The quintessential pinup girl tattoo is a throwback to a time when people had only one outlet for displaying and advertising sex symbols, a photograph or picture cut out from printed media. The origin of the term is a literal definition, as a woman so memorable that men would cut out her picture and pin it up to their wall, bunk, or locker. Often these were modified from photographs of the celebrities at the time that were considered to be sex symbols, with the main girl of the time being Betty Grable then with the rise of Pop culture, Marilyn Monroe.
Betty, and her legs, were the main girl to be seen in pictures carried by the GI’s of the time. During the war the pictures went from being on the walls of the bedroom into the pockets of soldiers as both a reminder of a beautiful girl who performed for troops, and as a little chunk of Americana to remind them who, and what, they were fighting for. The original posed photo of Betty is still in use today as a basis for the modern pinup tattoo. The real idea of a pin up girl is any girl who transmits the plain and simple sex appeal of a beautiful flirt. Often the tattoos of these girls will have them scantily clad and posing seductively to attract the eye. They serve to attract the eye with a coy smile and a promise of more waiting for them when the soldiers return home.
Fernande Barrey, a French model in the early 20th century, was one of the first models who posed with her breasts exposed and following this, the “Vargas’ girls” drawings featured in Esquire magazine became popular images for soldiers. These women were positioned in erotic poses either nude or semi-nude and became iconic as pinup images. The women were often designed wearing feminine forms of soldier’s uniforms in an effort to show America’s support of their armed forces during the second World War. The women are exclusively American although the concept has since been adopted to feature women of various ethnicities. “Petty girls” rendered by artists George Petty were another iconic pin-up image from the 1940s and 50s, although less nudity was incorporated into these. The efforts of these artists helped to maintain the morale of American men both at home and overseas while war was raging.
Larger pin-up pieces that are modelled after Alberto Vargas’ and George Petty’s designs include imagery that represents a specific branch of the military. A woman wearing a navy or sailor’s uniform may be encircled by anchors and nautical stars, while a soldier-themed piece may include medals or US army insignia.
Bettie Page, often referred to as the “Queen of Pin-ups”, is well-known for her black hair, blunt bangs, and blue eyes as well as her place in erotic photography in the 1950s-post-war period. She was involved in the first erotic photography that included bondage and is iconic for her bold and vibrant sexuality. She is generally depicted in revealing bathing suits, two-piece lingerie sets, or naked. For many women, Bettie Page has been an icon of scandalous beauty and desire that many try to emulate.
Pin-ups often took on special meaning for the troops and the times, so patriotic designs, hula girls, or state symbolism (cowgirls, California blondes, Southern belles) personalized the images. The Classic Pin-up, or vintage tattoo, harken back to Old school design in colors and style. The design is more animated than realistic and recall a simpler style that could be rendered easily with the tattoo equipment available decades ago. The modern Pin-Up has evolved into anything from Zombies to bright and cartoon-y smooth New School with the innovations in machine and ink technology.
The pin-up design has been modified often into an undead creature or zombie or introduces the skull or skeleton into the piece. In some designs, the sugar skull is used to create an image that incorporates both Dia los Muertos iconography and the pin-up concept with the female form. The manipulation of the pin-up girl into a monstrous creature satirizes the original idea of the erotic, lingerie-clad woman as a morale booster. Pirate-themed pin-up girl designs often hold the same intent as the pirate is a purveyor of lawlessness.
In modern designs, pin-up girls, and sometimes men, are designed in a variety of ways. The Pin-up girl tattoo design has always focused on a seductive girl as a representation of the female form. The designs focus on desire, whether male or female, as well as erotica and, somewhat contrastingly, wartime and post-war America. Many pin-up girls are rendered with tattoos and piercings themselves, delving further into the taboo. Whether boldly outlined Classic, or highly rendered Modern, it is a staple of body modification and adornment.