Rob Schamberger: Wrestling’s new king of the canvas

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Like a fine piece of art, Rob Schamberger wasn’t able to appreciate the art of professional wrestling until he was mature.

Schamberger, who now sets the gold standard when it comes to painting all things professional wrestling, didn’t even become a fan of pro wrestling until he in his late teenage years.

“I actually didn’t get into it until I was 18,” the 34-year-old Kansas City native said in a telephone interview a week or so before he’ll head to WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, Calif., to again show off his skills to the wrestling world and fans alike.

“I grew up in a single-mom household and she didn’t want to watch wrestling,” Schamberger added. “We had one TV, you know.”

It wasn’t until his mother remarried and he had moved out on his own that Schamberger would be bitten by the pro wrestling bug. And even then, it was by chance.

“Like every 18-year-old man on his own, I was at their place doing laundry and my stepfather, who had been a fan back in the ’60s and ’70s, was flipping through the channels — this was about 1998, ’99 —and he landed on Nitro, and Ric Flair was doing a promo,” Schamberger explained, referencing one of the greatest of all time.

It was love at first sight for the future artist.

“I was just, bam, instantly hooked.”

The next week, Schamberger said, he was channel surfing in an attempt find wrestling, any wrestling, when he happened upon World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship program, Monday Night Raw, which in those days boasted the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley and others.

“I was just completely hooked,” Schamberger said, his mind drifting back. “They were totally killing it at that point. I’ve been a fan since.”

Long before Schamberger carved out a niche as the artist of the wrestling stars, he was a comic book fan first.

“I was about seven or eight, and my older stepbrother bought me my first comic book. It was (an issue of) Incredible Hulk,” he explained. “We spent the whole weekend just re-drawing everything.”

And not unlike that young child who witnesses his first wrestling match with his dad, young Rob Schamberger knew he had found his calling.

“I knew immediately this is what I want to do. ‘This is what I am,’ he told himself.

So he drew. And he drew. And he drew some more, honing his skills and working at his craft until his gifts emerged. Rob Schamberger was following his dreams.

“I chased being a comic book artist for a long time,” he said. “I had moderate success but not anything I was able to quit my day job over,” he said with a chuckle.

At the advice of his then girlfriend (now his wife), Schamberger abandoned his dreams of comic book art and turned his attention to gallery-type work. It was then that a stroke of genius set in motions the wheels of fate.

“I was trying to find a subject matter that I could really make own, make a name for myself … and I realized no one else was doing this with pro wrestling. Anything that was being done was kind of hipster ironic or something, but not really celebrating wrestling the way we know it.”

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Much as he does with his paints, Schamberger began to blend his two passions, artwork and wrestling.

“I think my background in comic books, superhero stuff really lent to the transition to wrestling … trying to portray not just their appearance but the whole persona, the whole feel of the subject matter.”

Looking back, Schamberger counts his blessings that the two most important women in his life were his biggest allies.

“In the early days it was my mom, definitely,” he said when asked about who were his biggest supporters. “She, despite being the struggling single mom, did everything that she could to try to give me those kind of escapes. When I got into art, she really did everything that she could to support that. She would buy my comics for me, she would always (get) copy paper for me or Steno pads or just any kind of paper and pencil to bring home to me to draw on. She didn’t really understand what I was doing, but she saw how much it meant to me, so she supported that.”

These days, Schamberger counts his wife among his greatest supporters. In fact, without her influence, he says, he wouldn’t be enjoying any of the success he’s enjoying today.

“At the time when we were just dating, she was the one who pushed me more into the gallery stuff,” he said. “I was always trying to experiment with other types of media styles and bring it back to my own thing, so I had all kinds of paintings and stuff just stacked around the apartment. She was like, ‘Why don’t you show these?’ ”

Despite declining her suggestions, his wife remained persistent in her support.

