By Jonathan Williams
From album covers to political propaganda, it is not uncommon for artists to utilize other creative fields to establish themselves and gain a following. While music, film and other pop culture arenas lend themselves to artistic interpretation, it’s not often that a painter turns to professional wrestling for inspiration. But in the case of the St. Louis-based artist known simply as the Icon, wrestling is the basis of his most successful painting, “The Gods of Thunder: The History of Wrestling.” After releasing the painting in May of last year, it has since been published in the January issue of WWE Magazine, featured in the WrestleMania Art show last March and shown at fanfests and other wrestling events. The Icon has had more than 200 of the 355 wrestling personalities depicted in the painting sign a framed poster reproduction, so the wrestling community is definitely aware of his work. Wrestling with Pop Culture spoke to the Icon recently about how pop culture has influenced his artistic output.
You’ve gotten a lot of attention recently for “The History of Wrestling” painting. The inspiration for it is pretty obvious, but how did the concept come about?
A friend of mine wanted an artist to paint wrestlers. He said he asked 15 artists to paint a picture of wrestlers for him and nobody wanted to do it because they felt like no one had an interest in wrestling like they used to. I used to be a fan back in the day and he had seen my other work, such as a painting I did called “The Last Man on Earth.” It’s got a guy standing naked on Earth and the Devil’s trying to take him from God and there’s a hand coming out of the sky with rays releasing the chains and the serpent with seven heads. That’s the inspiration for [Vince] McMahon.
[My friend] wanted a painting of his 30 favorite wrestlers, but I told him we needed babyfaces and heels. I said, “Painting 30 wrestlers isn’t enough. Let’s do 100.” This went on and on for three years until we reached 355 wrestlers. I painted a lot of this in detail with a magnifying glass and a brush that looks like an eyelash. Then WWE got ahold of it and published it, then invited me to the WrestleMania Art show. Then this thing just took off all over the world. It’s seen 53 countries, so it’s my most successful piece at the moment.
Tell me a little about your background as an artist and some of your other work.
My inspiration was a guy named Salvador Dali. An ex-girlfriend of mine seen my work and knew I had something, so she gave me this book called Dali on Dali. I said, “This book is weird.” I didn’t know I was a surrealist until I read that book. I painted a lot of dark things and shock value statements, and I like the old Universal [Monsters] like Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, so I started drawing those monsters. So I did them in a fantasy style like Dali, and this is all like Dali all over again. I love painting surreal fantasy. Fantasy pictures are an escape from reality, and wouldn’t you rather be in a fantasy than in reality? Fantasy expands your mind and if you look at “The History of Wrestling,” you’ll learn something new every day.
I paint what I feel. That’s what makes an artist and artist. You can’t tell an artist he should do this or he should do that because that’s not real, that’s not original. He’s got to let his heart be his guide. I’ve learned from a lot of my painting in the early days and being alone and I’ve painted a lot of dark things. I’m more positive these days, but I love Creepshow and The Devil’s Rejects.
From depictions of Michael Jackson to Muhammad Ali lot of your stuff is obviously pop culture related. Why do you choose those subjects?
It’s like a new version of Andy Warhol. I’m not so much a commercial artist, I’m more of a non-mainstream artist. But I do paint things that are mainstream in order to make sales. There’s a certain fanbase for certain pictures, but this is what I love doing. Anybody can paint a dog or a landscape, but I don’t want to be that artist. What made me the artist that I am is that I wanted to be the artist I had never seen. I don’t want to be like anybody else because that’s what everybody does today in the art world. Everybody’s chasing the same nickel and there are so many great artists out there doing the same work that it’s like winning a lottery ticket.
My signature is dark pictures. I love landscapes, and I’m a photographer as well, but I’m probably one of the last of a dying breed who still hand paints. It’s not real artwork when people Photoshop and draw from a palette on a computer screen. I hand painted every one of these 355 guys. It’s easy for someone to do that on a computer, but they’re not artists. Sure, you can be inspired by another artist, but do your own thing. I’m a visionary when it comes to certain ideas and if you can get a customer or fan to figure out your thoughts without even giving them a title, then they know your soul.
There was an old Jewish Italian artist named Modigliani who used to paint portraits. He wasn’t a great artist, but he had a thing with women with long necks. But he would never paint their eyes, so they looked like a Cenobite from Hellraiser. He would say, “When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes.” He has a lot of pictures that don’t have eyes in them. That’s deep.
