Wednesday 5 February 2014

An Interview with Seymour Yang

Seymour Yang is an artist, illustrator, and blogger who is based in London, UK. He is probably best known for his company Meerkatsu, and also runs a blog which shares the same name. He has produced designs and illustrations for some of the biggest clothing companies and organistaions throughout the fightwear industry. It truly is a pleasure to get the chance to interview him! 

Before we get to the questions, as a sort of mini introduction could you please state the following:

Your Age:  44
Belt Rank: Brown
Time Training: 10 years
Your Current Team: Mill Hill BJJ (Roger Gracie)

Right, so first off, how did you get started in BJJ?

In 2003 I was a black belt in traditional jiu jitsu but I wanted to improve the knowledge I had of the small amount of groundfighting taught in our style. I looked for the closest ‘Gracie’ club I could find (it happened to be Carlson Gracie London) and tried out a session. It was brilliant, a real eye opener. I got really massacred during sparring and it was a huge dent to my perceptions at the time, not to speak of my ego! That single first experience compelled me to take up the sport further.

Have you previously done any other martial arts or combat sports?
I trained traditional ju-jitsu as mentioned above. Prior to that I was really into karate and kickboxing.

How did you come up with the name Meerkatsu? And what inspired you to start your blog?

I needed an online name when I began commenting on martial art forums and discussion boards. Off the top of my head I combined the name of the cute furry animal meerkat with that of my favourite Japanese dish, katsu curry to create a portmanteau and ‘Meerkatsu’ was born!

Blogging seemed to be the new craze sweeping online people at the time so I began one simply because I wanted to see what the platform was like. I opened up an account in 2003 and haven’t stopped since.

Seymour with JT “Spiderman” Torres 

What inspired you to start producing Jiu-Jitsu artwork?

I have always been an illustrator – ever since I sold my first commissions when I was a teenager. I’ve always since then received commissions just through word of mouth. I guess jiu jitsu influences began appearing in the doodles that decorated my blog, and that’s when fightwear brands began to take notice.

What was your first piece of Jiu-Jitsu artwork that you designed?

I cannot actually recall since I probably did a lot of small, uncredited designs before I was more confident about branding my own work. I think the first Honey Badger rashguard made by Tatami Fightwear would be the first high profile item of fightwear with my name credited.

Since then I have continued to produce artwork and designs for other brands as well as my own brand.

What has been your favourite piece of Jiu-Jitsu artwork you have produced? And what was the first initial design you produced for a company?

Oooh tough one. I’m always most proud of whatever is my most recent piece, but I am probably most proud of the Heavenly Footlock t-shirt I designed. I rarely draw humans so that was a bold departure for my usual style, plus it was technically a tough challenge to draw the figures performing a jiu jitsu technique. I must have sketched 20-30 or more drafts before I felt it was about right. The final t-shirt raised a lot of money for RAINN and Rape Crisis and I still see the tee worn out and about at BJJ events. So yeah, that would be among my top projects where I feel I did some good.

The Heavenly Footlock T-Shirt

What influences are behind the artwork itself?

Animals and nature predominate in my work. I love the natural world and the sciences. I actually have a degree in botany so technically I should be drawing plants ha! Artistically, I am influenced by a huge swathe of artists past and present. Pretty much anything and everything can give me a spark of inspiration. I channel all of my daily thoughts into my sketchbook and eventually they come out in my jiu jitsu designs.

Who would you say has had the biggest influence on your Jiu-Jitsu?

My instructor Nick Brooks is the person I admire the most. He has a huge technical knowledge and still regularly competes.

Who are some of your favourite Jiu-Jitsu fighters?

I usually only take a close look at jiu-jitsu fighters after I have actually met them at a seminar. So in the past few years, having learned from people such as Roger Gracie, Braulio and Victor Estima, Michelle Nicolini, Roberto Cyborg Abreu, JT Torres, Robson Moura, Rodolfo Vieira, Jake McKenzie, Ricardo de la Riva, Michael Langhi, Leo Vieira, Terere, Cobrinha and many many others, I often study their videos afterwards to see how they applied the techniques taught in competition. Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of instructionals by Ryan Hall and really like how he teaches. Closer to home our own Daniel Strauss is a great grappler and his nogi sessions are always brilliant.

What has your competition career been like?

