We explore the stories of seven wrestling pioneers who wore face paint to battle, despite the surprising mishaps and dangerous conditions many faced for doing so!
1. Dustin Rhodes
For well over two decades, Dustin Rhodes has probably covered himself in more face paint than it would take to coat The Rock’s Iron Paradise Gym, The Hardy Compound, and Rikishi’s ass combined. Dustin reflected on his first makeup during an episode of WWE Photoshoot.
“I always wanted to paint my face. I like the Road Warriors paint, Sting’s paint, and I wanted to do something different.”
Rhodes continued, “The very first time [I painted my face for the Goldust character], there were just like two circles and black ears. It was just like, what is that? I came up with this character, man, and for six months, I couldn’t work out how to be androgynous. It was tough.”
Rhodes may have initially looked like a panda murdered by Auric Goldfinger, but it wasn’t too long before he started creating more complex and intricate designs that put his original guise to shame.
Further reading: Dustin Rhodes: Behind the Paint of Goldust and "The Natural"
Watch a Goldust Face Paint Time-Lapse:
Some competitive sports stars may dabble in a couple of lines on their faces, but if Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury made their way to the ring lacquered up like Vampiro, it would soon be slapped off by their opponent. It’s probably why Mike Tyson has his artwork tattooed on.
So, who was the originator of face paint in wrestling, and where did the face paint look come from?
Well, like wrestling’s origins itself, there is no definitive answer. However, there are quite a few pioneers of the look that we can give credit to its popularity, and we start with The Great Kabooki (not to be confused with Akihisa Mera’s later version of The Great Kabuki, which was spelled with a ‘u’ instead of ‘oo’).
2. The Original Great Kabooki
Rey Urbano started his career in the ‘50s under his own name and fought as a gallant babyface. After a few years of working steadily on the circuit, he realized that what drew crowds wasn’t necessarily the good guy but the bad guy. The audience wanted to see the good guys kick the snot out of the villains. With this in mind, he took advantage of his Philippine heritage and became the villainous Taro Sakuro, an evil Japanese powerhouse!
Unfortunately, toward the end of the ‘60s, Urbano developed a brain tumor. While it was successfully removed, it forced him to take five years away from the ring. When he returned in 1972, he decided to update his character into something more theatrical, thus becoming The Great Kabooki!
Kabooki was portrayed as a terrifying Japanese warrior. To amplify the fear, he started dressing in traditional Japanese robes, throwing salt during his entrances (and in his opponent’s faces when the ref wasn’t looking), and, of course, he painted his face in battle make-up.
Kabooki’s look and antics would inspire wrestling in many ways, most famously influencing Akihisa Mera, who took The Great Kabuki gimmick (spelled in the traditional Japanese way) and made it his own.
Kabuki would also paint his face, but rather than throw salt in his opponent’s face, he made some innovations of his own. With his toxic liquid spittle, Kabuki is credited as the creator of the green mist.
You can learn more about The Great Kabuki here: The Great Kabuki and Gary Hart – Their Fearful and Timeless Partnership.
3. Adrian Street
Another major player in the origins of wrestling face paint is Adrian Street. His story is not unlike Urbano’s, taking audiences’ irrational fear and insecurities and turning it into something positive for himself.
Street was born in the small Welsh mining town of Brynmawr, and at the age of 16, he left home to pursue his dream career in professional wrestling.
Making his debut in 1957, Street drifted from gimmick to gimmick. While sporting an arrogant heel persona, the crowd would mock Street’s pretty-boy looks. Street would retaliate by blowing kisses and acting more effeminate in the ring.
With the world being a lot less tolerant of homosexuality in the ‘60s than today, it would garner dangerous heat from the fans. Street knew he was on to something.
As the years went by, Street’s look would become more and more over-the-top, hair in pigtails, sequined costumes, and of course, make-up. It started with basic feminine touches and glitter but evolved to a full face-painted look, accentuating his face with bright colors, butterflies, and other beautifully campy images. Basically, Street was Golddusting before Dustin even first Golddusted.
Street once told Huck magazine, “It was a way to get attention. But I was also purposely painting a target on my back because I knew the other wrestlers would resent it – and I wanted them to bring their best fight.”
It is rather sad to think that face paint, one of wrestling’s most flamboyant and fun tropes, was actually born out of the prejudice of racism and homophobia. One can take comfort that the hate in which these gimmicks were born became something bigger. It not only changed wrestling but pop-culture in general.
T-Rex’s Mark Bolan cited Street as inspiration for his stage persona, and the comparisons to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era were too similar to be coincidental. So in some ways, Adrian Street helped create Glam Rock, leaving the world in a far more colorful place.
“Whenever I went to the States, interviewers would ask if I invented glam rock. I’d always say, ‘I didn’t invent it, though we sure borrowed a lot from each other.’ But I often wonder if Ziggy Stardust wasn’t a direct copy of what I was doing at the time.”
You can learn more about the ever-fascinating Adrian Street here.
4. & 5. Ultimate Warrior and Sting
Of course, tag teams were another big factor (or should that be Max Factor?) in the popularity of makeup. Nothing says “I’m with this guy” more than matching each other’s look, including uniformed war paint.
