The Pin-Up Tattoo
When the pin-up tattoo comes to mind, everyone thinks of sailors and the 1950’s American traditional tattoos that became a classic in tattoo history.
We all know, too, that they have become a staple in the tattoo industry.
But how did the idea come about? And, what various styles of pin-up girls are used today?
We will answer all of these questions and more.
If you are thinking about getting a pin-up tattoo, you are in the right place.
What is a Pin-Up Tattoo?
A pin-up tattoo is an image of a voluptuous woman that may be clothed or partially nude.
This tattoo must be tastefully designed to provoke a sexual connotation without looking like a spread in Playboy.
The woman typically has a large chest which is prominent in the tattoo design and the woman is posed in an erotic gesture that reveals parts of her cleavage, legs, stomach, or shoulders (depending on how much skin the artist decides to reveal).
Pin-up girls often have a theme and represent someone such as a racecar girl, a singer, Amelia Earhart, a nurse, an actress, the statue of liberty, a firewoman, or a sailor.
This theme is overtly sexual in nature and is reminiscent of costumes we see today in pornographic videos, to which many of these pin-up magazines were the precursor.
The clothing the pin-up girl wears is typically a low-cut shirt or dress, or simply a bra or some sort of lingerie.
On the bottom half she usually wears knee-highs, lingerie tights with thin straps, or fishnets (if anything at all).
And she always wears a pair of stilettos.
Her heels typically are not the main focus of her outfit, but they add sex appeal and flair of style to the ensemble.
As for hair and makeup, most likely from the tattoo’s origins, she wears a 1950’s style.
Her hair may be blonde with tight curls reaching down to her shoulders or just above the neck.
More modern style pin-up girls have long wavy brown hair with flowers behind their ears.
She also may be wearing a bandana, sailor hat, or a nurse’s hat if she is dressed in a nurse’s uniform.
The makeup is heavy with eye-shadow, dark mascara and eyeliner, clearly defined eyebrows, and a pouty lip usually in red.
There are many styles of pin-up girl tattoos today, and some may not look as traditional as previously described.
Depending on the theme of the tattoo, the girl may be dressed and styled very differently as modern variations take place and people play around with the original style of the traditional pin-up tattoo.
The History of the Pin-Up Tattoos
For desperate sailors at sea for months at a time without the company of a woman, the idea formed to bring one with him in the form of a tattoo.
The idea of the pin-up tattoo came of course from pin-up magazines, so it’s important to understand their history before we delve deeper into the pin-up tattoo’s past.
A Brief History of Pin-Up Magazines
Around the time of the 1890’s, pin-up magazines were in circulation and rapidly growing in popularity.
Pin-up magazines were meant to show women as idealized sex symbols.
At the time, it was assumed that if women were open to showing their bodies to the public then that meant they were also ‘easy’ or overtly open with their sexuality.
The creator of the concept of the pin-up magazine was Jules Cheret, an artist from Paris who wanted to create a magazine full of women who were young, sexually posed, and the epitome of voluptuous.
He was highly influenced by burlesque dancers and actresses of the time.
By the end of the century, the magazines took hold not only in France but around the world.
It’s important to mention Charles Gibson, who created the Gibson Girl in 1887.
He tried to create an image that combined every beautiful American girl into one compilation of a woman.
The Gibson Girl was more slender than the typical images of the time, yet still had a curvy body without being lewd.
Moving on in time, during WWII pin-up magazines such as Esquire became important for the military and were encouraged in order to improve morale.
Artists such as Vargas, Mozert, and Petty created illustrations that captured men’s wildest fantasies.
The most popular illustrations of pin-up girls of that time were Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable.
Pin-up magazines inspired the fashion and advertisements of the time and created stars.
In the 1950s, it was all about Marilyn Monroe.
She posed nude in a centerfold for Playboy in 1949 and everyone was talking about it.
Pin-up magazines turned to the camera to capture actual pin-up girls which revolutionized the industry.
Playboy was at the center of a sexual revolution, inspiring women to feel freer about their sexuality, while at the same time encouraging men to view women as sexual objects.
Pin-up magazines allowed the rigid terms on which women were allowed to express themselves opened up, while, on the other hand, exposing themselves to heavy criticism and demeaning views.
Nonetheless, pin-up magazines were an important part of the culture of the mid 20th century and were highly influential in many industries such as the movie industry, advertising, modeling, magazines (duh!), and were a huge part of military history.
