illustrations used on brands such as Affliction, Tapout, Contract Killer etc are much criticised by purists, but some of the artwork used is of a very high standard. If skulls, wings, daggers and flames can be used in a less derivative way, there’s nothing wrong with that sort of genre in my view.

Any you would like to know more about (perhaps we can convince them to do an interview on the Shirt List?)
See names mentioned in the previous Q.

— ABOUT DESIGN —

What design trends have made you go WTF?
WTF good or WTF bad? If it is WTF bad, then I’m pretty cynical about designs that borrow heavily from other artists’ work. There is a lot of that going around in the fightwear apparel community and I’m not a fan. Some t-shirts don’t even make an effort to hide their blatant image thievery. As mentioned before, I prefer designs that are fresh, original and sourced or commissioned exclusively.

For good WTF t-shirts – I’m impressed with really detailed high resolution screen printing. Stuff that stands out to me are where the designer has made effective use of just one colour, or, on the other end of the spectrum, a crazy project using 6 or more spot colours and silk screened.

Any advice for other designers/artists?
The best thing about drawing stuff is seeing how those drawings are applied. I still get a massive thrill seeing my work out there, being worn and seen by hundreds, possibly thousands of people. So I don’t know if it is any advice, but if you get a buzz from people rocking your designs, then that’s motivation enough to know that you are doing the right thing and to just carry on. For something more practical, I would say outlining your terms and conditions immediately and try to  get paid upfront (at least a deposit), that saves a lot of hassle later on with ‘misunderstandings’.

— EXTRA —

What’s your favorite martial arts video game?
Street Fighter II turbo edition for the SNES.

Website: www.meerkatsu.com
Art blog: Meerkatsu Art Blogspot
Twitter: @Meerkatsu
Facebook: www.facebook.com/meerkatsu

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1 Comment

  1. Love it…learned a lot about Meerkatsu that I had no idea about (botany…wow). Great interview!

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