I didn’t compete at white belt at all. Tournaments seemed a bit scary when I first started plus I got promoted pretty quickly to blue belt and didn’t feel at all ‘ready’. So my first competition came when I have already been training BJJ for around five years! After that first comp, I realised I had been missing out and attended lots of tournaments. I have won just two gold medals, couple of silvers and dozens and dozens of losses. It’s all goof fun and I don’t take competing too seriously.
What would you say your biggest accomplishment to date is?

In terms of my jiu-jitsu, just still being here and sticking with the training and still enjoying it. It sounds trivial but BJJ is such a long journey and so many give up due to family, career, injury, relocation etc etc. In ten years I still get that buzz when I slap hands and roll so I really value each session I attend.

In terms of my art career, I’m happy to finally (after 20 odd years)  get the commissions and growing recognition I used to dream of when I was younger. All artists will admit that recognition is a big motivator – whether that be an audience for an actor, fans at a concert for a musician or, in my case, people who care and support my design work.  The internet and social media has of course helped me immensely.
What type of Jiu-Jitsu game do you like to play? And how would you describe your style of Jiu-Jitsu?

Being a small type of person, most of my training partners are heavier and bigger than me. I began my BJJ career playing closed guard and remained there for many years. I still feel closed guard is my ‘home’ where I am most comfortable but as I have grown and developed, I have added some fairly reliable open guard positions to my repertoire. Recently, I’ve made a big attempt to concentrate on my top game, especially passing all the various devilishly tricky guards played by my class mates. BJJ is continuous work in progress for everyone, some are better at it than others but we’re all growing and learning.

What are your thoughts on how Jiu-Jitsu is evolving, with many people using "modern" Jiu-Jitsu techniques such as the berimbolo, reverse de la riva, galaxy guard etc, and do you personally use any of these techniques?

I honestly believe there is nothing really genuinely ‘new’ with the techniques you mention. What happens is that a technique won’t get much attention for a few years but then randomly gets picked up and excelled at by one or two people and suddenly it is the hit new thing. If you ever get the chance to speak with the red and black belts like Mauricio Gomes, I recommend you ask him that same question haha.

In the longer term, jiu jitsu is evolving only because the rules keep changing.  For example, if heel hooks were allowed in the gi comps, how different would you see the way people play their game?
What do you think about people saying that learning sport Jiu-Jitsu is useless as it does not prepare you for any street altercations?

My traditional ju-jitsu experience was very much geared towards conventional ‘street’ confrontations. Some of my training friends have been caught in street violence and used their techniques effectively so in the right hands, it can work. For ‘sport’ focused BJJ, common sense prevails. No one is going to pull guard and attempt a berimbolo are they? But BJJ gives you great physical awareness, fitness, balance and if something nasty did happen, I think the general training one receives would be more helpful than a hindrance. I also believe that regular live sparring does something to a person. It changes them maybe…so that in real life, when normally the red mist would descend, maybe a BJJ athlete would simply walk away or deal with a confrontation better? Everyone is different mind, so who knows.

What do you think about people being promoted through online courses without any mat time? (i.e. Gracie University)

In my mind, Gracie University has positioned itself in a way that makes it almost like an entirely unrelated martial art compared to conventional Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Therefore, while we perhaps share a lineage and similar techniques, the emphasis differs in various ways. I have no problem with online courses. A blue belt earned via Gracie or any other online learning program is acquiring knowledge, though they must know, that this knowledge must be backed up with regular live sparring. On the other hand, I feel it is a shame that most BJJ clubs around the world have lost a little of the self defence oriented heritage that was an original part of our art.
Now you are a brown belt, I assume inevitably you have thought about receiving your black belt, what are your thoughts on receiving the belt?

Goodness, if my instructor decides the time is right, then I guess he would know best, but it's incredibly unsettling to think it might happen to me one day. Some days I barely feel competent enough and others I feel I'm progressing. There is a bit of myth being circulated around the jiu jitsu community that standards are falling, belts aren't worth what they used to be etc. I don't feel this is the case and in fact, the standard of people I see day in day out is incredibly high. It would be an honour to be promoted one day, my only job is to try to live up to that rank - not an easy task lol!

I just want to say thank you Seymour for allowing me to interview you, it has been a true pleasure! Before we wrap things up, is there any people you would like to thank?

Thanks to you Giordano for this intelligent and well composed interview!
My coach Nick Brooks and all the team at Mill Hill who are the best training partners ever!
Shout out to the Meerkatsu Army - all those who rock my designs - thank you thank you!


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