TATTOO LORE: The Crawling Panther
The black panther design, particularly the "Crawling Panther," is one of the most iconic images in tattoo history and a powerful representation of American traditional style that emerged in the past few decades.
The appeal of this design is the dramatic and bold posture and the sleek flow, allowing for easy placement and sizing, all creating primal energy that makes this panther so attractive. The design is timeless and found unchanged since conception in any studio offering traditional tattooing today, as well as an ongoing reinterpretation by artists.
Today, we're looking at the tattoo origins of this flash staple and exploring how it became one of the most popular designs in traditional tattoos.
From as far back as 3,000 years ago, the panther has long been a symbol in art and mythology in many continents, featuring in Roman bronze sculptures, as well as Chinese art and military uniforms in both the Ming and Qing dynasties. In fact, this iconic creature has a dedicated sculpture that resides on the front lawn of the International School of Bangkok as shown in the image below.
Long before the internet became a readily available source of tattoo designs and access to global artwork, tattooists had to search far and wide for new tattoo design inspirations. Tattooists drew inspiration from books, illustrations, cigarette cards, and even advertisements; here, we find one of the key attributions for the crawling panther artwork.
In 1934 author Marie Schubert wrote and illustrated a book titled Minute Myths and Legends. This wonderful book contained many fantastic illustrations crediting Marie as an accomplished illustrator, one of which features the classic crawling panther design that is considered the direct source for the original tattoo flash.
At the same time Marie's book was published, another artist, Karl Godwin, had produced a similar image published just earlier in 1932. Karl was a Canadian who immigrated to the USA where he worked as an illustrator, painter, and etcher and taught commercial art at Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles from 1922-23. He produced several paintings featuring wild animals such as elephants, lions, and dogs, typically in circus scenes, that were sold for use by Ethyl Gasoline as part of their advertising campaigns, including a striking panther design published by Vanity Fair in 1932.
Many believe that the book by Marie Schubert is the original source of the crawling panther tattoo flash design. We can never be sure, while Marie using the Ethyl Gas advertisement as her source inspiration seems likely, these claims are not certain, as the crawling panther was inspired by a range of sources separate from tattooing.
So, who tattooed it first? We do have a few inclinations about its origin.
It has been speculated by industry professionals, including tattoo pioneer Don Ed Hardy, that the Virginia Tattooist Prof. William Grimshaw was the first to commit the design to tattoo flash sometime during the 1940’s and 50s. Prof. Grimshaw also became credited with creating one of the earliest Rock of Ages tattoo designs.
However, before Don Ed Hardy made this statement, he wrote in his publication of Tattoo Time that Amund Dietzel (another tattooist) may have first adapted the crawling panther design to tattoo.
This change in mind may be as Prof. William Grimshaw's drawings of the design surfaced after the Tattoo Time publication date, making it difficult to decipher who claims the “first” tattoo.
The Panther Hits its Stride
William Grimshaw's contemporaries quickly picked up the crawling panther design. It started to appear in flash from fellow tattooists Paul Rogers and Norman Collins (known better as Sailor Jerry) and soon followed into the globally sourced Milton Zeis flash, where it featured on a panther dedicated flash sheet.
Milton Zeis from Illinois, USA, was a tattoo artist and owner of a tattoo supply company. His supply company, Zeis Studio, became highly well-known among the tattoo industry as the first tattoo supply business to offer coloured flash.
When it was first offered in 1951, the Zeis Studio had become world-famous, and the panther flash held a dedicated space on the parlour walls where Zeis had established himself as an authority in tattoo design.
By this time, the panther was capturing the attention of tattooists on a global scale. Many lined up to access the panther inks to portray the creature in all its glory. The panther was seen as a symbol of strength and defiance, making it the perfect tattoo for those looking to make a statement.
