Freelance artist and former professional wrestler Dustin Lee Massey talks comic books, his journey from wrestling to art, Batman movie posters, and so much more!
Art by Dustin Lee Massey
Dustin Massey is an American artist and former professional wrestler. Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina Dustin is a contemporary painter living in Greenville, South Carolina, whose work focuses on rapidly advancing technology and its impact on our social and cultural relationships. His BFA was received from East Carolina University in 1999 in painting and drawing. Dustin received his MFA in visual arts from Clemson University in 2018. He is currently a full time lecturer at Clemson University, and works as a freelance illustrator.
1. First off, the question I ask everyone: How did you become a professional artist? What inspired you to become one?
It runs in the family. All of the females on my mother’s side of the family were painters. All of the males were architects. I had planned on going to school for architecture and at the last minute I switched to painting. I was always surrounded by art as a child and grew up drawing. After I graduated with a degree in painting and drawing I taught middle school art for a year. After that I didn’t do anything artistic for about 15 years. Then in 2015 I made the decision to go back to school and get my MFA in painting. Then from there it was hard work that kept opening doors.
2. You’re also a former professional wrestler! Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I was a huge wrestling fan in the late 80s early 90s as a kid. When I was in college wrestling was huge. I never thought I would do it, but then they introduced the cruiserweights and the luchadors. At that point I started working out, and looking for wrestling schools. I was going to drop out of art school and go to a wrestling school in California. A friend of mine told me she knew a guy that worked at a bar who wrestled and I should talk to him before I dropped out of school. The guy wrestled as James “Poison” Ivy. He introduced me to CW Anderson, Shane Helms and the Hardy Boys before any of those guys were in the big leagues. I opted to stay in school and train locally with them. So I was getting an art degree at the same time I was training to become a professional wrestler. I ended up wrestling for 10 years. I worked for NWA, WCW, TNA, and had a brief stint at WWE’s training school OVW.
Art by Dustin Lee Massey
3. Being an artist/professional wrestler isn’t a combination that you typically see a lot of! Were people in the wrestling world surprised when they found out you were also an artist? Or people in the art world surprised when they found out you were also a wrestler?
I think people in the art world were more surprised. I went to ECU in the 90s for art school. Everyone was artsy, and grunge. Then there was me and my friends who worked out. I shared a painting studio with a guy that was on ECU’s football team. We were always kind of looked down upon when people first met us. The assumption was you couldn’t be an artist if you were a jock. By in large, the wrestling community loved it. They thought it was really cool I was an artist. It actually helped me in wrestling a lot. Wrestling is an art form. You are a story teller, and being a creative type makes you better at telling the story.
4. Did you still work on your art while you were a wrestler too? Unwinding from a match/on days off etc?
No I didn’t. Two weeks after I graduated from ECU I was wrestling in Canada for Barnum and Bailey Circus. I taught middle school art for a year after that. Then wrestling really started taking off for me and I was on the road 4 and 5 days a week. I was terrible and just got out of the habit of creating. I always wanted to draw comics when I was a kid. I was friends with Kirk Lindo who owns Brainstorm Comics. After I graduated he asked me if I wanted to work for him. He was shocked when I told him no. He asked why. I told him I’m not going to draw superheros I’m going to go be one. I really regret that decision now. I really neglected my gifts and went about 15 years without creating.
5. Did being a wrestler affect your art in any way? Or vice versa?
So I wasn’t a big guy when I started wrestling. I was 145 when I started. By the time I quit I was 210. I worked out and got big. I really relied on being creative to make it in wrestling. I wasn’t the biggest guy so I had to be creative and create a character. I was willing to do things other guys wouldn’t because they didn’t have that artistic side. I created a character who was an insane guy who thought he was Britney Spears. I learned all of her dances and wore outfits similar to hers. My finishing move was a spear that I called the Britney Spear. When I first started doing it I got a lot of heat from other wrestlers. They said it would never work. It ended up being huge. Eventually I was big, and it was hard to pass myself off as a female. I didn’t want to be that gimmick anymore. It became so popular that they wouldn’t not let me do it.