During all these developments in the pin-up world, where did tattoos play a part?
Let’s look now at where pin-up tattoo history falls into place.
History of the Pin-Up Tattoo
The history of the pin-up tattoo is as old as the history of pin-up girls themselves; people have been getting pin-up tattoos for over a century.
Pin-up tattoos were most common for military men who wanted to express themselves.
Military men around the world and throughout history have chosen tattoos that express their individuality or, the very opposite, a symbol of their representation in that organization.
Called ‘nose art’, air force members in WWII even painted their planes with art similar to what they chose to put on their bodies.
Pin-up girls were part of ‘nose art,’ and this artistic movement was part of what inspired pin-up tattoos themselves.
A fact that is somewhat surprising is that before WWII, earlier in the century, the United States Navy banned ‘obscene’ tattoos to the extent that a man could not join the service if he had one visible.
Men who already had them were forced to wear clothing to cover their pin-up tattoos.
However, the use of pin-up tattoos really started in pick up in the 1940s.
In 1941, the word pin-up was first introduced into the dictionary.
This is probably due to the fact that so many men were using the term to talk about what they were seeing in the famous magazines and what they were designed for tattoos.
Military men in the 1940’s got tattoos to display their masculinity.
And what could be a better way to show that than a highly feminine pin-up girl on your shoulder?
Also, these members of the military never knew when their last day on Earth could be.
They desired a fantasy girl such as Betty Page to take with them, and be with them through life as a sort of permanent illustrated girlfriend.
That way, they could always have an image of a woman even while completely surrounded by men and constantly being in danger.
It’s like taking your dream girl with you on your journey!
We can’t leave pin-up tattoo history alone without discussing one of its most prominent tattoo heroes.
One of them was Sailor Jerry, who other than being part of many tattoo developments, was known for his pin-up tattoos throughout the 20th century.
Last but not least, it’s important to know about Dita Von Teese, a burlesque dancer (among other things) who is a more modern and highly famous pin-up girl.
She has appeared in Bizarre, Marquis, and Playboy, and as result has become a popular pin-up tattoo.
Pin-up tattoos today are still highly popular for men, and now women, to choose as an ode to femininity, sexuality, and the overall love we all have for beautiful women.
Pin-up Tattoo Styles and Their Meanings
You would think that American tradition is the only true way to get a pin-up girl tattoo– you’re wrong!
There are many types of styles in which pin-up tattoos can be done.
All of them look great and, when placed with the correct design, accentuate the meaning of the tattoo.
Let’s take a look at the different styles you can get a pin-up tattoo:
American Traditional Pin-Up Tattoo Style
The old-school style of American traditional is the most popular style for the pin-up tattoo for obvious reasons.
It typically shows the pin-up girl in a highly stylized voluptuous manner.
Its origin in American military history is why the American traditional style was used for decades until eventually branching out into newer forms of the pin-up.
American traditional pin-up tattoos are highly saturated and very simple.
The face of the pin-up girl may be formed with simple lines without adding extreme detail to the facial structure.
Their bodies may be outlined in black with their skin pigment filled in, in between the lines.
The pin-up girl’s hair may have highly dramatized highlighting, as well as on her legs using white ink and a tan skin-colored ink in high contrast.
The pin-up girl is often framed by American traditional flowers with long branches and leaves.
The girl may also be surrounded by simply outlined birds, in the traditional colors, red, blue, yellow, and green.
This American traditional tattoo means that you are dedicated to the traditional ways of life and traditional forms of beauty.
Neo-traditional Pin-Up Tattoos
These tattoos, as typically done in the Neo-traditional style, are portraits of pin-up girls in rich colors and with highly decorated backgrounds and foregrounds.
The decorations are typically large red roses with black outlines and green leaves.
Not just roses, but many flowers such as big yellow daisies.
The women are also decorated in heavy costume jewelry and wear a bandana or a hat.
Unlike the American tradition, the Neo-traditional tattoo style is not always about showing sexualized women.
This tattoo style shows women who are empowered and celebrate their beauty.
Portrait Pin-Up Tattoos
Another style of the pin-up is the outward portrait of a pin-up woman.
This tattoo typically is a portrait of an actress, burlesque dancer, or pin-up girls, such as Dita Von Teese or Marylin Monroe.
When deciding to get this style of tattoo, you have a range of favorite stars to choose from and that star can be shown in a provocative manner.
