Pro Wrestling Artists Call Out AEW For Perceived AI-Generated T-Shirt ReleasesImages via AEW Tech Features AI Art
While much of the money made in professional wrestling comes from major television deals, one of the most lucrative aspects of the industry is actually merchandising. All Elite Wrestling (AEW), undeniably the second largest U.S.-based pro wrestling company and one that has aired on TNT and TBS for over three years now, was so linked to merchandising at its founding that “they’re just a t-shirt company” became a rallying cry for those who didn’t believe the brand would succeed.
The most financially successful pro wrestlers of the last four decades have all done so with the benefit of massive merch sales. Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and John Cena were truly the cash cows of WWE through the last half-century due in part to massive sales of t-shirts and other trinkets. WWE has mostly used in-house staff designers for years, but the growth of the independent wrestling scene and the arrival of AEW saw the usage of independent designers become a much bigger part of the industry.
All of this came together on April 26 when All Elite Wrestling released three new t-shirts as part of their internal AEW Games brand. Within minutes of the release, the tweet advertising the release became inundated with both artists and fans calling out that the designs appeared to have been created with an AI art generator.
Level up your game with our #AEWgames shirts!
Now Available ➤ https://t.co/4cMAtj8Nq5@AEW @ShopAEW pic.twitter.com/JF8VODzv1x
— AEW Games (@AEWGames) April 26, 2023
While fans are rightfully upset, the real impact of this decision will be doled out to the independent artists and designers currently working throughout the wrestling industry. Paste spoke to several wrestling artists about this move by AEW, including some that have actually worked with the company’s talent to create designs in the past.
Angie (aka @TwilightPalms), a wrestling merch designer and illustrator who has created multiple designs for current AEW World Champion MJF, spoke to Paste about why artist-created merchandise delivers where AI doesn’t.
“AI art is cheap looking and shady. The art that trained those models is stolen from thousands of artists— and most industries blacklist anyone who tries to get by with it,” she said. “AEW has some of the most iconic merch in the game today because of the money wrestlers invest into real artists. Ofooro, for example, makes the majority of the Best Friends’ merch. You can’t go to a show without seeing his work! People love it!”
Jacob, also known as JCP of JCP Designs, is another independent artist and designer that has worked directly with All Elite Wrestling talent in the past for merch. He emphasized how disappointing this development has been for someone that has followed the company with high hopes since the very beginning.
“I’ve been interested in AEW since their very first press conference and have been a loyal fan since their first show. As I’ve been designing artwork for shirts for a few years now, it’s been a personal goal of mine as an artist to work on shirts for their talent, and I have been lucky enough to have been afforded that opportunity a few times.”
“As an artist who has had very positive experiences working with individuals there, I am honestly very disappointed to see several designs that appear to be AI-generated for some of their major talents,” he continued. “Many AEW talents have graciously worked with incredible fan artists within their own fan community, something that separates them from much of their competition. Using AI-generated art feels like a betrayal of that on some level.”
As Jacob also pointed out, websites such as haveibeentrained.com have allowed artists (including him) to identify their own artwork as having been stolen without their knowledge or consent and used to train AI art models. Merch designer and illustrator RNKF echoed some of the same concerns.
“As impressive as the capabilities of the technology are, the data they’re trained on is unethically obtained from artists globally and then incompetently recycled into soulless pixel soup that may, if for just a glance’s worth of time, resemble a piece of handmade art,” she explained. “The immediate concern for myself as a freelance designer in this same field, is that why would somebody pay me to create something for them, if they could type the request into a text prompt window for free, and maybe even get away with it? I hope the answer is that they would receive such a magnitude of pushback to retire the idea, and the key to the success of that is the general public educating themselves on the characteristics of AI-generated artwork and their (I hope) willingness to call it out.”
When asked for clarification on the genesis of the recent AEW Games t-shirt designs, AEW stated “we will not be providing comment at this time.”
RNKF’s last point is a crucial one because the prevalence of AI-generated art doesn’t appear to be slowing down just yet. While it can often click for experienced artists that something is AI-generated very quickly, that recognition can be tougher for average consumers and non-artists. For those who might wonder how artists so quickly identified these AEW shirts as featuring AI-generated artwork, wrestling artist Lindsay Rae spoke to us about some of the specific giveaways she spotted.
“The first thing I think to look for with a potential AI portrait is if it gets the likeness of the subject right,” she said. “I don’t think this looks like Kenny Omega, for starters. The shape of his nose, the shape of his lips, it’s all very generic and undefined. An artist will know to capture the contour of someone’s facial features, that is what makes a face uniquely theirs.”
