Sterling James Keenan

Published: 11 March, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 134, June, 2006

By day, Matt Polinsky is a professional piercer. By night, he’s the tattooed wrestler who adopts the moniker ‘Sterling James Keenan’. We uncover the story of the Pittsburgh native who swaps body piercing for body slamming...

How did you get started in pro wrestling?

I loved wrestling for as long as I can remember. When I was three years old I had a Hulk Hogan birthday cake. I never really thought I was going to be a pro wrestler, I assumed I was just going to be a normal guy growing up - go to college and all that good stuff. My dad actually had a friend who ran an independent wrestling promotion, so he got in touch with him. The guy wouldn’t have trained me normally because I was only 14, but since my dad was friends with him, he put me through the school.

What were your expectations when you first started training?

I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was. I’m a pretty athletic guy, I’ve played sports my whole life, and it was brutal. On my first day, they worked me so bad I was in the bathroom in the back puking my guts out. It was rough. I think a lot of it was that they were trying to put me off but I stuck with it and, once they realised that was really what I wanted to do, all the guys took good care of me and I became kind of everyone’s little brother. It’s weird with wrestling - whenever you start you think, “OK, I’m a pro wrestler now.” It takes a few months before you realise you’re really nothing. In your head you think “Well, I just came out of pro wrestling school. Why isn’t [WWE boss and the most successful wrestling promoter ever] Vince McMahon calling me?” After you start travelling a little bit, start paying your dues, you realise how insignificant you are.

Why did you choose the name Sterling James Keenan?

It’s kind of ridiculous. The night before I had my first pro match, I didn’t have any sort of wrestling name, I had no idea what to call myself. So my dad and I went to a bookstore and got one of those baby books that help you to name your child and I found the name Sterling. Sterling Sharpe was my favourite American football player when I was a kid so I thought that was really cool. The James Keenan part came from Maynard James Keenan, who’s the singer from Tool, my favourite band. I just thought, “Well, that sounds cool.”

As well as being a wrestler you’re a body piercer, aren’t you?

Yeah. I’ve been around enough and I’m smart enough that I know I’m not going to get rich off of wrestling. I’ve been a body piercer for about two-and-a-half to three years. I actually had to train as an apprentice because I’m gone so much for wrestling. Over the past six or seven months it’s more or less become a part-time job because I’m on the road so much and have to take so much time off for wrestling. I’m at the point now where I make enough money wrestling that, if I wanted to just quit my job altogether, I could pay my bills, I could get by. But who wants to just get by? The best part about my job is that my boss totally understands that this is my dream and I’m finally starting to get to do it. So if I need time off he doesn’t complain at all.

What age were you when you had your first tattoo?

I was 15 when I got my first tattoo. I don’t know how I got it as it’s illegal in the US to have a tattoo done at that age.  Ever since I’ve been working in the tattoo business, you’ve had to be 16 minimum, with a parent’s consent. In most shops, like the one that I work at now, they won’t tattoo you at all unless you’re 18. So I don’t know how I got it but I lucked out because it’s actually a decent tattoo - it’s a cross on my leg, a ‘safe’ tattoo.

What made you interested in tattoos in the first place?

I think a lot of it had to do with wanting to be different. None of my friends at the time had tattoos, they were all too young. So, finally, after about a year-and-a-half I convinced my dad to let me get something. It was done by a buddy of mine. He was an apprentice and that was the first tattoo he ever did. It wasn’t too bad for his first one. And it just took off from there. When I got my first one I distinctly remember I was sitting in the chair and there was a sticker that said: “Welcome to your new addiction.” I just kind of laughed at it while I was being tattooed but then I was looking around at the flash on the wall thinking: “Oh, that would be kind of cool.” Then my parents let me have one other one before I turned 18. Then once I turned 18 it was all over. 

You’re still only 22 now so, presumably, you’ve been regularly having new tattoos ever since...

The hardest part now is with wrestling because I have to have time to heal. I’ve got one tattoo on the inside of my right elbow that’s faded. It’s the hardest spot to heal but I had this big scab that was just about healed and I gave a guy a hiptoss in a wrestling match and it just busted right up. I felt it go when I gave him the move. I looked at my arm and it was running with blood. But I’ve never really ruined a tattoo from my wrestling.

Tell us about the masked wrestler on your arm.

This is everybody’s favourite one. It’s not based on anyone. When I first started at the shop that I work at now there was a guy that was a tattoo artist and he had just had it drawn up after watching a cartoon in the States about Mexican wrestlers called Mucha Lucha. When he found out I wrestled he said: “You’ve gotta let me put this on you.” At first I was just going to let him do it small and he goes, “No, you’ve got to have it big.” That was the first thing I had on my right arm.

So have you had all your tattoos done in the shop that you work in?

