If you've ever watched a second of WWE programming, you came across a cast of characters ranging from the ordinary, to the odd, to the demonic. The roster of the WWE is made up of extraordinary characters, each with their own quirks and ticks that make them either a massive success or a colossal flop.
There is a lot of thought and preparation that goes along with creating the character — or gimmick in the industry’s jargon — of a WWE Superstar. Probably things you wouldn't even recognize at a quick glance, but if you take the time to study these characters, you can see that a lot of thought and passion goes behind them. From the way a Superstar dresses, walks, acts, moves, attacks, defends, it all comes into play. That, of course, includes the collection of tattoos a Superstar may brandish. Tattoos can help shape, inform, and create a character in the WWE. Tattoos, or lack thereof, can play a pivotal role in telling a story about a person, and that's no different when it comes to a WWE Superstar.
To explain myself further, let me cite to you one of the most legendary wrestlers of all time. A man so massive in his popularity and mythos, it's hard to imagine a Wrestlemania without him — The Undertaker.
The Undertaker is a man who stands at 7 feet tall, wears all black, is somehow related to the demonic and undead (I'm a fan and I can't even really explain it), and has intense and elaborate tattoo sleeves.
You wouldn't really expect The Undertaker, a dude known as "The Deadman" to have Pokemon tattoos, now would you? Of course you wouldn't. It would completely undermine his character, his persona, his gimmick that shows him as an undead force of nature/evil/power. The Undertaker's sleeves are heavy on demonic symbolism. He has skulls and demons up and down both of his arms.
When the Undertaker debuted though, he didn't sport those sleeves. It's something that became a part of him. His character, that of an undead sorcerer-type of person (and, at times, redneck motorcyclist), certainly benefitted from the addition of these satanic pieces of art on his body.
Sure, he may have been able to succeed in WWE without those sleeves, but it definitely showed his commitment to the persona when he had the body art included on his arms. It showed that The Undertaker was very much a part of Mark Calaway, the person. The gimmick was just an extension on who he is as a person. Hopefully. I don't know how we'd survive in a word where undead sorcerers roam the Earth.
Another example of how tattoos benefit a character is seen with the self-proclaimed G.O.A.T., Chris Jericho.
Jericho has always exuded a rockstar persona, from the time he debuted in WWE (with one of the greatest debuts of all time, mind you), up to the current iteration of the character. The man has a certain swagger about him that just screams that he is a rock star.
And he is! Jericho not only walks the walk of a rock star, he talks (or sings) the talk. Jericho is the lead singer of the band Fozzy, a metal band that he fronts and started while wrestling for WWE.
And if you take a gander at his tattoos, you could have come to this conclusion in about a heartbeat. The dude rocks Iron Maiden, Rolling Stones, and Metallica tattoos on his forearms, not to mention a tattoo that tributes his own band on his left bicep. If you think this guy exudes rock star aura, it's because he does, and you don't need to look any further than his tattoos to see that.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, we have John Cena. A goodie-two-shoes type of character that never gives up, no matter how hard the fight. A man that values "Hustle, Loyalty, Respect" so much that the words appear on everyone one of the nearly five million (estimation) shirts he has for sale. He regularly makes appearances on The Today Show, is the worldwide leader for granting wishes with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and has been the face of the WWE for over a decade.
John Cena also has zero tattoos. None. Zilch. And that's exactly what you'd expect from the "White Meat Babyface" type of character in WWE.
"White Meat Babyfaces" are good guys, who constantly stick up for the little guy, oppose the jerky characters in the storylines, and are typically positioned as the characters that little kids can look up to. They stand up for what is right and generally triumph over the forces of evil.
Like Cena, many of these characters don't have tattoos. Daniel Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, Sami Zayn, early iterations of Sting, Bayley, Ricky Steamboat — all of these wrestlers have been positioned as the good guys and none of them have any visible tattoos. They are clean-cut (except Daniel Bryan and his glorious beard) Superstars who always take the high-road and do the honorable thing. You can tell they are the good guys by their actions, but honestly, another indicator is their lack of tattoos.
That’s not to say wrestlers with tattoos are automatically labeled “bad guys,” but when crafting a persona, the tattoos that they sport, or don’t sport, are highly involved in what kind of character they will be playing. It would be hard to pitch a guy with skull and demon tattoos (signs of death and evil) as a good guy to the audience. Which is why it’s just easier to have them be an evil doer.
