The lion may be the King of the Jungle, but when it comes to traditional tattoos, it’s the black panther perched at the top of the food chain. This iconic big cat is one of the style’s most impressive motifs, standing out from other designs because of its sleek black body and dramatic posturing. Evolving over the decades by taking on attributes that reflected the spirit of each new generation, the black panther has become timeless staple in the art form.
The origin of the crawling panther design has been traced back to a book called Minute Myths and Legends by Marie Schubert, which was published in 1934. No one knows who the first tattooist to tattoo it was, but some people speculate it was done by William Grimshaw in the 1940s, because of his set of flash sheets that share a striking resemblance to Schubert’s illustration. Over the course of the 20th century, countless tattooists have elaborated on the crawling panther, altering its form and adding in other imagery like snakes coiling around its muscular body or little red scratch marks at the tips of its claws.
They heyday of the the panther was during the ‘50s and ‘60s, when soldiers and greasers alike got tattoos of the apex predator in the wake of the boom in body art during World War II. It’s likely that so many of them choose the design because of its see-it-a-mile-away, tough-guy aesthetic, but some people think it’s because the dense shading of the design made a perfect cover-up. Thus it was used to mask regrettable stick and pokes gotten while in the pen or pinups after they were forbidden by the military. Whatever the true reason is, the black panther spread so quickly throughout the American scene that it was canonized almost immediately, becoming a pitch-black example of traditional tattoos at their fiercest.
To see more traditional tattoos, follow these artists on Instagram. If you want a classic crawling panther tattoo of your own, have one of them design an image of the jungle cat for you.
This look at panther tattoos was the most recent installment of Bold that Holds, our series where we look at the history and meaning of timeless traditional tattoo motifs. If you liked learning about this fearsome design’s origins, make sure to check out some of our previous posts about anchors, reapers, swallows, the Sacred Heart, and the Rock of Ages design.