My left arm was done by the guy I used to work for, the guy who taught me to pierce, Quinno Martin. I never even really thought of working in the tattoo business but he owned a shop called Naughty Vibrations in the town where I lived, Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I was just in there a lot and he was doing some work on me and we just hit it off. He told me that he was losing a lot of business because people wanted piercings and he didn’t pierce. He knew how, he just hated doing it. So he asked me if I wanted to learn. He invited me to do it but I still went through an apprenticeship in that I spent a year scrubbing the shop, mopping the floors, cleaning the toilet and all that. I basically did a tattoo artist’s apprenticeship just to pierce. I didn’t mind, he’s a great guy. But then the piercing thing died down so bad there that I ended up having to go work at another shop - True Image, in New Kensington, Pennsylvania - where I’m still working now and they’ve done all my other tattoos. Kevin Croney is the owner and he’s done pretty much everything on my right arm except for the luchadore [masked wrestler]. I got really into traditional artwork, with the bold lines and that’s his favourite thing to do.

Did you have a plan for how it would all piece together?

No, not at all. The first piece I got on my left arm was the geisha and then I started getting other things here and there. I had plans in my head that I wanted a sleeve but Quinno didn’t know that was my intention. So he kind of slapped it all together. It’s still not done. My right arm, the same thing: I knew I wanted to sleeve it out but Kevin actually came up with the stars and dots, the real traditional stuff, because he was really into that. The thing I like about this style is that you can actually see what all the individual pieces are. It doesn’t blend too much and no one has that anymore. My favourite is the “Pretty Girls Make Graves” one. Girls have caused me too much heartache. The first one that Kevin did on my right arm was a [Los Angeles underground artist] Coop devil. It was flash but I got them to make it bold. I probably should have left the hair on because I went on to become a real big fan of Coop’s artwork but I had no idea who he was at the time. Most of what I’ve got is flash. The shark was inspired by an artist in Philadelphia and then Kevin did his own version of it. He actually watercoloured a big panel of the shark and then tattooed it. It turned out really cool - it’s even on his business card now. My neck was done by a guy called Brian who works at True Image. That one hurt. None of my tattoos are really that meaningful. I kind of realised after a while I’ve just got to get what looks cool.

What made you decide to have work done on your neck?

That’s the job-stopper. I only have to take one more class and I’ll have a marketing degree. I haven’t taken it yet because I’ve been so busy with wrestling. So I have a college education, so to speak, but wrestling’s what I want to do. I’m at the point now where I did the whole extreme tattooing thing so fast basically to make myself stand out, because everyone in wrestling has a tattoo, but no one has sleeves aside from [top WWE star] the Undertaker - and his are so faded you can’t even tell they’re there anymore. So it helps me stand apart a little bit. It’s part of my wrestling persona but it’s also my personal way to say to myself, “You better make it as a wrestler now - you’ve made your bed, now lay in it. If you’re going to screw yourself out of an office job, you’d better make some money wrestling.”

What have you got planned next?

I want to finish my arms and I’m going to let Brian at True Image do the other side of my neck. He used to work out of Gods and Monsters in Columbus, Ohio, which was owned by Gunnar [tattoo artist famed for his ‘cute and creepy’ style]. He used to work for one of the best so he learned a lot and is really good. It’s not drawn up yet but I have the idea in my head. It’s going to be the shape of a skull and crossbones but there’s not going to be any detail in it. It’s just going to be the shape and then inside the shape is going to be the skyline of Pittsburgh. It’s like my hometown pride thing. 

Tell us about your knuckles, which have the legend “Stay Down” tattooed on them...

I actually did this for as a marketing ploy to sell myself! I needed something to put on T-shirts. But you’d be amazed at how many people don’t understand it. They’d be like, “What does ‘Stay Down’ mean?” It’s on my knuckles because the idea is if you hit someone, you want them to stay down. But the first time [fellow wrestler] Colt Cabana saw it he said, “’Stay Down’? Wasn’t that, like, the 1970s? You’re down, you’re cool?” And I’m like, “No, dude, it’s not anything like that.” So it’s misconstrued a lot.

Have you got any plans to have anything done on your chest?

I want to do my chest. I have a piece on my stomach that’s a cover-up-in-progress. Originally it was a devil head with a top hat but it was incredibly poorly done. And so I went to another guy I work with at True Image, Fuz, and said, “Cover it up. I really don’t care what you do, just do something.” But I do want to do my chest. I really like how [another heavily tattooed wrestler] Vampiro looks, with the sleeves all the way across his chest and his back’s pretty open. I keep telling myself I don’t want to do my back but I have a feeling I’m probably going to be doing my entire back at some point. It’s such a pain in the ass being on the road and travelling... a back piece is going to take hours, regardless, and that’s without working around my schedule. It could take me two years to get a back piece done the way I’m gone all the time.




Skin Deep 134 1 June 2006 134