The striking art (pun intended) for The Criterion Collection’s Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits is so eye-catching that I spotted it nearly hidden in the DVD bin at my favorite retailer. I thought, This is really incredible artwork! I wonder who did it.
Enter Gian Galang, an artist with a unique style and the ability to produce artwork that conveys the energy and action of martial arts. Recently, Galang spoke with Black Belt about his interest in visual art and martial arts, along with how he transitioned from corporate America to the art world.
The desire to create is one that great artists are born with, and Gian Galang is no different. “I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember, but my influences have always been a little bit martial arts-based,” he said.
Those influences were a perfect combination of time and place. “A lot of kids growing up in my generation — I was born in ’86 — were heavily influenced by cartoons, comic books and video games like Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat,” he said. “Also, I lived in Hong Kong until I was 10, so Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies were on all the time. These were the kinds of things I drew when I was a kid.”
While watching cool animation and playing video games are part of Gian Galang’s background, so are years of studying real martial arts. “I did karate when I was a kid,” he said. “I did a martial art called chun kuk do.” Chun kuk do, of course, is the system Chuck Norris created.
In addition, Galang also studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu and krav maga before finding a martial art that clicked for him. “When I got into college, I did muay Thai,” he said. “I really enjoyed that. That pretty much took over, and I’ve been doing it ever since — until the start of the pandemic.”
Like most martial arts students, Gian Galang has had to deal with the challenge of returning to regular training after the forced break and restrictions brought on by COVID-19. “It’s just been weird,” he said. “I haven’t been back to a martial arts gym for two years now.”
But he’s hopeful about training again. “Maybe that time is coming soon,” he said.
Although Gian Galang is a full-time artist who now creates his own pieces, it didn’t start that way. “I worked in advertising as an art director for seven years,” he said.
Like many people who aspire to make their passion their livelihood, he had to find time for his artwork after hours. “I would do small projects on the side, and it was basically just drawing my favorite UFC fighters, just making fan art,” he said.
Galang’s unique brand of fan art became popular among MMA aficionados on various platforms like Tumblr, Reddit and Twitter. Through his social media presence, he got his first break.
“Actually, the first thing that kind of blew up for me was when I did an illustration of Mark Hunt, who’s one of my favorite fighters, and he used that photo as his Facebook profile,” Galang said. “I was like blown away. After I got a little bit of online MMA recognition, I got the opportunity to work for Vice’s fight publication at the time: Fightland.”
For many, whether trying to become an artist or pursue some other goal, the choice of when to jump ship and start on their own is a tricky one. For Gian Galang, the choice was clear: “It came to a point about two years in, after doing this on the side, where I was getting enough work where if I didn’t quit my job, I’d be turning down stuff,” he said. “So it was kind of like now or never — or else I’ll be hurting my illustration career if I stay here.”
The technique Gian Galang uses for his artwork is not dissimilar from many of the lessons Black Belt readers likely have learned from their own martial arts experience. The mindset involved in punching, kicking and striking with a sword, he said, is like that of using a brush.
“One of the things you learn as an illustrator is they teach you about conviction in your strokes,” he said. “Usually, you can tell the difference between an amateur illustrator and a professional with the conviction in their strokes. What you’ll see with a lot of amateur artists or beginner-level illustrators who are trying to do something like representational art is it’ll feel a little muddy or a little bit soft because [they are] trying to be a little bit too careful.
“And that was something we were taught in illustration, too — just go for the conviction of the strokes, and you can always put something else on top of it if you mess it up. But when you make bold decisions, it’ll really come across a little harder, rather than trying to, like … make stuff muddy is what would happen if you don’t have conviction.”
To experience Gian Galang’s art, check out his second solo gallery show Form & Fury: The Art of Wushu. It runs from May 14-29, 2022, at Gallery Nucleus in Los Angeles.
Art Show: gallerynucleus.com
Gian Galang Website: giangalang.com
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