ORIGINS OF ICONIC TATTOO IMAGERY: CLASSIC AMERICAN TATTOOING: PART 3: PANTHERS
Panthers hold a secure spot in the top ranks of classic American tattoo imagery. These animals, lithe and powerful, have been marking the bodies of Americans, arguably, for almost a century, and there’s no signs that they’ll stop any time soon.
Now, there’s no telling who tattooed the first panther in America; if I had to guess, I’d place my bets on Samuel F. O’Reilly, the first man to open up a tattoo shop on American soil, or maybe even the likes of Charlie Wagner or Ed Smith. That being said, the classic image of the panther crawling, head looking over its shoulder to roar, can be traced back to a book called “Minute Myths and Legends” written by a woman named Marie Schubert in 1937. Marie Schubert had only introduced the position to modern times, though. The shape can be found imprinted in ancient Chinese bronze some 3,000 years ago (I say “shape” as opposed to “panther” because tigers and other large cats can be found imprinted during this time in the same position).
According to Ed Hardy, the Schubert panther was most likely first utilized for tattooing by William Grimshaw, who drew a set of flash featuring it not long after the book was published. The popularity of the image was only heightened when other artists like Paul Rogers and Sailor Jerry began redrawing it and tattooing it onto their clients. Hardy also mentioned that a tattoo artist by the name of Milton Zeis drew up some flash containing panthers in the popular Schubert position with many varying details: some had blood drops near their claws, some battled snakes, and they were all different sizes. This set of flash was the bread and butter of panther tattooers in the late 1940s through the mid 1950s.
However, the Schubert panther was not the only popular way to tattoo panthers. Many other designs exist: a panther crawling straight on, a panther roaring at their onlookers, a side profile of a growling panther. Some have daggers through their heads, others are designed to look like they are popping out of roses or their wearer’s skin. Whatever their position, panther is an iconic part of American tattooing.
These tattoos were popular among military servicemen, symbolizing strength, honor, valor, reserved power, “the feminine divine’s beauty,” and freedom. The panther was originally tattooed on the arms and legs in order to better flow with the muscles and natural curvature of the body. As the image gained more popularity, though, people started getting them tattooed on chests and backs among other places.
The panther, with its variability in meaning and design, reigns high in the world of classic American tattooing. From the 40s onward, their iconic style has made for a readable, impactful image that appears to have no intention of quitting. If you seek a panther tattoo of your own, we encourage you to stop by our shop sometime where we’ll be glad to set you up with killer iconic panther.