Professional Wrestling’s Most Unique Aesthetic: Painted Faces
As a kid, I was fascinated by the colourful world of professional wrestling. For a few years, however, face painting was one of my favourite elements.
Wrestlers sporting painted faces looked like superheroes, and I was a voracious buyer of all things superhero. In the UK, at the end of the 1980s, comic book culture was not the dominant force it is today. These masterful-looking men were hard to find in the pre-internet information Stone Age. Although I did have a few comic books, VHS tapes of cartoon shows and a few cartoon movies, there was no Superman movie. My young mind was thrown into turmoil when I saw real flesh-and-blood muscle-men sporting painted faces and colourful costumes from the worlds of wrestling.
These men are who? These superpowered beings got tired of fighting crime and decided to try combat sports instead.
Like many others, Ultimate Warrior, Demolition, and The Road Warriors attracted me like a flame to an ecstatic moth to a love. My eight-year-old self could see through all the clumsiness of the ring. Flashy moves and being able to work were irrelevant to me. To me, face paint was a different level.
He is not a regular wrestler but a superhero who transcends mere mortal unpainted men.
I had limited access to WWF at home and would see images of supermen painted by other federations, such as WCW, in wrestling magazines and books. Before I saw Sting wrestle, I was fascinated with his surfer style for many years. He was a master of violence. He was so dangerous, and he couldn’t compete in the WWF. He must have been too powerful. The Road Warriors? They seemed to have come from space. George Napolitano had made a photo book that featured a full-page shot of the Road Warriors wearing classic black spiked shoulder pads gear and matching paint. It was a beautiful book that I remember looking at often, just staring at it in awe.
Wrestling was real, wrestling was heroes, and so was hope. It was the security blanket that I needed at the time, and I happily wrapped myself in it.
The online consensus seems to be that Adrian Street and the Great Kabuki were the first men to be painted on television in the United States. However, it isn’t easy to know definitively who was the first person to enter the ring wearing a painted face.
The neon mask of The Ultimate Warrior, a lunatic who called himself The Ultimate Warrior, was my first encounter with face paint. His iconic design is still prominently displayed on mugs, shirts and hats by WWE to this day. Although I wasn’t initially inclined to like the Warrior, the Hulkamania was firm in my youth, and it became impossible to resist the Ultimate Warrior’s superb look. I don’t believe I ever believed he could fight well, even back then. He looked so heroic and robust. This gimmick was so popular that it surpassed the work. Its iconography is embedded in the minds and hearts of generations, hence the alarming rise in the number of males aged 30 or more with the Ultimate Warrior logo tattooed on their skin. I am one of them.
It seems strange that any promoter would allow workers to paint their faces for matches in the kayfabe era. The posters with comic-book-like characters are sure to have helped to sell a few tickets. However, it was apparent at the time that there was a risk of the business being ‘exposed’ by displaying its more theatrical sides. Imagine if a boxer entering the ring with his face sprayed. He would be ridiculed and possibly in violation of an obscure rule. He would be a UFC competitor with neon-green Ultimate Warrior paint. His face would be a huge target that could be punched and kicked off his head.
It’s not realistic to enter a fight with a spider on your face, regardless of how cool it may look. It’s a unique experience only available in the strange and wonderful world of professional wrestling, including Kabuki, Papa Shango, Jeff Hardy, and Abadon.