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.