The pros of getting a portrait pin-up tattoo are that not only are you paying tribute to your favorite woman (whether you like them for their personality or sex appeal), but you are also receiving a tattoo of a beautiful voluptuous image that you can carry around with you.
New School Pin-Up Tattoos
This style of the pin-up girl takes on a whole new form.
The pin-up girl could have any color of skin and hair (blue, yellow, green, purple, what have you).
The background is often colorful too- it could have huge flowers, waves, fire, you name it.
The main thing that sets new school pin-up tattoos apart is the pin-up girls themselves.
The New School tattoo style is often influenced by pop culture including video games, comic books, and anime.
Some of these tattoos can border on cartoonish- which makes them extraordinarily new school.
This style of tattoo means that you are embracing a new form of beauty and aren’t afraid to make the provocative a little more interesting than the norm.
Pin-Up Tattoo Designs and Their Meanings
Pin-up girls come in many shapes in sizes.
It’s hard to pick out just a few of the designs they come in because there are so many ways to tattoo a pin-up girl.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular pin-up girl designs:
1950’s Style Pin-Up Girl Tattoo
One of the more popular designs for a pin-up tattoo, the 1950’s pin-up is reminiscent of the pin-up girls’ heyday.
This pin-up girl may be wearing 50’s style undergarments with thigh-high tights and, as always, heels.
She also often has her hair short and wavy/curly and usually is a blonde.
This design can be done in the American traditional style, holding a prop such as a piece of a ship or a camera.
This style also often depicts the pin-up girl in a sailor or nurse outfit, making the uniform alluring and revealing.
This tattoo is a symbol of feminine sexuality and traditional ways of life.
It is a symbol of a type of beauty that Marilyn Monroe represented: the curvaceous, happy, healthy women from back in the day were the most sexually appealing to some, and especially for those who want to get this tattoo.
We cannot end our discussion about 1950’s pin-up girl style tattoos without mentioning Gil Elvgren, who is up until today considered to be the best pin-up artist in history.
He was a pin-up illustrator and painter, showing 1950’s style pin-up girls in a mid-century setting, whether it be water-skiing in a bathing suit, posing erotically on the beach, or sitting in a slingback chair revealing her lingerie.
Considered ‘The Master’ of pin-up illustration, his work has been highly influential on tattoo artists who find inspiration for 1950’s style pin-up tattoos in his work.
Zombie Pin-Up Girl Tattoo
This tattoo can go two ways.
It can either be done in the American traditional style with exposed red flesh and wounds on her face or, it can be done the complete opposite with a new school style.
The new school style of this design often makes the pin-up girl green and sickly looking with long waving hair, her chest heaving, and covered in exposed bones and wounds.
Sometimes scary can be sexy.
Zombie pin-up tattoo has the same characteristics of a great horror movie, and it symbolizes the pin-up girl in a non-ordinary way.
Women Empowerment Pin-Up Girl Tattoo
There is also a very popular tattoo design involving the theme of women’s empowerment and is typically tattooed onto women.
This design can take many forms.
For the most part, this design either emphasizes a woman’s beauty or intelligence.
When celebrating a woman’s beauty, this tattoo may show a woman who is posed in a position of power and dominance, while looking aesthetically charming.
The pin-up girl may have tattoos herself, showing that she has chosen to embrace her own individuality.
When celebrating her intelligence.
The pin-up girl may be shown reading or surrounded by books.
Alternatively, she may be shown dressed in the uniform of a profession typically dominated by males.
No matter what the type of design, this tattoo symbolizes that women can take back the sexualized nature of the pin-up girl and make it their own.
Women can wear pin-up’s too.
Its meaning is also that women are not only supposed to be celebrated for their beauty but their brains as well.
Mermaid Pin-Up Tattoos
The mermaid pin-up tattoo is a perfect way to express sexuality.
As we know, the mermaid is typically already mostly naked.
Add some long flowing hair, seashells on her chest, and cover her body in waves, and you’ve got a perfect pin-up tattoo.
Often, sea kelp or some other ocean object covers her chest and her mermaid tail is covered in colorful scales.
This design can be seen in any style but is always both colorful and pleasing to the eye.
The mermaid pin-up tattoo symbolizes the ultimate beauty of women and the temptation their beauty creates.
Mermaids are sometimes viewed like sirens, who lure men from their ships into their death.
The mermaid pin-up tattoo’s meaning is that, metaphorically, women can sometimes be deadly (to the heart) and that you must be careful how far out you swim to reach them.
