Sensei's Sketchbook: Karate Imagery & Icons T-Shirt Design for Seattle's 2016 Iain Abernethy Seminar

The Iain Abernethy Seminar is just one week away! I discovered Iain Abernethy’s work, like most people, through the extensive videos he’s shared on his YouTube channel. After a year of following his work I was able to make it out to Watertown, Connecticut for my first seminar.

Iain has a unique ability to unite karateka of various, divergent styles into a community. We connect over those elements we have in common, seeing our differences as variations in perspective, an opportunity for continued learning and insight. Building community is a core value of Fighting Chance Seattle, after meeting Iain I was excited to invite him to the Pacific Northwest to put on a seminar.

We set the date more than a year in advance. I knew I wanted to design a t-shirt to commemorate the event for all of our guests, but it wasn’t until late September that the ideas and visions tumbling in my head felt clear enough to start on the design.

I chose the acorn sapling based on an analogy Iain uses to describe the application of the kata:

“The concept of principles over techniques can be a difficult one to grasp. An analogy that may help is to think of a fighting system as an oak tree. An oak tree is vast, both in its size and years lived, but everything about that tree, and everything required to reproduce it, is found in a single acorn. A fighting system produces a kata in the same way that an oak tree produces acorns. Both the acorn and the kata are not as vast as the thing that created them, but they record them perfectly. For an acorn to become an oak tree it must be correctly planted and nurtured. For a kata to become a fighting system it must be correctly studied and practised. It is here that we find one of modern karate’s biggest failings, in that the katas are rarely studied sufficiently. To return to my analogy, we have the seeds but we don’t plant them!”

My intention with this design was to attempt to communicate the depth and beauty of karate’s pinan kata. They blend the primal, organic movements of the human form with the elegance of a consciously-imposed choreography.

The sapling and roots burst from the acorn, reaching out in each direction, finding ground and reaching into the sky. The background grid, a drawing tool to manage proportions and composition, is subdivided into triangles, creating angles of ninety and forty-five degrees representing the lines of attack and defense found in the symmetry of the kata.

By learning to move our body weight at the specified angles we teach out bodies to move with discipline and precision. But if we are too rigid, we lose the vitality and spontaneity of our movements. The illustration represents the balance between organic and imposed form, the constant tension we explore as martial artists.

This design is part of a larger art project, under the name Budo Punk, of exploring and questioning the history, art, myths, and iconography of karate. There is so much depth to our martial art, yet we tend to represent ourselves with generic dragons and clumsy fist logos. As our practice continues to evolve into the 21st century, so should our identity.

The last bit of the design fell into place when Iain provided the quote, the first line from a poem by Gichin Funakoshi:

To search for the old is to understand the new.
The old, the new
This is a matter of time.
In all things man must have a clear mind.
The Way:
Who will pass it on straight and well?

The branches and leaves representing the growth and progression of karate, its future, while the roots and trunk represent our rich history and the contributions of the masters and teachers who passed the art down to us. The additional layer of comparing the old and the new pointed me toward a vintage style design and an enjoyable afternoon scrolling through typefaces until I found the pair that hit the right vibe.

The shirts were printed locally, here in Seattle, by our friends at The Foundry, all seminar participants will receive a free shirt.


Cage fighting

Final artwork for the t-shirt design.

Cage fighting

My original sketch for a sapling illustration that represented the kata.


Fighting chance Seattle is a different kind of dojo. Operating out of Ballard, students focus on strengthening their minds, spirits and community, as well as their roundhouse kicks. The dojo has been in business for five years and is dedicated to empowering students through encouraging personal growth, self-confidence, and martial arts excellence.

By Jordan