If you have an aversion to displays of blotchy skin from ordinary people; if a man's hirsute armpits frighten you or you have been living on an otherwise uninhabited island and not yet realized that the once-marginalized art of human tattooing is now an omnipresent social phenomenon that has grown to become part of the social fabric of western culture, then I suggest you do not press on with reading this article. In 1976, as an assistant to a National Geographic photographer, I boarded the 300 foot ice-breaking cargo freighter MV Bill Crosby bound from Montreal, through the Straits of Belle Isle, to Hall Beach on the shores of Foxe Basin– one of Canada's remotest spots. As we got drunker, his tragic and disturbing story started to leak out of his mouth like a confession. Perhaps now you will understand why, in the 1980s, when tattooing started making inroads into middle class society through frat boys and debutantes, I became alarmed at the practice.
The first waves of this new tattoo era which lapped the shores of suburbia were not well received by my generation, nor were they understood.
What began to happen was that the plethora of tattooing going on led to better and better tattoo artists, better and safer parlours, and best of all, a greater generational understanding of the artistic and commemorative potential of permanently inking your body.
True, the aviation tattoo art niche is decidedly illustrative in character, as opposed to painterly or expressive, but if you visit anyone of the websites for tattoo studios and parlours mentioned in this story, you will see works of exceptional creativity, expression, and complexity.
Ryan's Tattoos in Flight website can be described as what you get when you mate Ray Bradbury's short story compilation The Illustrated Man with the novel Twelve O'Clock High and John Wayne's film, Flying Tigers. One thing I saw clearly during my research was that not all tattoos are well done or well advised. Aviation is more, so much more, than power settings, pilot reports, factory outputs, acronyms, performance statistics, aircraft markings, technical minutia and squadron movements.
One does not have to tattoo an image of an airplane on one's body to qualify as having an aviation tattoo. Of all the tattoos about aviation, the ones that strike a resonant chord with me are those beautiful portraits of aviators that have passed away and are honoured by a family member or enthusiast with a black and grey tattoo.
Undoubtedly, tattoo artist Brett Barr is one of my favourite of all the wonderful artists I have seen doing research for this story. Canadian tattoo artists prefer Canadian subjects like this colourful calf tattoo of a pair of Spitfires in flight over a field of poppies. The best Spitfire tattoo I came across was this fabulous arm sleeve of two Spitfire Mark Vs (one large glycol radiator on the starboard wing and a small oil heat exchanger on the port) overflying a gorgeous British-style locomotive belching vast quantities of smoke and steam. A well executed tattoo of an RAF 58 Squadron Spitfire by Gonzalo at Taste the Rain Tattoo Studio. Derek Rust took this photo of his friend Rachelle, an aeronautical engineering student at the Ohio State University who was recently apprenticing at Boeing.
When Chelsea Hicks had this simple solid black image of a delicate monoplane tattooed on her shoulder, she had a compelling desire to do so. One of the things that makes tattoos featuring aircraft so challenging is the amount of detail that many aircraft require to look accurate. A dramatic black and grey arm tattoo of a P-51 Mustang shooting down a Luftwaffe adversary with guns blazing away and empty machine gun cartridges tumbling from the ejectors. This British man had a leg wrapped in a montage honouring the legendary P-51 Mustang – a most favourite of subjects for aviation tattoo artists. A crowded and busy scene of a European Theater dogfight with North American P-51 Mustangs and German aircraft loosely based on the Messerschmitt Bf-109 and the Focke-Wulf FW-190 – with propellers thrashing, bullets flying and aircraft zooming everywhere. Speaking of loyalty to a brand, our own volunteer extraordinaire, Stéphane Ouellet, who had our logo tattooed on his calf.
It’s a common practice for those in the armed forces to permanently commemorate their service in the form of a tattoo. A powerful image of a man in Borneo who left to go to work in Seria (Brunei) in 1974, and he commemorated his first trip ever on an airplane (a Malaysian Airline System flight from Kuching to Miri) with this tattoo. This tattoo of a DC-10 was created by artist Eddie at Skin Factory Tattoo in Las Vegas, Nevada for a client who wished to commemorate his father's service with Northwest Airlines and his inspirational fatherhood. My Father, a 39-year Northwest Airlines Captain passed away after a four and half year battle with cancer. The Il-2 Shturmovik was a Soviet ground attack aircraft of the Second World War built in mind-boggling numbers -– more than 36,000 in all. The Curtiss P-40's aggressive looking nose with chin intake makes it one of the most popular subjects for aircraft tattoos.
