Tag Archives: taekwondo

You know you’re home when old projects haunt you like spirits.

While my work is primarily about the “intersections of science and art,” I do, from time to time, do design work for things I care a lot about. Here are two of them that have appeared on my radar, physically and online, almost as if to say, “Hi! Remember me? Look at me now!”

It’s as though they were orphans I raised and gave to caring homes.

So, here are the children I gave away:

1. A logo for the Philippine Taekwondo Association 

As my friends and colleagues know, taekwondo is something that’s really important to me, but not in a competitive way. I think it has helped me a lot personally and professionally. I wanted to give back, not through competing (which I assure you, does not suit me) but through something else—design. Around 2008, I reached out to my old teacher, Coach Jobet Morales, a former medalist and currently the Philippines’ national coach, who said that coincidentally, they needed a new logo. I already had something in mind, but I also met with Coach Morales and Grandmaster Sun Chong Hong who discussed what they needed. (I remember that day! It was lunchtime and I thought that being with these two black belts was the safest place in the world. We had Korean bibimbap.)

The logo they approved has the association’s initials, rendered in the colors of the Philippine flag. The blue letter has the profile of a bird, symbolic of the Philippine eagle. The red letter is a roundhouse kick, which was a compromise because I initially suggested a side kick (better suited with the T shape), though was told that roundhouse kicks were more frequent in taekwondo (actually, true). The yellow letter has a sun from the Philippine flag.

Now it’s 2012 and, training at the central taekwondo headquarters in Manila, I keep seeing it all the time. On certificates, belts, chest guards, banners, etc. It’s quite an honor, and I’m thrilled they’re still using it.

2. A poster for Carlos Celdran’s Intramuros tour

My friend Carlos, who does these awesome tours in Manila, tagged me on this photo emailed to him by some European tourists and newlyweds. The poster on the right was my first graphic design poster, which Carlos gives away on his tours. I did this around the same time as the taekwondo project, and both remain among the graphic design projects closest to my heart. What he has done for the Philippines is fantastic, and while his tours are primarily performance art, it has contributed to the discourse of critical issues in the country.

(To the people in this photo, shoot me an email if you’d like to be identified. And thank you so much! You made my day. Oh, and congrats!)

A Disclaimer

I did these projects without any graphic design education at the time. The only things I had experience in were molecular biology and journalism. I was just a girl with a curiosity for Adobe Illustrator and a thing about “making the world a better place.” Years have passed and I’m done with an art residency and an MFA in Interaction Design, and looking at back at these projects made me both smile at the exuberance of youth and cringe at some tiny mistakes. (The kerning! Rats. I need to fix that.) But my friends / clients still seem happy about them, so I suppose that’s what counts. That brief time I was in Manila, I just loved their work and what they’ve done for me, and I thought that this was the best way to help them out. I may never be in the Olympics or Games of any sort, but at least my logo will! And helping cultural gems like Carlos’s work is something that’s always rewarding to do.

I have a cold. And this is probably why I’m sentimental.

A farewell illustration I made for my taekwondo school, because I’m a sentimental crybaby.

Three days away from New York. I need to kick something.

Rewind to last Friday. I always spend part of my last day in a country in my taekwondo school. Call me strange, but for me having the final words from my masters is almost like being blessed by Buddha.*

*Sort of. Give me a break; it’s hard to keep moving.

Taekwondo is the bedrock of all my beliefs, perhaps even beyond art, science, writing, and design. It is the one thing that has remained consistent in all the years of traveling and starting over, and as such, is the one thing that has never failed to give me a sense of stability and groundedness. It has been a way not to just let off steam and counter depression, but also to channel all my energy into something that is positive. It will always be my second home.

It is the closest thing I have to a religion. I could probably do without drawing, writing, or tinkering around for a few days, but I go stir-crazy if I can’t train. I’ve trained everywhere—old buildings, white sand beaches, the streets. Even in graduate school, I missed out on most of the design talks because I would always be in the dojang every night. (Was that a confession? Oops.)

