Personal markings are often not allowed on government properties like guns and vehicles. Since World War II, pilots have started painting the noses of their aircraft in creative ways. Since the practice began in the 1940s, numerous designs had been made from pin-up women to cartoon characters to patriotic messages— nose art has it all.

The Beginning of Nose Art

Although WWII was considered the golden age of nose art, pilots were already painting their aircraft during World War I. It is said that the practice began as a way to identify the friendly units mid-air until it evolved into a way of expressing individuality, immortalizing memories of loved ones, mocking enemies, expressing a political opinion, and warding off death and attracting charms. The most famous, perhaps, was the shark-face insignia.

Mustang Sharkmouth nose art
RAF 112 Squadron P-51 Mustang Sharkmouth nose art at Goodwood revival 2018. EastfarthinganCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to an excerpt from WARBIRDS Magazine, “The first noted mouth was on a World War I German Roland C.II. I have also seen a mouth, teeth, and eyes on a British Gunbus (Vickers F.B.5) and various ‘faces” on Fokker DR.I and D.VIII engine cowlings. The design fell in disuse in the interwar period but reappeared on ZG 76s and ME 110 operating from Norway during the Battle of Brittain. The Unit Took the emblem to Sicily and Iraq. They Encountered the RAF 112 Squadron, which was reequipping with the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks (RAF) in the North African Desert. The P-40 Nose air intake was particularly suited to the adoption of the emblem. The Flying Tigers saw a photo of the 112 Squadron Tomahawk and adapted it for their Curtiss Hawks. The original German ZG 76 had an all read mouth, whereas the 112 squadrons had red highlighting the upper red teeth and the Flying Tigers on the Lower Teeth.”

As for the Flying Tigers using them in China, it was believed that the Japanese were very afraid of sharks(Who isn’t) and that the P-40 would be more intimidating to them.  Just of one of those little examples of Psy-Ops that became famous because it also looked cool.

During WWII, nose artists became very high in demand at the height of the war, both professional civilian artists and talented servicemen.

Some of the Famous Nose Art Subjects

Pin-up women

What is nose art without depicting girls like the “Wolf Bait” on the B-25 Mitchell Bomber and the “Grey Ghost” at Douglas C-47 Skytrain? This design became so well-known that pin-up art became almost synonymous with nose art. Provocative paintings of women that were often half-naked paired with memorable names. However, others prefer to put names and images of their mothers, wives, daughters, or celebrities.

Nose Art "Wolf Bait."
“Wolf Bait.” Ed Uthman from Houston, TX, USACC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Pinup Nose Art and inscription “Grey Ghost”
Douglas C-47 Skytrain with Pinup Nose Art and inscription “Grey Ghost.” History of War / DailyArt Magazine

Cartoon Characters

Cartoon characters were also popular. They could be comic book heroes and villains, Walt Disney or Warner Bros. characters like Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Dumbo. In fact, Dumbo fairly accurately dropped ordnance on Japan once. Airplane names were also inspired by these cartoons like Super Wabbit, Ruptured Duck, and Thumper that marked the name of each city that it bombed.

“Dumbo Delivers!” Nose Art design
Air gunner Bill Kirkness during the painting of his “Dumbo Delivers!” Nose Art design. Daily Mail / DailyArt Magazine

Mocking the Enemy

Nose art like the “Little Buckaroo” of pilot Major R.G. Rogers depicts an American cowboy who tames a horse that kicks the swastika sign as a representation of the Germans.