“The biggest giveaway is the left eye. The bottom eyelid splits into several webbed pieces. Is this flesh striations? Are these computer cords? It’s ambiguous enough so that any detractors can say it’s objective, but it has no logic. Just like where the game controller (engraved with nonsense, look at the random buttons and ‘type’) meets with his head. Also, look how wonky that pupil and iris are. Look at the top eyelid, it’s just a dark red line that breaks up and extends over to the nose,” she explained. “Clothing is another big giveaway for these. Look how little sense that jacket collar makes. There’s a spiral on the lower right-hand side above what looks like a portable hard drive. Had this been made by a human, there would at least be a modicum of logic behind this.”
“What is that part growing out of the top of his head? The hair/wires (look how it melds together on the left, the directions make no sense, it follows no logic) are bad enough, but then there’s this piece of, presumably some faint imitation of cyberpunk headgear,” she continued. “Presumably some poor intern had to photoshop in the ‘AEW Games’ text, as AI is still incapable of making text in images (for now).”
“This one also falls into the likeness ambiguity realm. Is it Adam Cole? Is it CM Punk? Is it Hangman Page? I can see all three, to be honest, but we’re being told this is Adam Cole, on account of the ‘BAY BAY’ pasted on at the top,” Lindsay explained. “Once again, a longer look at this makes the design come apart. Look at how they rendered his mouth and lips. Just a few arches of color. The red and yellow lines across his face make absolutely zero logistical sense.”
“The lines across CM Adam’s face are completely nonsensical, and almost more organic than that ‘cyberpunk’ aesthetic they were trying for with Kenny. Someone on Twitter called those circular bits by his temple ‘toes’ and I can’t unsee it,” she said. “Also, his jacket once again is a mess of shapes that are either supposed to imply clothing or ‘technology’. You can see by his eye where it makes it into under the eye wrinkles. Which, to me, screams that this thing was scraping Rob Schamburger’s art (how could it not, his work is iconic and he’s painted Cole before) and it makes me angry all over again for the artists who have been making careers off this.”
“This one, I feel, is the most egregious. The headpiece looks like it wants to be hair, it swirls in no particular direction, and seems to cleave in behind the eye ridge of the mask. There’s also nonsensical points sticking out of the mask,” she continued. “Speaking of, follow it with your eyes. See how it seemingly grows from the ‘hair’ and billows down and forms the vest? You can see it on the left side, but I suppose it’s just implied on the right. Look at the asymmetrical eye holes for the mask. Can you see Uno’s eyes through the one left eye (right eye is a black open oval), or do you just see a mish-mash of blue?”
“Lastly, look at the ‘jaw’ of the mask. Not only does this look like nothing Uno has ever worn, it also looks like it attempted a tooth pattern across the whole thing, but that doesn’t stay cohesive. Look at the ‘patches’ on the vest. What are they supposed to be? Again, had this been made by a designer there would be any sort of reason or recognizable insignias worked into the vest, as opposed to ‘cyberpunk aesthetic’ circuit boards,” Lindsay said. “Naturally, they snuck in that Dark Order logo right in between the two vest panels to make it seem like SOMEONE put in some thought, but not directly above it, where those uneven pectoral muscles are weakly implied.”
All of the other artists we spoke to echoed many of the same aspects that consumers can watch for when attempting to identify any AI-generated artwork in the future from AEW or other companies.
“The most important aspect you should be able to identify about AI-generated artwork is the way it relies on being only glanced at for the effect to take. If you really look, if you stop and zoom in to the image, the flaws will make themselves glaringly apparent. Misaligned facial features, extra fingers, digital slop,” RNKF explained.
“An easy way to identify AI art is muddy details in places like hair or clothing,” Angie said. “Strange or uneven pupils, mangled hands with too little or too many fingers. It’s frequently in the same hyper-rendered painterly style, yet sometimes it looks like photos are mashed in. Overall super uncanny, and very unethical!”
“AI models make a lot of avoidable mistakes that an artist would not overlook,” JCP of JCP Designs began. “This typically includes things like hands, which even the best AI models fail to render accurately, many times having far too many or too few fingers. Another is inconsistent details, just has clothing that radically changes texture or detailing halfway through. Many times AI models will add inappropriate details into skin, such as wrinkles that don’t make logical sense to the folds of a human face. Lastly, an artist that specializes in realism will typically do everything in their skill to capture a person’s likeness, while an AI model will not take the same level of care, resulting in human likenesses that only vaguely look like the individual in question.”
“By using AI art tools, a company is showing that they are willing to settle for something that feels like something only vaguely in proximity to art, produced through unethical means, rather than work with talented individuals for the sake of saving a few dollars and I personally find that upsetting,” he added. “It takes opportunities away from artists that could use the professional work. Unfortunately, AEW is not alone in this right now.”
Angie remains hopeful that the company might eventually listen to the concerns of fans and artists alike: “Merch is a means of showcasing your community and what you love. AI art is the antithesis of that. I hope AEW listens to the criticism and continues to invest in the artists that are inspired by their product.”