Aside from wrestling fanfests, do you ever have art shows in galleries?
Yes. I have work in galleries in St. Louis, New York, Chicago and the One Sun Gallery in New Orleans.
Back in the day I used to do public education in schools and colleges, and I used to paint on walls with a company called On the Wall Productions back in the ’80s. We would paint likenesses on the walls of buildings that were about to be torn down, so a lot of those paintings got torn down. I used to be a big wall painter, but now I do more personal pieces. I put my life into ["The History of Wrestling"] and you can see the blood, sweat and tears. If you took that picture from me right now, it would be like losing a son or losing a kidney. It’s a big part of me. One time I was really upset and I mixed my blood with some crimson red paint and painted with it. That picture will never see the light of day. People say, “Man, I’d like to see that picture,” but that picture is too painful. I paint a lot from pain.
Frida was a great artist and a lot of her pictures are painful. She was not a surrealist, but it looked like a surreal picture. She was very deep with her emotions. That’s what artists do. They come from their gut and spit it out. If you can make people undertsand that, you done made everybody’s day. I’ve got big fans from this picture alone and when they see my other work they say, “Wow. That’s pretty deep.”
But this picture is priceless, you can’t even put a price on it. It’s a timeless piece that will never get old because it’s made forever. This is a lifetime of wrestlers and the second one will be a continuation.
So you’re working on another wrestling painting?
Yes. The second one will be a continuatoin, but different. I’ll focus more on Georgia, the Carolinas, Florida and the women of wrestling starting with the Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young. I’ll have more tag teams like the Kangaroos, the Moondogs, nWo, D-Generation X, the Blue Meanie and little cliques like that. Where McMahon is in this picture, I’m going to have the greatest match in the world which will probably Andre the Giant getting slammed by Hulk Hogan. So Hulk will be on there twice, but that man opened the door for every wrestler today that’s in show business.
I could have just painted wrestlers, but putting McMahon on there like that as the Devil, it went together. When people see that picture, they realize that’s McMahon.
Have you ever gotten feedback directly from McMahon about it?
I know he’s seen it and his Board of Directors knows about it. But it’s not a WWE product. It’s a history of wrestling. It’s not about politics. Everybody’s a star in that picture. It’s a rich history and these guys deserve the exposure just like baseball, NASCAR or whatever. People need to know about wrestling and a person who is not a wrestling fan would still love this picture.
How does this piece compare to your other work?
The portraits, jazz art, rock stars, personalities, nude photography and things people can identify with is Icon.
I’m not much of an abstract painter because I think it’s garbage. But I have done abstracts that you can identify with. D’vid Davidian the name I use for landscapes, abstracts and regular stuff that sells. I don’t take my D’vid stuff to wrestling shows, but when I do comic cons and regular art shows I’ll go to galleries and set up my show with maybe ten pieces of my mainstream and shock value art. But I don’t take the wrestling piece to a place where I know people aren’t going to be into it like the wrestling fans are. Not many artists are wrestling fans, but this has to be seen and every wrestling fan should have this poster. There’s nothing like this picture, ever. Somebody can try to outdo me, but Photoshop ain’t going to do no good. That’s not real art. But I would love to see somebody outdo it because the only person that can outdo it is me. And I’ll do that with the second one.
When will that be finished?
“The History of Wrestling 2″ won’t be done until late summer 2012. In the meantime, I’m doing my Fantasy Warfare series in between paintings. What I’m thinking about is the days when computers became famous and people used to do these fantasy matches with Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee. I had this concept that’s not a WWE concept, though I heard they did this one, where a guy from the past wrestles a guy of today. But I want them to complement each other based on who would be good opponents for each other. Like, let’s have “The Celtic Warrior” Sheamus vs. the Ultimate Warrior. That’s the first of series one, which will have six different prints. The second one will have Goldberg and Batista or Edge spearing each other midair. Then [Jimmy] Snuka vs. [John] Morrison, Andre the Giant vs. the Big Show and Harley Race piledriving Kurt Angle. These are not too exaggerated like those computer games. I want them to look the way they look [in real life]. I’m thinking about trading cards with pictures like that. The only thing different about it is the artists, because this has probably been done before. But these will by the guy who painted “The History of Wrestling” picture. People know me because of that picture and I’m proud of it.
For more information, go to www.iconsofwrestling.com.