Nose art is a decorative painting or design on the fuselage of an aircraft, usually chalked up on the front fuselage, and is a form of aircraft graffiti.
While begun for practical reasons of identifying friendly units, 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. In addition, it relies on materials immediately available.
Nose art is largely a military tradition, but civilian airliners operated by the Virgin Group feature "Virgin Girls" on the nose as part of their livery. In a broad sense, the tail art of several airlines such as the Eskimo of Alaska Airlines, can be called "nose art", as are the tail markings of present-day U.S. Navy squadrons. There were exceptions, including the VIII Bomber Command, 301st Bomb Group B-17F "Whizzer", which had its girl-riding-a-bomb on the dorsal fin.
The practice of putting personalized decorations on fighting aircraft originated with Italian and German pilots. The first recorded piece of nose art was a sea monster painted on the nose of 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, as were the red-painted aircraft of Manfred von Richthofen. Nose art of that era was often conceived and produced not by the pilots, but rather the aircraft ground crews.
Other World War I examples included the "Hat in the Ring" of the American 94th Aero Squadron (attributed to Lt. Johnny Wentworth)and the "Kicking Mule" of the 95th Aero Squadron. This followed the official policy, established by the American Expeditionary Forces' (AEF) Chief of the Air Service, Brigadier General Benjamin Foulois, on 6 May 1918, requiring the creation of distinct, readily identifiable squadron insignia. What is perhaps the most famous of all nose art, the shark-face insignia made famous by the American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers, first appeared in World War I on a British Sopwith Dolphin and a German Roland C.II, though often with an effect more comical than menacing. Three decades later, the British pilots spotted it on German planes during the World War II. The American Volunteer Group (AVG) in China decided to paint shark mouths on their P-40Bs after seeing a color photo in a newspaper of a the shark mouth painted on a No. 112 Squadron RAF P-40 fighter in North Africa, with the British version itself inspired by "sharkmouth' nose art without any "eyes", on the Bf 110 heavy fighters of ZG 76.
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 WWII was the shark-face motif, which first appeared on the Bf-110s of Luftwaffe 76th Destroyer Wing over Crete, where the twin-engined Messerschmitts 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.