13 May 2011

BJJ Artist: John Smalls (Part One)

Regular readers of the blog know that I'm fascinated with both jiu jitsu and visual arts. If I can find a way to combine both passions, I will. Hence my own efforts at BJJ illustration and photography. So it's particularly warming when I bump into other like-minded BJJ-obsessed artistic folk, so much so that I began an exclusive Facebook Group called BJJ Artists. The group consists of professional and amateur designers, illustrators and artists who share a passion for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Every so often, I will highlight some of their BJJ-related artwork right here on this blog. To kick off my BJJ Artists series, I would like to introduce you to New York based artist - John Smalls.

Meerkatsu: Hi John, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Let's begin with a little introduction - how old are you, where you live, BJJ rank, BJJ school and how long you been training?

John Smalls: I'm 32 years old and living in New York City. I have been training for 2 years and hold a rank of blue belt under Marcelo Garcia.

Meerkatsu: Most folk, like me, who are new to you, will have come across you via the artwork on the impressively lovely Shoyoroll White Mamba BJJ uniform - tell me how this commission came about?

Photo courtesy of: seammagear.net 

John Smalls: The Shoyoroll projects started from me wanting a gi. I had saw a few on other people at my school and like the way it fitted them so I reached out to Vince(the owner) and basically offered my skills. After some negotiations things worked out to everyone's benefit. The white mamba is only one of many projects between Shoyoroll and myself.

Meerkatsu: Describe how it makes you feel when you see one of your artworks being used -  being worn by people or displayed in a gallery and admired by folk around the world?

John Smalls: I love it, especially when I see them wearing gear and they have no idea who I am.

Meerkatsu: From looking at your online website (http://johnsmalls.com/), you seem to be confident in a very wide range of media - from paint, murals to pen, ink and digital art. Tell me what your typical work flow is like and what media you like to use generally?

John Smalls: Most times everything starts with some sort of sketch, but a lot of times I just start creating and reworking the concept as it develops. Often the errors in the beginning development are what makes the artwork unique. Happy accidents.

Meerkatsu: You openly state you are colourblind. Has this ever hampered your work and what work-arounds do you have to compensate for this?

John Smalls: I don't use it as a crutch or like it's a problem for me, but more as a joke and something to laugh at.I work as a graphic designer for a living so sometimes I do pick so crazy color combos and everyone laughs. It's what makes me unique so I love it. The white mamba has a lot of purple in the design but I don't see it.

Meerkatsu: Some artists prefer to work alone but I see from videos that you are happy to collaborate on projects - tell me about some of the people you like to work with?

John Smalls: I will work with anyone who has the same work ethic as I do and wants to challenge there skills. I often work with CortesNYC because we share the same passion for art.

Meerkatsu: How long does a typical big mural like the dragon take you?

John Smalls: Every mural is different. I painted the dragon piece with markers, yes markers. So that took some time but overall less than a day. I once worked on a mural with CortesNYC that took two days but we locked ourselves indoors for almost 48 hours( had to go home and sleep) and got it done. That was intense.

Meerkatsu: Apart from the Shoyoroll commission, what other BJJ-related commercial art have you been involved in?

John Smalls: Recently I worked with Emily Kwok creating a logo for her academy 47BJJ/Princeton BJJ, and currently working on a project with the Woman's Grappling Camp.

Meerkatsu: Who in the art world, and who in the BJJ world inspire you the most?

John Smalls: Leonardo Da Vinci. he drew everything he saw and imagined. He also worked extremely hard at his craft. As for BJJ, when I see guys learn a technique and master it or are able to use it with ease that inspires me deeply. Overall anyone who doesn't give up or quit during a fight is an inspiration.

Meerkatsu: I wonder if you can explain to the readers (some of whom are not necessarily BJJ folk) what it is about the sport that stimulates and inspires you artistically so much?

John Smalls: find the same rules that come with learning to draw are the same with martial arts, you must study the foundation without a good foundation a house will fall. My approach to BJJ is the same. When I want to learn a new technique I practice over and over again, a lot. When I want to draw a koi fish or dragon I draw it over a hundred times maybe more just so that it will be stitched into my brain. The principles are the same.

Meerkatsu: Thanks so much John, any shout outs you wanna mention?

John Smalls: Marcelo Garcia, Paul Schreiner and Henrique (I don't know his last name)they keep me going day to day.

Coming in Part Two, John talks us through some of his fave BJJ-inspired artworks...

About the Author


Author & Artist

Meerkatsu is the artist name for BJJ black belt Seymour Yang.



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