The story of Urban Kempo’s logo goes back to its founding:

I realized that I had to create a logo in 2012 when it became evident that we were going to seek out a space and a name for our community. While I am a man of vision in some respects, a man of art I definitely am not. So when it came to designing a symbol to represent us, I needed help. I could have paid some random artist to help with the logo, but when something is so close to your heart, it is almost impossible to pass that responsibility on to a stranger.

Luckily, I had Ron. Ron was the second person that I had trained fully from white belt to black belt, and to this day I continue to train him and his two children. I’ve always said this and I’ll say it again, there is no better way to get to know people than to teach the whole family.

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Similarly, Ron understood my dojo as well or better than anyone. So when I needed help making a logo that best represented my vision, it made sense to call him. And it helped that he used to work at Marvel!

I find that many martial arts logos portray an eastern mystique without offering real insights from Eastern traditions in the dojo. While some dojos are to be commended for their authentic work, others are treating the Eastern mystique as a saleable commodity.

Full Disclosure: I am not a mediation master and I do not want my clients to think that I am. I am not from an Asian country, and I do not speak Chinese.  I played basketball and football. I eat pizza and I grew up watching Growing PainsThe Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and yes, Beverly Hills 90210 every Wednesday night at 8:00! I know all of the words to Ice Ice Baby, Han Solo is my favorite Star Wars character and I cried in ET when I was 5 years old.

I was on Staten Island during 9/11 and watched the Twin Towers cast a dark cloud of smoke over Brooklyn for the ensuing two weeks. Both my grandfathers flew in WWII and both of my older cousins attended the Naval Academy. I have three sisters—Cathy, Debbie and Caitlin, the oldest of which is a doctor, the middle one died of a heroin addiction, and my baby sister is a teacher and the proud mother of three. I have almost 30 little cousins who were raised on Kraft Macaroni, Spaghettio’s and any assortment of cereals.

Given my unique American heritage, I realized that my logo could not suggest that I would sit you down over a cup to tea and enlighten you through my Zen wisdom.

However, I do understand what it feels like to grow up in and around various American cities, particularly Washington DC. I understand many of the stresses and challenges that we face as a society, and I think I’ve stumbled upon a decent remedy to those challenges by exploiting the art of Shaolin Kempo in an entirely selfish and Western fashion.  

So I chose a DC landmark contrasted by an eastern sun to symbolize that we are Westerners utilizing an Eastern art to help us cope with the challenges of our society. In particular, as I ran the mock-ups by my friends, there was criticism over using the Capitol Building because many said that it screamed politics too loudly.  My response was exactly—the capital building symbolizes a lot of what we both love and struggle with here in the DC area.

The symbolism of the cats is two fold. Most martial arts schools portray themselves through the images of dragons and tigers, but I move like the leopard—an animal that utilizes speed over brawn, and places a heavy emphasis on precision. I asked Ron to show me a mock-up with some leopards hanging out on the steps of the Capitol. When he came back with his mock up, there were two cats—a big one and a little one.

The draft was totally different from my original vision, but as soon as I saw it, something powerful hit me. Only Ron, a father within my dojo, would have thought to put a daddy leopard with a baby leopard.

In fact, when I’d departed from the school that I had grown and managed for years, the entire roster was filled with families. Not just kids, but families like Ron’s—fathers studying along side their sons, or mothers with their sons, or mothers with daughters, or any combination in between. And without the support from many of those families, there would probably not be an Urban Kempo. I used to derive an immense amount of joy by reading down my roster at the end of the day and noticing all of the families that were practicing under me.

This totally made our community unique. And only Ron could have nailed that on the head without my asking for it. Whether you see a mommy or a daddy leopard, it is simply adorable and, depending on who you are, profoundly meaningful.

The rest of logo is self-explanatory. The Chinese characters read Shaolin Chuan Fa, ultimately translating into “Little Pine Tree Forest, Way of the Fist”. The “little pine tree forest” being Shaolin, the birthplace of Kung Fu and the martial arts, and “way of the fist” meaning the martial art itself.

The tree in the original mock-up was a vestige from a logo within our dojo’s lineage, but I decided immediately to eliminate it as it seemed to both clutter the picture and begin to cloud the art with too many Eastern symbols.

As for the font, that was easy. I met with Ron over at the Chart House in Old Town one afternoon and he pulled out a number of options. I simply picked out the one that I liked the best—clean, sharp, contemporary and clear. When you come to our dojo you’ll notice its minimalist character. No trophies, no pictures on the wall (excepting our logo), and no merchandise. I personally feel like these things clutter the place and distract from the experience.

When we finished with the mock-ups, Ron passed them to his friend and former colleague Hector, an artist at Marvel. Hector did a meticulous job of refining the logo into a piece of artwork. To have taken all of these elements—the Cap building, leopards, Chinese characters, and sun—and fit them into a single logo that doesn’t crowd the eyes and mind, took a skillful touch. I was beyond fortunate to have had him as a contact in this endeavor.

A lot of ideas, history and effort went into the Urban Kempo logo. I hope this blog was helpful in clarifying what it symbolizes. I get excited at the opportunity to explain it as a representation of our community. There is a lot packed into that little picture and I hope that when you look at it, you see a little more Urban Kempo in it than you did before!

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