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 8th Air Force B-17 "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 mouths underneath the propeller spinner, initiated by German pilots in World War I. The cavallino rampante (prancing horse) of the Italian ace Francesco Baracca was another well-known symbol, as was the red-painted aircraft of Manfred von Richthofen. However, nose art of this era was often conceived and produced by the aircraft ground crews, not by the pilots.
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.
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, 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. Early in 1943, as the 39th distinguished itself in becoming the first American squadron in their theatre with 100 kills, unit esprit de corps led to the adoption of a "shark's teeth" motif for their P-38 Lightnings.
Tony Starcer was the resident artist for the 91st Bomb Group (Heavy), one of the initial six groups fielded by the Eighth Air Force. Starcer painted over a hundred pieces of renowned B-17 nose art, including Memphis Belle. A commercial artist named Brinkman, from Chicago, was responsible for the zodiac-themed nose art of the B-24 Liberator-equipped 834th Bomb Squadron.
In the Korean War, nose art was popular with units operating A-26 and B-29 bombers, C-119 Flying Boxcar transports, as well as USAF fighter-bombers. Thompson, Warren E., Heavy Hauler, "Wings of Fame, Volume 20". London, United Kingdom: Aerospace Publishing Ltd., 2000. ISBN 1-86184-053-5. page 107. Due to changes in military policies and changing attitudes toward the representation of women, the amount of nose art declined after the Korean War.
During the Vietnam War, AC-130 gunships of the U.S Air Force Special Operations Squadrons were often given names with accompanying nose art - for example, "Thor", "Azrael - Angel of Death", "War Lord" and "The Arbitrator." The unofficial gunship badge of a flying skeleton with a Minigun was also applied to many aircraft until the end of the war, and was later adopted officially.
Nose art underwent a revival during Operation Desert Storm and has become more common since Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The United States Air Force had unofficially sanctioned the return of the pin-up (albeit fully-clothed) with the Strategic Air Command permitting nose art on its bomber force in the Command's last years. The continuation of historic names such as Memphis Belle was encouraged.
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.
The Luftwaffe did not use much nose art, but Mickey Mouse adorned a Condor Legion Bf-109 during the Spanish Civil War and one Ju-87A was decorated with a large pig inside a white circle during the same period. Adolf Galland's Bf-109E-3 of JG 26 also wore Mickey Mouse in mid-1941. A Ju-87B-1 (S2+AC) of Stab II/St.G 77, piloted by Major Alfons Orthofer and based in Breslau-Schongarten during the invasion of Poland, was painted with a shark's mouth, and some Bf-110s were decorated with furious wolf's heads or shark mouths on engine covers. Another example was Erich Hartmann's Bf-109G-14, "Lumpi", with an eagle's head. A Bf-109g-10 (10 red) of I./JG 300, maintained by Officer Wolfgang Hunsdorfer, was flown by various pilots. In addition, the fighter wing Jagdgeschwader 54 was known as the Grünherz (Green Hearts) after their fuselage emblem.
Other fighter aces and their nose art have become synonymous.
The markings of aces were often adopted by their squadrons, such as Galland's Mickey Mouse and Hartmann's black tulip (still in use today on the aircraft of JG 71 "Richthofen").