Quick question: what’s generally slimy, suckered and sexy in a strange way?
Tentacle pin-up art is a curious subset of the wider pin-up culture that has a devoted following. Perhaps it was a natural evolution from the 1930s pulp serial stories cover art which often featured women being menanced by underwater beasties, or just as often, outer space beasties.
August 1936 issue of Spicy Adventure Stories, featuring cover art by HJ Ward.
Cover art for Bold Men from March 1961.
Though the modern era of tentacle pin-up may have gotten its western start in the pulps of the early 20th century, it’s true origin may date back even earlier. In 1814 Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai created The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, showing a female ama diver receiving pleasurable delight from a pair of octupues. The piece is widely accepted by art historians as the best-known form of shunga, which is Japanese illustrated erotica.
“Sexy sea life, mermaids and the erotic octopus are themes that recur throughout history,” writes art historian Michael Cary in his analysis of tentacle erotica in early 20th century paintings. Hokusai’s woodblock artwork may have inspired Pablo Picasso to create his own paintings which combine the form and shape of an octopus with female anatomy.
HP Lovecraft became a heavy influence on the more recent variants of tentacle pinup artworks. Lovecraft’s sunken demigod Cthulhu, his fish-faced minions that rise from the waters surrounding Innsmouth, and the ginormous insanity-laden Old Ones that lay out beyond the stars have all been perfect soil for pin-up artists to cultivate their talents in.
Basically, if the multi-libbed monster had some kind of tentacle that it could use to grab the pretty girl, or her clothing, then it was all fair game to play ball with.
The fantastic elements of sword and sorcery fantasy settings also lend themselves well to tentacle pin-ups. The chained princess in a dungeon cell, looking forward in shocked amazement and fright at the nightmare advancing towards her, as in the example below.
Artwork by Joe Jusko
But let’s get back to the basics. For every negative encounter with a probing proboscis, there may be two depicted as consensual encounters. Tentacle pin-up art has circled back to that erotic coupling involving the fisherman’s wife from 19th century Japan. Now it’s no longer damsels squealing in distress from the tentacles, but in delight.
More often than not, the women in the newer tentacle pinups are enjoying the affection from their repulsive suitor (usually off-panel.) These ladies aren’t seeking protection or rescuing. If anything, they’re enjoying spending some quality alone time with their special multi-limbed friend (with benefits.)
“Best Friends Forever” by Oliver Wetter
The world of tentacle erotica goes even farther than that. There’s a kind of Japanese hentai (tentai?) called shokushu goukan which explores, rather graphically, both consensual and non-consensual sex between tentacle creatures and women. Yes, it exists. No, we won’t show it to you. That’s what search engines are for. We’re about the sultry world of pin-ups, remember?
The tentacle pin-up art community seems to be running with the consensual relationship angle to these couplings. That makes much more sense since modern pin-up art incorporates empowering qualities in the model’s posing and situation/environment, and the choice of clothing and makeup styles. Viewed in that light, adding a few tentacles to the pin-up’s picture just means more things to hold (or caress, to squeeze, or to hug…you get the picture.)
Or if you don’t, you can see below:
“Pie Cthulhu” by Echo Chernik
So what may be at the root of tentacle pin-up culture? What sort of kink does it invite us to explore, or fantasize about?
“The number-one fetish women have is being dominated,” clinical sexologist Marlene Wasserman, aka Dr. Eve, once told Glamour. “So I can understand that this ‘tentacle porn’ could appeal to a genre of women—the idea of being tied down [and] dominated is highly arousing.”
Let’s zoom back a bit in pin-up history. Remember Betty Page and her backroom BDSM photos from the 1950s? That style of pin-up wasn’t in the mainstream until decades later. Perhaps today’s tentacle pin-up artists are remixing the tropes from those old 1930s covers with a playful interpretation. What if those tentacles are doing more than just tying up wrists and ankles for kinky foreplay? Maybe they’re an expression of a sexual escapism where there’s no need for a muscluar male form, and instead relies on a shape that mirrors the curves and contours of the feminine.
Pretty deep, right?
Whatever the case, these tentacle pin-up creations certainly capture a fun — and sometimes a bit more risqué — expression of pin-up art.
Artwork by Otto Schmidt