Introducing Illustration to Pro Wrestling, a Ring of Copyright Challenges & Wrestlers-Turned-Art Directors
Jonathan Bartlett / WNW Member
This is a story about keeping my ears open, being an entrepreneur, and going after an idea that combines my passion for pro wrestling and my career in illustration.
There was a good period of time as a teenager that I was really into it , watching the WWE with friends during the era of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, DX, etc. Getting back into it as an adult just kind of happened out of the blue– part entertainment, part nostalgic trip. But through the internet, I started to learn that there is a whole other world of wrestling out there besides the WWE: independent wrestling, specifically leagues like New Japan Pro Wrestling or All Elite Wrestling, which are incredibly popular and successful.
With my illustration work over the past few years, I’ve gotten more involved in creating collectable movie art, working with clients like Mondo to create limited edition posters for throwback films. The more I understood how this business works, the more I kept thinking how wrestling fans would love this kind of ephemera highlighting their favorite wrestler or event.
I was mulling around this idea for awhile when one day my favorite wrestling podcast, Talk Is Jericho, hosted by Chris Jericho, had an interview with the owner of Pro Wrestling Tees, Ryan Barkan. He’s the top guy in independent wrestling merch. The long and short of it is the interview was a crash course education in how licensing works when it comes to indy wrestlers; specifically, they all own their own copyrights. I was blown away by this guy and he was working closely with not only the best in the business but my personal favorite wrestlers.
Forget WWE. Forget Vince McMahon. I needed to pitch this idea to Ryan.
So that’s what I did. No emails no phone calls– show what you can do. I created a sample poster highlighting a huge pay-per-view event that just took place, wrote a pitch letter, and painted all over the shipping tube with gold marker: I thought, “if this shows up on his desk, it will be hard to ignore.”
It got his attention and the next thing I know, I’m on the phone with him working out details to develop commemorative match posters, a set of 5, for the All In pay-per-view– a beloved event to fans.
You have to navigate an obstacle course of copyright infringements, which is harder for some wrestlers than others. For example, you can only show a single wrestler per poster to keep the rights clean. To capture the story of a match or rivalry, while getting creative with the symbols and elements to make sure people understand what you are highlighting without actually showing the opponent, is a balancing act.
And since each wrestler owns their rights, they get final approval. So far, it’s been great, and all the feedback has been helpful. Wrestlers turned art directors!
As a fan and a commercial illustrator, it’s the coolest thing to look at the list of available stars to work with and brainstorm visual ideas. These posters are stories: the wrestler’s stories. It’s my main priority to have a sensitivity to that and create exciting ideas that everyone is happy with.
We launched with a focus on indy wrestlers, but we will also be working with a few “legends” soon that are timeless household names. It’s all new territory for Pro Wrestling Tees and myself, but the fan reaction has been great and the possibilities are really endless.