“Someone she knew had an artist drop out on them for a gallery show and had me kind of step in last minute for it because I had so much work and it ended up being a pretty successful show,” Schamberger explained. “Several other gallerists happened to be there and started asking me to do more showings. Luckily my wife is also a wrestling fan, so that makes my whole life a lot easier. And she’s a writer so she understands the long hours and how I’m pretty much always on the clock. She gets all that.”

It isn’t lost on Schamberger either that there are a lot of similarities between aspiring artist and aspiring wrestlers and both mediums.

Like an artist, whose work needs to catch the right eye, a professional wrestler needs to be in the right place at the right time to get that career break often as well. Schamberger says it was a series of breaks that led to his relationship with the WWE.

It started with his own idea to create a Kickstarter campaign to fund a wrestling project.

“Every time a door would open, there would just be another closed door right behind it,” he said. “The comic book stuff … I had a book published by Image that no one read. I had other little small triumphs but nothing really happened. The gallery stuff was good but it wasn’t quit-your-job money. But then I had the idea of putting wrestling and art together and it started with a Kickstarter project that I’m still working on where I’m painted every world champion going all the way back to George Hackenschmidt.”

It was a success.

“I raised $20,000 in a month with Kickstarter for that and that allowed me to break off on my own, get a studio and focus on art full time. I guess most artists would consider that alone a break.”

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Schamberger then started taking his work to various wrestling shows and promotions. Again, fate interceded.

“The National Wrestling Hall of Fame Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, they do an annual hall of fame induction,” he said. There, he met a couple of the most powerful men in pro wrestling.

“I met Jim Ross and Gerry Brisco through that and both of them really took to my art and me personally,” Schamberger said.

Then a couple of years ago, with WWE coming to his hometown of Kansas City for a TV taping, Schamberger called Ross.

“I was doing a show to raise money for Make-A-Wish Foundation on the same day, and I reached out to Jim to see if he could pass my information on to WWE to see if they could help get the word out so that we could make the show a success. And he did, and they did, and the show was great.”

But the man known affectionately as Good Ol’ JR did Schamberger one better.

“He went the extra length and started calling all of the executives there and saying, ‘You need to actually work with this guy.’ And that’s what really got the ball rolling for where I’m at now.”

Where he is now is one of the most recognized names in the WWE who is not featured inside a ring every week. His work is featured on the WWE’s website, helping raise money and awareness. His work is routinely praised by some of the biggest names in the industry and he boasts a catalogue of wrestling artwork that could fill an entire ring. He’s also live at major pay-per-view events where he paints for all to see, such as next week’s WrestleMania.

Arguably Schamberger’s most famous piece is also the one that means the most to him personally. It was a hand-painted jacket that the Ultimate Warrior famously wore to the ring in his emotional — and fateful — return to a WWE ring after his hall of fame induction at last year’s WrestleMania.

Warrior, who had a public and long fallout with the company following his departure in the 1990s, returned to the WWE and wore the jacket that Schamberger painted to the ring in his first in-ring appearance in the WWE in years. He delivered a passionate message to his “warriors” that night, much to the delight of fans in attendance and all over the world.

Tragically, he died the very next day.

For many reasons, the Warrior jacket is special to Schamberger.

“I think from my heart, that will be the one that will always be my favourite.”

It was, Schamberger said, the Ultimate Warrior who reached out to him to paint the jacket.

“It turned out he was a big fan,” Schamberger said of the Warrior. “He said he watched my YouTube videos every week. He was an artist himself and he told me that he actually would daydream about being in the studio and learning how to paint from me,” he said, his mind drifting back to that conversation.

“I talked with him a few times on the phone and he was a very, very passionate guy. He’d tell me all kinds of stories about back in the day and we’d talk shop with making art. He reached out to me first to have me do the jacket. He also contacted Triple H just to see if WWE had an artist that they would recommend, just to be political, and I was the only name that Triple H gave him.”

Unbelievably, Schamberger didn’t witness Warrior proudly wearing his creation, at least not live.

