Airline Nose Art

18 January, 2017 |  Author: Mark Peaker, Co-founder & CEO of 3812 Gallery.

I thought it interesting to start 2017 off with the art of flying, not the journey but the aircraft. Commonly known as ‘nose art’ it is the decorative painting or design on the fuselage of an aircraft, usually on the front fuselage.

While begun for practical reasons of identifying friendly units in war time, the practice evolved to express the individuality often constrained by the uniformity of the military, to evoke memories of home and peacetime life, and as a kind of psychological protection against the stresses of war and the probability of death. The appeal, in part, came from nose art not being officially approved, even when the regulations against it were not enforced.

Because of its individual and unofficial nature, it is considered folk art, inseparable from work as well as representative of a group. It can also be compared to sophisticated graffiti. In both cases, the artist is often anonymous, and the art itself is ephemeral.

Placing personalized decorations on fighting aircraft began with Italian and German pilots. The first recorded piece of nose art was a sea monster painted on an Italian flying boat in 1913. This was followed by the popular practice of painting a mouth beneath the propeller’s spinner, begun by German pilots in World War I. The cavallino rampante (prancing horse) of the Italian ace Francesco Baracca was another well-known image. Nose art of that era was often conceived and produced not by the pilots, but rather the aircraft ground crews.

弗朗西斯科·巴拉卡伯爵和他的SPAD S.VII戰機,機身上的作足馬(cavallino rampante)後來成為法拉利的標誌。


While World War I nose art was usually embellished or extravagant squadron insignia, true nose art appeared during World War II, which is considered by many observers to be the golden age of the genre, with both Axis and Allied pilots taking part. At the height of the war, nose-artists were in very high demand in the USAAF and were paid quite well for their services while AAF commanders tolerated nose art in an effort to boost aircrew morale. The U.S. Navy, by contrast, prohibited nose art, the most extravagant being limited to a few simply-lettered names, while nose art was uncommon in the RAF or RCAF.

The work was done by professional civilian artists as well as talented amateur servicemen. In 1941, for instance, the 39th Pursuit Squadron commissioned a Bell Aircraft artist to design and paint the “Cobra in the Clouds” logo on their aircraft. Perhaps the most enduring nose art of World War II was the shark-face motif, which first appeared on the Bf-110s of Luftwaffe 76th Destroyer Wing over Crete, where the twin-engine Messerschmitt’s outmatched the Gloster Gladiator biplanes of RAF 112 Squadron. The Commonwealth pilots were withdrawn to Egypt and refitted with Curtiss Tomahawks off the same assembly line building fighter aircraft for the AVG Flying Tigers being recruited for service in China. In November 1941, AVG pilots saw a 112 Squadron Tomahawk in an illustrated weekly and immediately adopted the shark-face motif for their own planes. This work was done by the pilots and ground crew in the field. However, the insignia for the “Flying Tigers” – a winged Bengal Tiger jumping through a stylized V for Victory symbol – was developed by graphic artists from the Walt Disney Company.

Contemporary research demonstrates that bomber crews, which suffered high casualty rates during World War II, often developed strong bonds with the planes they were flying, and affectionately decorated them with nose art. It was also believed by the flight crews that the nose art was bringing luck to the planes.

Source material for American nose art was varied, ranging from pinups such as Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable and cartoon characters such as Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, and Popeye to patriotic characters (Yankee Doodle) and fictional heroes (Sam Spade). Lucky symbols such as dice and playing cards also inspired nose art, along with references to mortality such as the Grim Reaper. Cartoons and pinups were most popular among American artists, but other works included animals, nicknames, hometowns, and popular song and movie titles. Some nose art and slogans imposed contempt to the enemy, especially to enemy leaders.

The farther the planes and crew were from headquarters or from the public eye, the racier the art tended to be. For instance, nudity was more common in nose art on aircraft in the Pacific than on aircraft in Europe.

Commercial airlines have continued this tradition with entire fuselages being created as expressions of art, some of the most amazing shown here.

Private Jets

Of course the private jet market is not immune to the creativity of its owners, whilst many of us may never see the interiors, we can admire the artistry of the owners on the tarmac.