A Flying Tigers P-40 Warhawk with shark mouth and Nationalist Chinese markings blazes away at a Japanese adversary, after dispatching another Mitsubishi Zero fighter. This great half sleeve featuring two B-24 Liberators working their way through heavy flak, while dropping their payloads, was created by tattoo artist Travis Grabhorn of Patriot Tattoo located in Spring Valley, California. Jonny Breeze created this tribute tattoo for a client whose grandfather was a gunner on Lancasters during the war. 460 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force Avro Lancaster NE141 was shot down on the 21st of November 1944 during a night raid to Aschaffenburg, Germany. Lancaster NE 141 took off from RAF Binbrook at 1537 hours on 21 November to bomb Aschaffenburg, Germany. Every tattoo artist, like his or her oil painting, watercolouring or bronze sculpting colleagues, has a unique style, a sense of form and palette. One of my favourite types of tattoo is the simple heavy black ink silhouette like this top-lit Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress done in the style of legendary British graffiti artist Banksy.
Colourful aerial combat in the Pacific theatre combined with an image of a sultry blonde speaks volumes about the testosterone-charged world of aerial combat in the biggest war ever fought. This beautiful backpiece tattoo featuring a pair of olive-drab USAAF P-38s in formation is done on a young woman's back as a tribute to her grandfather.
While the F-14 Tomcat may be history, its Air Force contemporary, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, is alive and well and flown by several air forces around the world.
I have made no bones about the fact that the Martin B-26 Marauder, built near Baltimore, Maryland during the war, is one of my favourite aircraft designs of the Second World War. The Vought F4U Corsair is one of the most frequently tattooed warbirds out there, but seeing an example painted in the markings of the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm is rare indeed This tattoo was accomplished by Vincent Meyer for a client in Salmon Arm, British Columbia.
While the image of that first flight of the Wright Brothers at Kill Devil Hills is forever tattooed in the memories of any aviation-loving person, it is certainly reinforcement when one has it tattooed on his inner arm forever.
While the Mustangs and Warhawks dominate the dermis of aviation fans, less common types are still to be found. Near where I work is a place called The House of Barons where a man, a real man, can get a shave and a haircut while watching war movies, westerns and old episodes of Dogfights.
Some more complex tattoos are in fact complete tableaus depicting aerial battles and grouping elements into a thematic montage. Airplane tattoos don't always have to be about heavy bombers, flame covered shark-mouthed fighters or mayhem, they can celebrate the joy of the ordinary aircraft and the achievement of becoming a pilot.
Finally, we end on the image we started this story with, perhaps the most striking of all the tattoos in this genre.
This tattoo of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh by famed tattoo artist Shotsie Gorman was featured in countless magazines and exhibitions after it was completed.
A year after this story was published, a young French warbird enthusiast, Gauthier Boucher came upon this story and was inspired to go ahead and create a tattoo of a P-51D Mustang. Not a long time ago, I was considering to be inked on the forearm with a warbird, so I searched the web for for inspiration. Well, thanks to this find of yours, I pinned down what I wanted to ink on my forearm, and went looking the web for "warbird silhouette" and such things. For this fellow is now part of me until the day I die, I felt like I was going to the web, find your article back and write you a little something to thank you for your help. I am a 61-year old man, paunchy around the edges, with an ever-expanding universe of liver spots, fading in self-esteem and I come from a post-war era when non-societally-mandated tattoos were found only on men who inhabited the fringes of acceptable behaviour. It was late October and this was to be the last voyage north with supplies for isolated Arctic communities. By the time we were near the bottom of that bottle of Jim Beam, he had admitted to me that he had just gotten out of prison where he had served 6 years for attempted murder having botched the shotgunning of his girlfriend in his home. I, like many of my generation, whose young daughters were contemplating the idea, was appalled by the seemingly careless defacing of youthful dermis, all in the name of fashion.
Truthfully, even those who got tattoos in those days did not truly come to grips with the true potential of tattooing as an art form, as an expression of personal commitment, passion and as a statement of one's persona or a recounting of one's history. Their bodies, over a lifetime, become a minor art gallery, showing a form of art long reviled by traditional artists.
First, my daughter got her first tattoo - a simple line drawing of a Supermarine Spitfire in plan view on her lower back.
It is filled with hundreds of images of aviation-themed tattoos combined with excellent and well written historic and social histories of the aircraft depicted. I saw lots of human wreckage and some pretty scary things, but I saw a lot of glorious things too. If the concept of flight represents, for you, the notions of freedom, exhilaration, unbounded joy and release from the daily grind, then, in fact, you are an aviator, whether you own an airplane or have earned your wings of gold. Usually a favourite vintage photo is used and, with a quality tattoo artist, the result is powerful, emotional and poignant. As an artist myself, I think of how difficult it is to do such a thing and how easily it could all go south, causing the artist to start over.
If you can’t afford to buy your own Spitfire, you can at least have a permanent homage to the famous fighter tattooed on you!
