On the Art of Punkrockbigmouth (Part I: The Eyes of Wrestling)

The digital artist from Texas known to the Internet Wrestling Community as Punkrockbigmouth (who sometimes admits her name is Niki) is possibly the most talented person I follow in the IWC. Her Tumblr “Absurdity” is a garden of ironic delights for these strange times. Dean Ambrose playing with baby chicks! Roman Reigns riding a unicorn and holding a kitty! The New Day getting drunk on milk! There’s so much to say I’ve sat here for months with her archive open in my browser, trying to figure out where to begin. I’ve finally realized I need to come at it from a number of different angles in a serious of posts to fully make sense of Niki’s nuanced take on the absurd and the sublime in professional wrestling.

First we must examine Niki’s treatment of professional wrestling’s EYES.

The Jaunty Hat of Sami ZaynMay 3, 2015

The eyes in “The Jaunty Hat of Sami Zayn” capture Sami’s entire narrative – the optimism in his upward glance, the sweet vulnerability in the softness of the lines, the hints of self-doubt in the shadow of hatch lines – and imbue the rest of the picture with the essence of his character. On another wrestler, say Tyler Breeze or Cesaro, the same beard, hat, eyebrows or pouty mouth might signify an entirely different personality, but the eyes lock all of them together to create the individual essence that is our Sami Zayn. Or imagine Dean Ambrose putting on the same hat, with his wild hair and devious eyes: the jaunty hat would carry quite a different meaning. Or, I don’t know if New Japan’s Kazuchika Okada would ever wear a hat – he has to show off that beautiful hair and all – but if he did, just on a whim or whatever, imagine what the hat would mean with these eyes:

Okada Face 01June 9, 2015

If all you’ve ever seen of Okada was his crying after he lost his match at Wrestle Kingdom 9, you might think he and “underground underdog” Sami Zayn are the same type – the emotional, striving heartthrob babyface who gets so close to glory, only to have it slip through his fingers. But those eyes on Okada! They turn his pout and sharp eyebrows into a look with its own distinct nuances. He may share crossover space in a ven diagram of character with Sami Zayn, but the severity of line in the space of Okada’s eyes relates their own story of privilege and self-assuredness, as Niki has articulated with sparing digital brushstrokes in this picture.

And then there’s Enzo Amore.

S-A-W-W-Y!January 2, 2015

This piece is called “S-A-W-W-Y”, get it? Like the SAWFT version of “sorry”? I can’t remember what Enzo did that resulted in his eyes getting so big, but Niki has captured a wonderful moment of comeuppance here. The “light without shadow” Roland Barthes noted as a key visual and conceptual element of professional wrestling is washing out Niki’s usual hard black lines and shading, resulting in great big eyes framed mostly with soft gray. It’s as if the ring lights are peering directly into the heart of the emotional moment, this very moment being far more important in wrestling, as Barthes noted, than whatever actually happened in the story that led up to it: “each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.” And look at the glassy blue color of Enzo’s eyes in an otherwise black and white piece. There is clarity and vulnerability in the color of those eyes, a marvelous discovery in a character who otherwise covers for his small size with pomp and bluster, and who protects himself with a 6 foot 10 enforcer of a tag team partner and a brassy beauty from the neighborhood skilled in the arts of distraction and womanly intimidation. The touching humanity of Enzo’s eyes even washes out the bold statement of the leopard print dyed into the sides of his hair and the devilish beard. The hair and beard are still there but they’ve lost their power, and even his spiked hair no longer operates as the statement of a defiant nonconformist, instead sitting atop the fearful eyes (erect and alone, as Barthes would say) like a series of anxious exclamation points.

Of all the wrestlers Niki has depicted, I think wrestling history will most remember her masterful drawings of Seth Rollins. Rollins’ eyes are so full of meaning it’s difficult to even choose an example to write about, but I’ve narrowed it down to this one, entitled “WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins Retains”:

This was Rollins’ moment of unjust triumph, when Ambrose pinned him for the title at Money In The Bank, but in the aftermath the ref who’d been knocked out conveniently declared the match a DQ, resulting in a miracle victory for Rollins, the undisputed king of weaseling and douchebaggery. The bug-eyes of his surprise victory on a technicality are in sharp contrast to the looks of concern and contemplation in the eyes Sami Zayn, Okada, and Enzo. Rollins’ eyes are literally larger than life here, so absurdly big they wash out much of the contour that exists between eyeball and eyelid. Whereas Niki’s depiction of Enzo’s big eyes are still realistic, Rollins’ big eyes exist in the realm of cartoon (even though his face looked just about this silly in the moment, which so many people screen-captured and shared on Twitter). As they consume more than their fair share of his face, these eyes present a character without self-doubt, personal reflection, or an inner struggle. They are the eyes of a happy-go-lucky sociopath who didn’t earn his way to top but instead sold out/bought in on the crony-carny-corporate success ladder.

But Seth Rollins’ eyes can also express the flipside of the thrill in unjust victory: the devastation when the gig is up. I was already well into writing this post when Brock Lesnar returned to declare his challenge to Seth Rollins for the championship, and Paul Heyman tweeted this:

So there’s confirmation from wrestling’s god of storytelling that Niki is on to something, the way the eyes are imbued with so much importance in her pictures. So how is it that the eyes can tell wrestling’s story with so much more immediacy and precision than the hands, the mouths, the costumes, the music, and even the grappling itself? Windows to the soul and all that, sure, but it’s about more than that in the spectacle of excess. The eyes must exemplify that excess, must express everything about the character and the moment, a world of emotion transmitted in a message from the smallest points in the face. Barthes had this to say about the expression of passion in wrestling:

We are therefore dealing with a real Human Comedy,

where the most socially-inspired nuances of passion

(conceit, rightness, refined cruelty, a sense of ‘paying

one’s debts’) always felicitously finds the clearest sign

which can receive them, express them, and triumphantly

carry them to the confines of the hall.

As Niki so artfully demonstrates, the clearest sign to express and carry wrestling’s nuances of passion are most certainly the eyes.

Next I will look at Niki’s take on wrestling’s physicality. Be sure to check out the Punkrockbigmouth Tumblr and follow her on Twitter. And thanks to @rainmakerlariat for help articulating my ideas about Okada in this post!

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