Purowave Is Reinventing the Visual Language of Pro Wrestling

Inside the delightfully weird series that's picking up steam

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Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

When All Elite Wrestling: Dynamite debuted on TNT in October, wrestling fans seemed split down the middle about how to perceive the aesthetic presentation of the new show. About half thought the program was too similar to everything that had come before it, while the other half praised AEW for its subtle variations on a tried-and-true formula.

Indeed, the audio and visual language of pro wrestling hasn’t changed much since it had been rather ubiquitous in the mid-'90s, down to the look and feel of the video packages and grandiose entrances (usually set to outdated rock or metal) of the pro wrestlers. While TV wrestling may have a kind of uniform look, on the obscure digital airwaves of YouTube, creators are reimagining the style of pro wrestling in fascinating remixes of a culture that’s grown quite obviously stale for most of America.

Enter purowave, a YouTube channel that reimagines pro wrestling storylines as short vaporwave music videos, which has garnered a micro-cult of followers for showing what wrestling could look like with a bit of imagination. The two- to seven-minute videos condense decades of wrestling plots into short, dreamy sequences set to chopped and screwed muzak, French house, disco, warped hip-hop, and purposefully outdated pop. There’s something magical about these sequences, which are altered to look like found VHS footage (or in some cases are sourced from decaying VHS tapes): They take the quotidian and overemphasized nostalgia of pro wrestling’s heyday to experimental heights by re-contextualizing these wrestling narratives as surreal and artfully crafted short films.

Vaporwave is a particularly interesting style that rarely overlaps with pro wrestling. What started as a sort of post-ironic, post-internet joke on experimental music forums and underground message boards evolved into its own genre in the early 2010s. Vaporwave artists, undoubtedly influenced by heavy marijuana usage, explored the look and feel of AOL-era cyberspace, underappreciated Japanese animation and the decaying opulence of late '80s consumer culture in a bittersweet celebration of the lost art of channel surfing. Although the decades from which vaporwave takes its cues was around the same time period when wrestling was most ubiquitous in the Western cultural zeitgeist, the two mediums had never really crossed paths.

“[Vaporwave] is electronics-based music, heavy samples, a lot of it from lesser-known ‘80s pop groups," explains purowave’s Toronto-based creator Mike Johnston, who admits that his project came about while being bored and stoned during an extended leave from work. "There's a lot of remixing and sampling but done to a different degree than you’d find in hip-hop or another genre. It transports you to another time."  

Johnston found that taking clips of esoteric Japanese wrestling he discovered on YouTube and re-scoring them to tracks he discovered on the Artzie Music channel mashed the exact right combination of nostalgia buttons in his brain, so he just kept going.

“I just threw some music together with some Japanese women’s wrestling stuff. I thought, ‘This works for me, I don’t know if anyone else will like it.’ It feels like a niche within a niche,” Johnston said. “When I was seeing videos on YouTube that people were posting, what I found was that I wasn’t getting anything out of it. People were just showing a lot of moves. You don’t really get the story from that—and the music is so bad.”

Johnston’s interpretation of the Golden Lovers saga is perhaps the height of his work so far, and there’s an undeniable emotional—dare I say, romantic—quality to that video in particular. The tale of the infamous tag team may or may not have been a yearslong gay love story, and Johnston perfectly encapsulates the heartbreak of the duo’s split in the video.

“The way [Japanese wrestling] does their storytelling—I’ve never been offended when people call it a male soap opera,” Johnston said. “That’s a rich history that went across multiple companies … [Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi] together were just so fantastic with their storytelling individually and then clashing every few years.”

Other videos on the channel condense entire title runs or careers into minutes-long segments that legitimately make these athletes look like legendary, time-displaced warriors. While both NXT and AEW are working to establish a whole slew of new characters, this more contemporary and avant-garde approach could be precisely what they need to create a memorable and mythic aura around their fighters — no butt rock required.

“You can do stuff with modern music, you don’t need to always be playing ACDC,” Johnston said. “It makes such a world of difference to see and hear something different. There’s plenty of emerging artists right now.”

These sorts of mutant wrestling creations are precisely what CHIKARA director Mike Quackenbush said he is looking forward to the most in the future of pro wrestling. The purowave videos have emerged on the scene at the right moment, when new federations should be looking for fresh and creative ways to present their characters and stories. The limited imagination of most wrestling companies, which can’t see past the myopic constraints of what wrestling has been for decades, are willfully ignoring the creativity of purowave and other hybrid experiments like Tasselmania, Kaiju Big Battel, Choke Hole, Lucha VaVoom and more.

“But people just want to recreate what fans already find familiar,” Johnston said.

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