Obviously this rule doesn’t apply to everyone. One of the names currently synonymous with WWE is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If you haven’t noticed, the dude is just about everywhere, making movies, television appearances, and he has over 67 million followers on Instagram. Also, he’s got some absolutely beautiful Samoan tattoos. When you think of The Rock, you know that his start came out of the circus that is WWE. You think about his nice guy personality and charisma that oozes off the screen. He serves as a bridge between the incredibly niche market of WWE and the mainstream entertainment business. So tattoos don’t always = bad guys.
With that said, let's have a look at the current WWE roster and examine the babyface (good guys) and heel (bad guys) dynamics and how it relates to whether or not the character has tattoos. Keep in mind, these characters are constantly shifting alliances, titles change hands, etc. WWE is a very fluid show. So by the time you read this, some characters may have switched sides or may not even be with the company any more! Who knows? WWE is whacky as shit.
Heels: AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Baron Corbin, Braun Strowman, Bray Wyatt, Brock Lesnar, Chris Jericho, Corey Graves (commentator), Charlotte, The Usos, The Club, Rusev, and Seth Rollins. All have tattoos.
Babyfaces: Apollo Crews, Bayley, Becky Lynch, Big Cass, Big E, Cesaro, American Alpha, Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler, Finn Bálor, John Cena, Neville, The Hype Bros, Nikki Bella, Sami Zayn, Sasha Banks. You guessed it, none of them have visible tattoos.
Of course there are exceptions, Roman Reigns is currently a babyface with tattoos and The Miz is a heel without tattoos, but those are definitely a rarity.
So what does this say about the characters of WWE and how they craft a persona? Well, it doesn't seem to be much different than what we see on most mainstream television shows and movies. People with tattoos are generally bad guys, and non-tattooed people are generally good guys.
With more and more fans tired of seeing the status quo on their television screens, the emergence of Superstars like CM Punk create an interesting dilemma for the company. Punk, probably the most tattooed Superstar WWE has ever pushed in the spotlight, was supposed to be a heel, until fans decided his brand of smack-talking and truth-telling was a breath of fresh air. Sure, he was supposed to be the tattooed bad guy, a smug prick that no one should cheer, but the fans loved his brand of straight-forwardness. Punk’s character was notable for cutting right to the chase during his promos, eliminating the bullshit. He was “The Voice of the Voiceless” in WWE, speaking for what fans really wanted to see in the product. Fans cheered, despite his label as a heel.
But we all knew that wouldn’t last long. A sniveling, tattooed jerk can’t remain at the upper echelon of sports entertainment while arrogantly running down just about every “popular” wrestler on the roster. Punk reverted back to his heelish ways, and the presentation of his character was a big reason why he decided to leave the company (on the worst of terms).
But the specificity of the tattoos can be an integral part of expounding a character. Jericho's rocker image might take a hit if he didn't have those rockin' tattoos. The Undertaker might not be as intimidating a presence if he didn't have demons and skulls all over his body. People might not be so afraid of Brock Lesnar if he didn't have a giant fuckin' dagger in the middle of his chest.
Conversely, people might not be as receptive to John Cena on The Today Show if he has a pair of sleeves and kids may have a harder time cheering Bayley if she was covered in body art. These Superstars are living the gimmick, but it’s that of a clean-cut babyface. I’m sure some of these “white meat” wrestlers would love to sport some ink, but since it could potentially hurt their brand, or it wouldn’t fit their persona, they don’t get them.
And it goes to show that the best personas and gimmicks are extensions of who that person naturally is. Jericho really is a music fan/rockstar. The Undertaker really does find the demonic interesting and he probably made a deal with the devil to be able to keep wrestling at such a high level well into his 50’s. CM Punk, a comic book junkie and practitioner of the straight edge lifestyle, has comic tattoos and straight edge nods all over his body. It’s who they really are, just turned up a notch.
As the legendary Diamond Dallas Page said, wrestlers need to “live the gimmick,” and there is no better way to live the gimmick than to have your gimmick be a permanent part of your body.
Tattoos will forever play an interesting role in character-building in WWE. It would be hard to position a dude with silly tattoos as a "monster heel" in the storylines, but if you get the right tattoos on the right person with the right character, it can be absolutely magical.