Dagger and Pin-Up Tattoos
The thought of women and daggers makes the circus and magicians come to mind.
It leads to visions of knife throwing at the circus and mystical women who live magical lives as travelers and who risk their lives to be models in dangerous shows.
This tattoo means that you are attracted to women who like a risk of danger.
Anime Pin-Up Tattoos
These highly colorful, often new school tattoos, depict anime characters from many online fandom and anime movies.
The doll-like anime pin-up girl could be in any range of outfits, including wearing a short skirt and a bralette with colorful stockings, or the character’s uniform or dress that it typically wears.
The character also may be holding a weapon like a long sword, or they may even be wearing sexual accessories such as a gag.
Anime pin-up tattoos not only mean that you’re a huge anime fan, and especially of that character, but that you also find the anime design allows you to explore your love of feminine sensuality more so than with a tattoo representing an actual person.
There’s nothing wrong with that- anime is an art form and people have been using art forms to express sexuality for centuries.
In fact, tattooing itself is an art form, so, if you find an anime character to be beautiful and want to express your love for femininity through that art form, that’s a wonderful way to celebrate the art of tattooing as well.
Male Pin-Up Tattoos
So far we have not discussed the phenomenon of the male pin-up tattoo.
These tattoos look kind of like the book covers of those romance novels you see in cheap book sections of stores- they are shirtless, they have long, flowing hair, and they have some chest hair.
One main difference between the male and female pin-up is that there’s less that needs to be covered up on the male.
He can simply have a conch shell, clothing, or a leafy branch covering his midsection.
He can even be shown from behind, showing off his rear end.
A lot of pin-up men are shown wearing sports uniforms, such as a helmet and a jersey, cut off to show more skin.
Male pin-up tattoos typically symbolize the beautiful bodies of males and celebrate the male figure.
Though not nearly as common as those of women, they do exist and are a great way to reverse the tide.
Pin-Up Nurse Tattoos
Tattoos of nurse pin-up girls are highly common and are typically done in the American traditional style.
They show a woman wearing a nurse’s hat, usually with heavily curled hair, and a nurse’s uniform where the sleeves are hanging down the girl’s arm or the uniform is opening at the chest.
The uniform usually ends at the bottom of the waist, and the look is completed by knee-high tights with straps and heels.
This tattoo has quite a basic meaning- nurses’ outfits can be seen as attractive, especially when the girl is fashioned in a provocative pose.
Sometimes, the nurse pin-up tattoo is in portrait form from the neck up with just a hat, curly hair, and perhaps a flower in the background.
This tattoo is an ode to the power of nurses everywhere and how important they are in society.
Pin-Up Geisha Tattoo
Being an unmarried woman meant to be available to please men, the geisha is the perfect subject of a sexualized pin-up tattoo.
The geisha pin-up tattoo is typically dressed in a traditional geisha outfit, sometimes revealing her shoulders, chest, or legs.
Her style typically has a new-school feel, with bright illustrative colors.
Geisha pin-up tattoos are all about the beautiful nature of women as well as the eroticism of a woman who is highly available.
If you are getting this tattoo, it may be because you want to show your masculine side.
It is also possible that you would get a geisha tattoo to simply show your love for the sensuality of women.
Circus Assistant Pin-Up Tattoo
This pin-up tattoo is influenced by the magic of the carnival and magicians.
The pin-up girl can be surrounded by daggers on a shield-shaped board as a dagger-throwing assistant.
She also may be poking her head out from a magician’s box, while her legs are sticking up from the other half of the contraption.
There are many different variations of the magician’s box rendition, including one where she is cut in half.
This tattoo not only reminds us of entertainers but emphasizes the magic of women.
Just as women in carnival and magic shows make the unreal occur in real life, this tattoo symbolizes how women can be unknowable and unattainable.
Their mystical beauty surpasses the physics of real life.
Pin-up tattoos have a rich history that can be told through their tattoo tradition living on for more and more decades.
The pin-up tattoo is more than just a sexual symbol- it can symbolize the empowerment of women (or men) and can express the beauty of women from outside and from within.
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Alyssa Renee McCormack is a writer, curator, and photographer who publishes articles on the topics of the arts, culture, and social justice. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in fashion business and art history and museum professions. Her experience working with a variety of art institutions, her world travel, and her inquisitive nature provides her with a unique insight. Check out her about page, she would love to connect with you!