The body art boom during World War II saw this apex predator tattoo design mass-produced, often used to cover up war injuries and scars of soldiers, as well as unwanted previous tattoo designs on their return home, with its solid black design and easy resizing. As tattoos became popularised with the return of sailors home, the black panther tattoo became a more mainstream design.
In the 1960s, tattooing started to take off in popularity, especially among the younger generations who were looking for a way to express their individuality. The black panther tattoo fit this bill perfectly, becoming one of the most popular tattoo designs of the decade. This popularity continued into the 1970s, with the black panther tattoo becoming an icon of both the tattoo world and pop culture at large.
The crawling panther image has been reimagined countless times over the years, but its original meaning remains: strength, power, and defiance.
As tattooing became even more mainstream in the 20th century, the black panther began to take on new meanings. For many tattoo enthusiasts, the panther represented grace, beauty, and mystery and the tattoo became increasingly popular with both men and women.
How the Panther was adapted and reimagined over time
Self-taught, New York Tattooist Thom deVita (1932-2018) added his own style to the crawling panther. Thom mainly worked independently, and rarely stuck to flash, pre-drawn designs. Every piece of work was unique, raw, and often abstract, with layered designs overlapping. Working from the lower east side of New York, Thom offered $30 fixed-price tattoos making them available to his local and blue-collar clientele.
Thom's distinction? His panthers often came with brutally long claws and blood marks or were embellished with additional designs.
Tattooist Don Ed Hardy's Freeway Panther tattoo is one of the most famous panther tattoos globally and one Ed has noted as one of his most extraordinary tattoos. Created in 1991 as a powerful statement on this icon of American Tradition tattooing, Ed and his customer Don Pugsley felt it was becoming lost as alternate styles became more popular.
The name Freeway Panther came as Don Pugsley wanted the tattoo subject to be "instantly readable to someone driving on the freeway."
An enormous panther head, neck, and bloody claw, this massive tattoo was a design collaboration over several years of planning before putting ink to the skin.
Tattooer Bob Roberts (1946-2022) had an insane number of legends showing him the ropes, starting under the tutelage of Bob Shaw and Colonel Todd and later working with Cliff Raven, Ed Hardy, and a host of legends. Bob created his unique tattoo style combining colourful and powerful graphics with intense compositions that often incorporated American tattoo flash iconography with classic biker imagery.
Bob's massive panther backpiece on fellow tattooer Edoardo Benazzi (@edo_ben_tattooer) ripples with strength as the classic and bold panther wrestles with a snake. The composition is simple and intense from one of the masters.
*Thank you to Edo for providing this photo and permission to publish this masterpiece.
New York-based tattooist Bert Krak is known for combining classic tattoo iconography with his distinct heavy bold lines and bright colours. His tattooing style gives his modern twist to long-standing designs while maintaining his work's traditional, historic feel. Bob works from his Smith St. Tattoo Parlour, where his shop is filled with flash, and you can find Bert's classic designs in his "Animal Heads" stencil book created with Mike Wilson.
Bert's massive panther mash-up with a Japanese body suit explodes with colour and textures, but still holds that solid, strong panther design unmistakable from any distance.
Crawling to Local Shores
Here are some of our recent favourites of the crawling panther tattoo from Australian and New Zealand artists today:
Today, the crawling black panther tattoo is still one of the most popular tattoo designs. Its sleek lines and dramatic posturing make it a timeless motif that continues to be an excellent choice for first-time tattooers and experienced ink enthusiasts.
Whether you have clients looking for a tattoo that is symbolic of strength and power or one that is simply elegant and beautiful, the black panther tattoo is a great option.
- Ed Hardy presentation, Bay Area Convention of the Tattoo Arts 2013
- Wear Your Dreams My Life in Tattoos, Ed Hardy with Joel Selvin
- @tattoo_origins Instagram and credits to @nickackman of @blueletterbooks and @Hastingstattoo
- AskArt.com for information on Karl Godwin
- New York Times 4th May 2018 Obituary for Thom deVita