Here we have a 127 Squadron Spitfire in D-Day stripes and a shark's mouth done by Kasbah Tattoo Studio in Leicester, England.
This tattoo wearer learned how to fly at a back-patio flight school at the famous Van Nuys Airport in the Los Angeles area. As a result, airplane tattoos generally work better when they cover a larger part of the body rather than small areas… backs and torsos seem to work especially well. Artist David Newman-Stump of Skeleton Crew Tattoo in Columbus, Indiana created this beautifully shaded and highlighted image - in fact his first aviation themed tattoo. This is one of my favourite tattoos I found during my search – A North American P-51 Mustang with a Vargas-style pin-up nose art figure. Just as sailors collected tattoos for centuries on their visits to exotic ports of call to remember their travels, today’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen (and women) do the same to remember that part of their life which helped shape their adulthood. He has been my greatest inspiration to follow my dreams and take to the sky to leave my own contrails. While there is only one recently finished flying example in the world today, its story remains iconic of the determination and sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War.
This tattoo, by Chris Stans of Kapala Tattoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba was created for a client in mid 2008.
Here the artist has combined the classic shark-mouthed P-40 Warhawk image with hot rod custom flames for a super aggressive look on this man's forearm. One could simply be a lover of vintage aircraft or history like myself or perhaps one only thinks it looks cool.
460 was a hard bitten Bomber Command Squadron and lost 200 aircraft and 1018 airmen over the course of the war, out of a total of 2730 men who served with the Squadron.
The attention to detail and craftsmanship in this piece is simply breathtaking – especially so when you realize the extreme curvature of the man's shoulder.
The red hue in this and other images of tattoos in this story indicates that the tattoo has been recently worked on. This particular tattoo won Best Tattoo of the Day at the Body Art Expo in Pomona, CA in January 2009.
Its broad shouldered, somewhat overpowered look makes it a true muscle car of medium bombers.
This detailed B-26 Marauder tattoo was created by tattoo artist Carlos Rubio, owner of Disciple Tattoo in Chandler, Arizona. The CF-105 Avro Arrow is a legendary interceptor design that captured Canadian imaginations during the cold war in the same way that the Spitfire spoke to the British a decade and a half before. But aviation tattoos are not really easy to find, and for most of them, not worth a find, for I'm really demanding on shapes, and realism.
Here, as a long haired, snot-nosed civilian puke with no apparent mojo and dressed in flared pants and platform shoes, I was served at the linen covered dinner table of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Mess by 50-something stewards with lengthy military careers written in the lines of their faces - thirty years of heavy smoking and alcohol abuse.
The crew, save for two young French Canadians, were from Newfoundland and had made their living upon the sea for decades. The tattoo world that grew in those early years was a clutter of meaningless butterflies, inscrutable Asian lettering, faux gangsta posturing written in Gothic letters, barbed wire, and hilariously bogus tribal designs.
Like any art form, there are the good and the bad, but when it's good, it is indeed impressive. She did this to commemorate her grandfather's RCAF wartime service as a BCATP instructor and Photo Reconnaissance Spitfire pilot as well as her dad's passion for all aspects of aviation. Perhaps there is no purer display of the appreciation of all that flight can be than to tattoo the opening lines of the greatest poem ever written about flight–John Gillespie Magee's High Flight, written in the winter of 1941 after flying a Spitfire at 30,000 feet.
Then I think of doing the same thing on the inside of a man's arm with its soft, giving compound curves and I offer up the highest of kudos to artist Brett J. It must be extremely difficult to draw the soft, hazy and transparent blurs associated with spinning propellers, for many artists simply freeze the props in motion or handle them in a different way from the rest of the work.
Despite crashing his other model and badly burning his foot from a gasoline leak, Blériot remained determined to win the "Daily Mail's" prize for the first successful crossing of the English Channel by plane.
The airport, featured in the 2005 documentary One Six Right, remains the World’s busiest General Aviation airport and has been home to many aircraft, including many P-51 Mustangs over its history. This magnificent masterpiece was created by tattoo artist extraordinaire Kevin Patrick of State of Art Tattoo at the Arizona Tattoo Expo 2012. Homemade tattoos when done with commitment as this one is, have a singular menace to them yet clearly this is only a celebration of an important event.
The DC-10 was his favorite aircraft and I could think of no better way to represent that than on my chest!” No better reason for a tattoo. But many of the tattoos featuring Second World War fighters and bombers are created and the pain endured to honour the memory of a father or most likely a grandfather who flew or was aircrew during the war. One of the best works I have run into, this RAF B-25 Mitchell was done by Mark Lazio of Ground Zero Tattoo in Riverside, CA. This is a spectacular piece which, if the young lad stays in shape, will continue to impress everyone. Perhaps its characteristics of reliability, simplicity and strength are admired by this young man.