When Hawk and Animal formed the Road Warriors in 1983, they were pretty much an instant hit. Soon, every company wanted its own version. From Demolition to the Powers of Pain, a duo of angry muscle men in make-up became vogue.
One of these teams not only took the make-up look but also took their name from another popular film set in a dark, gritty future. That would be the Blade Runners, a muscley combo that, of course, gave us the two most famous face-painted wrestlers of all time: Sting and The Ultimate Warrior.
Steve Borden and Jim Hellwig started as The Freedom Fighters Justice and Flash, but under their new villainous guises as The Blade Runners (and single name changes to Sting and Rock), they started wearing subtle black make-up around their eyes.
Like Dustin Rhodes, the look would evolve into something more complex over time.
After they split, the make-up remained and became more and more over the top. Hellwig became the Dingo Warrior before ultimately becoming, well, ultimate.
As for the man named Sting, during an episode of Apter Chat, he revealed it was Dusty Rhodes who, like a razzle-dazzle Darth Vader with a lisp, made him embrace the bright side.
“They put Ric [Flair] with Ricky Morton, and Ricky gets hurt. So Dusty says, ‘Stinger baby, I want to put some color on your face, color on your tights, and color on your boots. And I want to put you with Ric.'”
Sting continued, “We did a little storyline with JJ Dillion and the Four Horseman and Ric Flair in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a TV taping. It was no real heat angle, we just kind of did our thing, and it took off. So Dusty is the real reason why the color started to begin with.”
When Sting’s gimmick evolved into its “Crow” phase, despite a complete character U-turn from colorful hero to dark avenger, the one factor that remand was awesome make-up. In the same interview, Sting revealed why he never really went back to the blond gimmick.
“The Crow character by the time it came alive and hit the scene and evolved to what it turned into, it would’ve never made sense to go back to the blonde flat-top haircut,” Sting shared. “Even if I wanted to, there’s not enough hair on my head to do that anymore. So I just couldn’t pull it off. But let me tell you something, if I thought I could pull it off, I would’ve attempted it in these later years because so many people talked about it, and they’re so nostalgic about it. And WrestleMania 31 is a big example of that with DX and nWo, and people just freaked out over that.”
Sting is arguably the most prolific make-up wrestler of all time. One could say the reason for his endurance as a character over the years was his ability to adapt, thanks to the influence of those that pioneered the look before him.
The uniform of The Road Warriors, Adrian Street’s brightness, even the later Crow Sting to current day AEW Sting now has Kabuki-esque Japanese vibes. In fact, one could say Kabuki was doing Crow Sting before The Crow even did Crow Crow.
Sorry, that one made more sense in my head.
Of course, with a career as long as Sting’s, there are bound to be a few mishaps.
During an episode of Table For 3 on the WWE Network, Sting told Jeff Jarrett and AJ Styles about a time the unthinkable happened.
“I had forgotten my paint! Ron Harris was running about, and he found some little kid with his face painted up and borrowed his paint. It was kind of runny — it was a mess. It was a mess that night. My tights, the string broke. Everything was a mess.”
But does the Stinger regret all those hours lost in front of a mirror before shows?
“It’s good and bad. I can’t say it was a bad thing for the action figures and every kind of memorabilia piece that you could buy. When I came back with WWE, no one thought that would ever happen. I’ll never forget San Jose, WrestleMania against Triple H. I was having a Starbucks. A lady working in the merchandising and market department said, ‘Your t-shirt is the number one seller for kids.’ A new generation of kids who had no idea who I was until they saw me. It was the painted face; I’m convinced it was the painted face.”
With a back catalog of so many looks, one of the joys of meeting Sting at conventions is you never know what version of him you’re going to get.
6 & 7. The Road Warriors, Animal and Hawk
This list would be incomplete without a nod to the late-great Road Warriors, Animal and Hawk.
The Road Warriors, along with many other wrestling personas, were inspired by the Mad Max franchise.
Their look defined and inspired an entire wave of tag teams in the ‘80s, but where Adrian Street used makeup to make himself more fantastic, Hawk and Animal used cosmetics for precisely the opposite reason.
On his Drive Thru podcast, Jim Cornette discusses why the original biker gear didn’t work for The Road Warriors.
“With the jean shorts they were wearing and the biker’s cap kind of thing and the sunglasses- my God. They looked like the cover of Blue boy magazine, as Cyndi Lauper would say. It was so awkward.”
Bill Watts would soon later suggest that they switch to face paint. The rest, as they say, was history!
You can learn more about the backstory behind the formation and landmark television debut of The Road Warriors here.
From the subtlety of Undertaker‘s darkened eyes to the outlandishness of Jeff Hardy’s UV glow, the traditions of The Uso’s tribal designs to the craziness of Asuka’s green tears, make-up has remained prevalent in wrestling to this day. It can be its own character, like Demon Finn Balor, or an expression of oneself, like Darby Allen. But most importantly, for the majority, it just looks really cool.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following stories on other war-painted warriors on our site:
- Doink The Clown – The Man Behind the Paint, Matt Borne
- The Renegade – The Tragic Tale of Wrestling’s Richard Wilson
- Asuka and Her Surprising Life Outside of Wrestling
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