It’s an addiction whose seed was planted early. I started doing this when I was thirteen, but I only took it really seriously in the past eight years when I started moving a lot. I got my black belt after fifteen years—quite a while, but starting anew is a side effect of a nomadic lifestyle. The fact that I do this has always surprised people; surely someone who hugs and squeals as much as I do couldn’t possibly be doing something so…tough. I suppose it’s what has given me the confidence to be as open and happy; it’s quite comforting to know that I can take care of myself in potentially dangerous situations. Or at the very least, I know I won’t die without putting up a fight.

Mirrors and masters

Martial arts has always mirrored my life, including all the professions I’ve ever touched. Consider design. Long before designers came up with things like “gamification” or ways of incentivizing and motivating people, martial arts have always used a belt system to “promote” you from one level to the next. Everything from the uniforms, to how the belt is tied, to structure and hierarchy, is designed, way before we ever earned badges or became mayor of something.

Training in Asia, Europe, and America has given me some insights on how differently people see martial arts, and by extension, their personal worldview. Students in Asia are always the youngest I encounter; it’s something ingrained in them (us) from very early on. In Barcelona, it was a mix of young athletes who are set on competing, as well as older ones who’ve done it for years but just want to keep training for the love of it. In New York, it’s always the most eclectic bunch, which is probably why I learn so much about life from watching students progress.


For the most part, I find people who either want to try something new or do what I have come to define as “escapist training” – they want to transcend the usual daily grind. Occasionally, I encounter those who find their careers unsatisfactory, or have rocky relationships that they want to think about. They find the urge to kick the crap out of something to let out the frustrations of the day. I kind of like this application of martial arts; while we can’t actually go to war (unless you’re in the military or security or related professions), we can at least use it to fight our personal battles.

At its core, martial arts have little to do with the BS of the world. You either do the kick or you don’t. I see it as a method of reflection or problem solving— all the questions in your mind can be translated into movement, similar to how I’ve felt in dance. I’ve come to appreciate how it turns into a thermometer of a sort; how I feel during the day becomes so obvious and manifest by how well or poorly I train.

Bullies and therapists

It’s so incredibly beautiful the way I’ve seen people who are not competitive athletes apply this in their lives. I’ve observed kids who were bullied become more confident and sure of themselves, and adults who have made serious life decisions because of what they’ve realized through the sport.

Once, I encountered a pint-sized five-year-old who greeted me at the door after a belt test, jumping up and down and proudly holding the pieces of a board he just broke. And I wonder, what if all kids could do that and grow up believing they can do anything, that everything can be as simple as breaking a board with your foot?

Once, I helped teach a woman who sobbed every time I touched her wrist when teaching her self-defense. She told me that she once came from an abusive marriage, and all the grabbing reminded her of those awful times. Another woman came to me and said that because of training, she felt like wakes up with a lot more purpose. Always when I hear these stories, I’ve thought that some of the techniques should be a requirement for everyone, no matter what age you are.

Perhaps on a more sheepish note, most of my masters have been my therapists of a sort. I am almost embarrassed, but not quite, to say that I have cried on the shoulders of a lot of black belts over the years (because, you know, they have no choice but to listen), and now that I actually am one, it’s a testament to how titles really don’t matter. I suppose I have traumatized many a stoic traditional instructor (who I bet was laughing hysterically inside) who have had to put up with me over the years.

Some things I’ve learned so far

The belt doesn’t matter. Seriously. I see blue belts kicking the butts of black belts all the time. (From what I’ve observed, blue—the fifth color in most belt systems—is the time when I see people getting good. They’re now familiar with the foreign terms and have gotten used to testing and are committed to getting their black belts.) It’s kind of how it doesn’t matter what one’s degree is. The belt is just the thing that holds up your pants. And on that note…

Getting a black belt doesn’t mean much if you get lazy and stop. It’s like getting a degree and then not using it. Don’t get me wrong; It takes years of hard work to earn one, but I’ve always seen it as a lifelong commitment. When I finally “graduated,” I was relieved I didn’t have to start over again when I went to another school, but it wasn’t like the belt gave me superpowers. Training went on; the only difference was that I had to hold the kick pads sometimes. And it’s a lot more embarrassing if you forget things.

How you do taekwondo is how you do everything.

For BB