Heading northbound on I-75 through Detroit’s Eastern Market District, one would be remiss not to observe a bold, tri-tone mural depicting a pair of clashing hands below the two words: Kung Fu. The new painting overlooks the highway from a second story wall of a brick building, where it acts as a banner for the Detroit Kung Fu Academy.
In the image an outstretched palm is seen striking a clenched fist at the wrist—a snapshot of the pak dar drill, which is an exercise inherent in the ving tsun (wing chun) fighting system we teach. The image has long been used for the school’s posters and fliers and is here rendered by kung fu student Anthony Lee.
Anthony Lee: Kung Fu Muralist
“When I was painting the mural, it felt like I was putting up our flag,” says Lee, a recent graduate from the Center for Creative Studies regularly featured at Detroit’s Red Bull House of Art.
Lee says kung fu training helps him to focus an overflow of creative thought when painting. “When I went into kung fu, everything started getting grounded, and I didn’t waste my energy,” says Lee.
Lee describes murals as a practical social application for the soul-satisfying work of drawing and painting. His interest in the medium came early in life while observing the wall art at his elementary school in Troy. His passion took form years later when he picked up his first mural job from an overworked college professor—a war scene based off of a statue in Washington, D.C. for the Chapter 9 Vietnam Veterans Memorial of America. Lee was then inspired to channel efforts toward mastering his newfound trade, switching his major from illustration to fine art.
Since his graduation Lee has been commissioned to paint several murals in the area, and now studies Diego Rivera’s Buon Fresco style as an apprentice under the prolific Detroit muralist, Hubert Massey.
Ely Matson is an instructor at the Detroit Kung fu Academy. He praises Lee’s reputation as an artist as well as his eagerness to do work for the school. “(Lee) was very enthusiastic,” says Matson, who asked Lee to reference the logo from the school’s flyers. “We were fortunate enough to have him as a student, and we asked him to do his version of the same imagery,” Matson says.
A Striking Image
The image itself depicts a punching hand deflected by an opposing hand striking with its palm—a block known to students of ving tsun as a pak. “It’s showing defense and offense at the same time,” says Lee.
Before it was printed on hundreds of flyers, or looming large above an expressway, the image was originally photographed during a training session in the spring of 2012 by professional photographer and videographer Derek Blackman.
“It’s a very clear image of the art,” says Matson, who commissioned Blackman to photograph the training session, producing what would become a logo for the school rendered by several artists for different media.
“It was a very unique commission,” says Blackman, who has no background in kung fu training. He says the photo used for the logo stood out, because it was more cropped in to show the specific martial technique.
Kris Slavin is a senior student at the Detroit Kung Fu Academy. He referenced Blackman’s photo for a black and white ink painting which he later used for flyers promoting the school. Slavin’s painting was then made into a poster by Lee Marchalonis at the Eastern Market print shop, Signal Return. Slavin liked the poster so much he took a printing class at signal Return, learning to carve the image of the hands to make a letterpress print. He used this technique to make his own posters for the school, and his carving was referenced by Anthony Lee to paint the mural.
Blackman says he likes that his photograph has been replicated to continue the narrative in a community driven documentary of the kung fu. “We’ve all put our hands on it. Other people are transforming this into not just different media, but kind of a different reflection of not only themselves, but their interpretation of the kung fu school,” he says
The Detroit Kung Fu Academy has operated for the better part of the last ten years with little or no signage. Now we have a highly visible work of art on location seen by thousands of drivers every day. Ely Matson says, “Our visibility is huge. This is our invitation to the public to now come experience the ving tsun we have. It’s large and bold and bigger than life up on our wall.”