6. How did you make the career switch between wrestling and art?
I had been wrestling for 10 years and I was becoming bitter. The business today is much different than it was in the late 90s and early 2000s. There are a lot of paths for guys my size today. Back then not so much. At a certain point, I realized I was doing it to “make it” and it wasn’t fun anymore. I made the decision to step away. I ended up in retail management. I was really good at it, but I hated it. Finally in 2015 I was like I’m done and I have to get back to being me and went back to art.
7. Your art is largely DC Comics centered, is it safe to say you were a big DC comics fan growing up?
Art by Dustin Lee Massey
Most of my art is Batman, or bat family related. I absolutely love Batman, and have since I was like 2. However, most of the comics I read other than Batman growing up were Marvel. I was a huge Xmen and Daredevil fan.
8. Who is your all-time favourite superhero? Definitely Batman.
He’s this normal guy who chooses to be heroic. There is always something at stake, because there is always the chance he could die. Superman is boring to me because we know he’s going to win. You have also seen over the years how trauma has affected Batman. He gives into emotions from time to time because of things that have happened to him or others around him. He feels human and because of that we can identify with him in some way that you can’t with super powered heroes.
9. Now, let’s talk about your artwork! What kind of projects do you work on as a freelance illustrator?
So I teach art for Clemson University currently, and I do freelance projects on the side. I have worked on pretty much everything. Commissions, posters, logo. There isn’t much I’m not open to.
10. A lot of your pieces are movie posters! What inspired you to create works of art in this format?
I’m a huge movie fan. As a kid superhero movies were few and far between. Now we get them on a regular basis. However, DC films historically has been in a constant state of flux.
As a result, we have missed out on some potential big moments. I started creating movie posters for those moments that may or may not ever happen. I’m a fan, and these are things I want to see. I assume if I want to see them others do too. I’m trying to provide fans with that moment in some way.
11. Similarly, what inspirations do you draw on for your art style?
I look at a lot of comic artists, but most of my influences are actually from the fine art world. Eric Fischl, Trent Doyle Hancock, Bartoz Beda, Takashi Murakami, Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, etc.
12. I notice you use a lot of reds and blues in your artwork, any particular reason for this? How do you go about choosing your colour palette for each piece?
I feel like I have periods like Picasso. I worked with purples for awhile, and then it was reds and greens, blues and pinks, reds and blues. I typically try to work with complimentary colors because they are perceived as dynamic. If you look at action movie posters most of them will use blues and oranges.
Art by Dustin Lee Massey
13. Would you like to design a real Marvel movie poster some day? What would be your dream poster to design?
Absolutely. My dream DC poster would obviously be Batman related. Marvel would be Daredevil
14. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you are also a university lecturer! Can you tell us a bit about that?
I am at Clemson University. I currently teach painting, drawing and art history. I mentioned earlier I was in retail management for awhile. I didn’t like it. However, the one thing I did like about it was training and developing young people. I figured if I could do that but teach them things I was actually passionate about that would be a big win.
15. Do your students know you were a professional wrestler? How awesome do they think you are?
Most don’t. I keep it a secret from them. I’m afraid it would interfere with class.
16. What’s the hardest part about being a freelance illustrator?
I think working with non-creative types. Creatives can verbalize what they need. If you are not creative you don’t know what you want or don’t want until you see it. That can make the design process difficult.
17. What about the best part?
Setting your own schedule.
18. Do you ever plan to go back to wrestling?
I miss wrestling everyday. I did some reunion shows in 2018. In 2019 I ruptured a disc at the L3/L4 doing deadlifts. That pretty much ended me ever going back to wrestling.
19. Where would you like to take your art next?
I really like working on movie posters and working with other creatives. Ultimately, working for DC or Marvel would be a good bucket list.
Art by Dustin Lee Massey
20. Can people commission your work? Where can they buy your merch?
I am available for commissions. DM me at dustinleemassey@instagram. You can buy prints and tshirts at lmasseyart.space
21. Any final advice for aspiring artists?
Don’t wait for it to be perfect. Start now and learn as you go. If you wait for things to be perfect it will never happen. Also, put in the work. I tell my student’s I’m happier with 100 terrible drawings/paintings than I am with 1 really good one. They learn more from the 100 bad ones than they do the good one.
Follow Dustin on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/dustinleemassey/
Visit Dustin's website at: https://www.lmasseyart.space/