“We didn’t stay in New Orleans, we were driving back to Kansas City (following WrestleMania), but I contacted all my family and (told them), ‘Hey, you need to send me screen grabs and stuff when he comes out wearing this.’ Luckily my wife was driving because my phone started blowing up, and Twitter, and everything. She started crying because of how hard we’d worked to get to that.”

The next evening would be bittersweet.

“We were finally sitting down to watch the show and the next segment was Warrior’s segment and right before that, I got a text from one of my friends in the company just saying, ‘Warrior died.’ ”

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To say Schamberger was stunned would be a gross understatement.

“I’m like, ‘Is this like wrestler talk?’ What? What does that mean. I refused to accept that that was real. It was.”

Looking back, Schamberger realizes how fortunate he was to have been a part of the Warrior’s life, even if it was just for a short time.

“I was glad to be a part of that.”

Schamberger has and continues to be a part of many things WWE. Working with the company has not only raised his profile but it has afforded him the opportunity to work with some of the superstars he would come to idolize after discovering wrestling as a teen.

He even recounts brushes with some of those superstars.

“When I was at SummerSlam, I was painting there, too, and that was Sting’s first official appearance with the company other than that San Diego ComicCon thing. I had some prints there they had him sign and he was like, ‘Wait, is this guy outside?’ I want to meet this guy. I’ve been following his work.’

“So all of a sudden all of these people in suits come at me and I’m like, ‘What is this? Is the FBI coming for me?’ No it was just talent relations. They were like, ‘We need you to come upstairs right now.’ I’m was like ‘What’s going on guys, did I get fired?’

“No, it was Sting wanted to meet me.”

Schamberger also met with Stone Cold Steve Austin, someone he says has been a supporter of his from the get-go.

“He wanted to see the painting — I was painting him — and I take him up to show him and told him it was my wife’s birthday and then all of a sudden it all became about her. He wished her a happy birthday and everything. I got to be husband of the year.”

Schamberger even spent a little time alongside wrestling royalty in Hulk Hogan.

“One of the funnier backstage things was I was at a show to meet Hogan,” he recounted. “This was back in December when he was Ho-Ho-Hogan on SmackDown. Jimmy Hart was there and Jimmy is his real-life manager. Even for staffers, anyone, you have to go through Jimmy to get something from Hogan. And I caught him in catering and told him, ‘Hey, I’ve got these prints for Hulkster to sign,’ and he was like ‘Oh yeah, baby, bring em on back.’ Hanging out in Hogan’s dressing room backstage, that was one of those things — even though I wasn’t a wrestling fan as a kid, I knew who Hulk Hogan was right — and I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is cool.’ Jimmy sang ‘Keep on Dancing’ for me, it was just … I was like ‘Wow, is this happening?’ ”

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Fans have the chance to meet Schamberger, and watch him in action next weekend as part of Fan Axxess.

“I’ll be painting Macho Man Randy Savage at Axxess. WWE actually provided a ring canvas that they stretched and I’ll be painting on that. It’s just a piece of one, not a whole one. I’m really looking forward to doing that. They’ve been just nothing but awesome to work with. I’ll have paintings there that are like the ones I have on auction. They’re matted already and they’re signed by the superstars and divas. And we’ll have about 50 different prints there.”

In addition to painting live outside of Axxess in the three days leading up to WrestleMania 31, Schamberger will also debut his first WWE art book at Axxess.

The Immortal Showcase features Schamberger’s individual paintings of the first 30 WrestleManias, as seen on WWE’s popular Canvas 2 Canvas YouTube series. The 40-page art book also includes an introduction written by WWE Hall of Famer and the man who helped propel his career to new heights, Jim Ross.

Life couldn’t be much better for Schamberger. It’s almost as if he planned it perfectly, because, he admits, he never had a plan B.

“I picked lots of jobs that I knew I would be miserable at to force myself to make it being an artist full time. I even worked at an Arby’s and I’m a vegetarian.”

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