And like the thundering muscle cars of the 1960s and 70s, it can be a lot to handle for an inexperienced driver. Not only is the Marauder one of my favourite aircraft, this work by Rubio is also one of my favourites, with its somber light, chalky camo paint and nicely rendered paneling.
Trained at our Corsair ground school, Devon can expound on hydraulic systems and wing folding as well as body piercing and Harley maintenance. The government cancelled the massively expensive project for the RCAF with only a half dozen or so prototypes built and in so doing set back the Canadian aerospace industry by years. The gathering of tattoos, the different styles you showed in it allowed me to think about what I was not looking for and actually, looking for. As they leaned in to take my plate or pour me another glass of ice water, their tattooed arms would pass before my eyes, drawn across them blue, barely understandable tributes to places, women, events and units they once loved - Latin phrases, waving flags, hangman's nooses, daggers dripping blood, the crudely etched names of places I had only heard of (Subic Bay, Kyrenia, Shilo, Marseilles), the names of ships long ago scrapped (Haida, Swansea, Qu'Appelle) and the names of women once loved (Rose, Paulette, Sweet Cindy). By this time, being destabilized by the storm, the overhead roar of the diesel, my murderous friend's admission, the oven-like heat of the steel box we were drinking in, and eight whiskies I had consumed, I started to fear for my life. To see a twenty-something college freshman in a wife-beater t-shirt with an arm wrapped in a Polynesian tribal tattoo of which he knew nothing (but all his buddies were getting them) made me angry. This young lady wears on her back these immortal words in memory of her deceased and missed father. During his training, our subject became friends with a fellow student pilot at the club, a Russian native who also happened to be a talented tattoo artist from Hollywood. The team knows they have to reach out and engage the kids and youth of Canada using fun swag like temporary tattoos.
Twenty three aircraft from the squadron took part in the raid and two of these including NE141 failed to return.
Perhaps, later in life when he is carrying a beer and wings belly and a coat of mid-life hair, this will lose some of its lustre.
Before I staggered out of there, all I could see were his forearms and those blurry, crude and menacing tattoos. Worse were the thousands of suburban coed debutantes from Mississauga to Shaughnessy sporting cute little dragonflies, flowers, rainbows and bluebirds. I say this with the full knowledge that I would never do this to myself nor am I entirely happy that my daughter did it. Secondly, while researching the web nearly every day, I began to come across some outstanding airplane and aviation tattoos, beautifully crafted by talented artists. Barr was working for Built 4 Speed Tattoo of Orlando, Florida when this work was completed. We at Vintage Wings are doing much the same by running a story that resonates with a younger generation. Following postwar enquiries it was established that the aircraft crashed on 21 November at Damm, a suburb of Aschaffenburg. On the inner arm of Greg Diamond, this skull and Spit was created by Jimmy at Lotus Land Tattoos in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was evident to my eyes, fresh from 5 years of architectural training, that these were executed by some of the least talented artists known to man. The cabin was filled with the smell of diesel, bunker oil, fried caplin, paint, vomit and body odour. But I love her and am satisfied that she thought it through and chose to connect her tattoo with a part of her that is important - her family.
Despite my dislike of tattooing as I had known it, I began to grudgingly appreciate the good stuff. This story had me enamored from my first encounter with it and for me this tattoo is an inspiration and reminder to be bold and brave, to continue propelling myself forward as a traveler and to never stop getting lost amidst the sea”. Since both were aviation fans, they talked about a deal to create an elaborate piece for the subject.
The tattooing community knows it and folks who have tattoos on their bodies think of themselves as collectors in the same manner as a wealthy art collector. The temperature was unbearably hot despite the dark icy waters and thrashing arctic storm outside. Between the two of you, you come up with a design on paper and book successive appointments to begin and finish the execution.
The names of PO McMaster, FO Pettiford and FO Stewart are recorded on the Memorial to the Missing, Runnymede, Surrey, UK. The ship rolled and pitched violently and the windowless cabin rose and fell forty feet for hours on end.
Many have a relationship with their tattoo artist similar to the one that they have with their hairdresser. Ryan, an avowed tattoo fan and an aviation historian of some repute (he is an Associate Editor with the Warbird Information Exchange and the Warbird Resource Group) had been seeing, long before me, the powerful growth in the niche art form of aviation-themed tattoos. Also incorporated into the design was the tail-number of the Cessna 172 he first soloed in, his lucky number as the squadron number on the fuselage and his last name as the nose art. Flt Sgt’s Herbertson, Jones and Chandler are buried at Durnbach War Cemetery, Germany. The steward sat at a table upon which he leaned his elbows and filled his and my glass after every shot.
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