U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships | Camouflage Unit

The idea of painting a ship in odd patterns is credited to British artist Norman Wilkinson during the time of the first world war. The concept – which became known commonly as “dazzle” – was an attempt to confuse German U-boats by making a ship’s course and speed difficult to judge, and thus difficult to torpedo. The technique was eventually adopted by the American Navy in 1918 and the practice continued (mostly by the U.S.) throughout WWII. It was during the 1930s and 1940s that a standardized set of ship camouflage patterns were adopted and deployed across all Tennessee class battleships and Essex class aircraft carriers by the camouflage unit of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships.

The practice was ended after WWII, but the more time I spent in the U.S. Navy’s (online) archive, the more I liked these WWII era warship dazzle plans. I want to buy one and hang it in my office. To see these ships in real life must have been truly astonishing. And also, probably pretty strange and or scary depending on the circumstances.

Comments on “U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships | Camouflage Unit

    L.A.S on March 30, 2010 12:10 AM:

    Simply awesome.

    Josh on March 30, 2010 12:11 AM:

    If you haven’t seen it, the art collector / greek shipping magnate Dakis Jannou had his yacht painted by Jeff Koons in a “razzle dazzle” fashion: http://www.artnewsblog.com/2008/09/dakis-joannous-jeff-koons-yacht.htm

    a lovely being on March 30, 2010 12:36 AM:

    Very cool. Would look awesome hanging in an office :)

    dave on March 30, 2010 1:00 AM:

    Cool, especially the first boat. but (and I’m not trying to be a smart ass) why wouldn’t you paint a war ship to same color as the ocean to camouflage it?

    dave on March 30, 2010 1:02 AM:

    foot in mouth, I should have read everything first.

    Johan on March 30, 2010 3:15 AM:

    IIRC the Fred Perry x & Son Blank Canvas collaboration a few years ago resulted in a collection of Dazzle pattern polo shirts.

    Jon on March 30, 2010 3:53 AM:

    Also inspired the album title and sleeve art of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s album ‘Dazzle Ships’

    Jeff on March 30, 2010 8:33 AM:

    Certainly makes those badass ships look even more badass!

    corkgrips on March 30, 2010 9:48 AM:

    @josh – that boat is excellent, BMW chose him to paint the next art car.. i wonder what he’ll come up with? hopefully something better than Olafur Eliasson’s art car!

    Mtabor on March 30, 2010 10:59 AM:

    I love battleships in my RSS feeds. Thanks much!

    Oh Wow on March 30, 2010 1:03 PM:

    @Dave. A ship painted the same color as the ocean is still screwed once it’s spotted. The point of dazzle camo is to confuse the heading, it’s very impressive stuff when you look at it to scale, it really becomes hard to tell where something begins or ends.

    There’s a few buildings in Albuquerque painted in dazzle, curious what the story behind it is.

    nick on March 30, 2010 1:14 PM:

    RISD had a nice exhibit on dazzle last year. I believe there was a dedicated website. I will try and dig it up.

    evencleveland on March 30, 2010 1:59 PM:

    Completely fantastic.

    Once Upon A Time on March 30, 2010 3:23 PM:

    Jon’s my new best friend with that OMD reference.

    Evan on March 31, 2010 1:45 AM:

    I am very interested in this type of design and I took upon myself to see if I could find prints or posters of these design layouts. I took a cue from a previous post about RISD and I found this website. The prints are kind of expensive but very unique and very cool. If you click the next or back button there are a number of different designs.

    Thad on March 31, 2010 7:46 AM:

    You can purchase some images of dazzled ships from the Imperial War Museum, like http://www.iwmprints.org.uk/image.php?id=377642&idx=5&fromsearch=true

    The IWM also has more information about the early development of camo – http://www.iwm.org.uk/upload/pdf/DespatchCamouflage.pdf – and I would suggest that if you like to look through online archives, to visit their Collections Search – http://www.iwmcollections.org.uk/qryMain.php – because they have a lot of interesting posters and pieces about dazzle.

    Charles on March 31, 2010 7:55 AM:

    I don’t know how old you are, but when I was still in high school, back in the early 80’s, one of my favorite doom gloom synth bands, Orchestral Manouevers in the Dark, had an album titled, ‘Dazzle Ships’. The signature dazzle pattern was prominently displayed on the album cover. I owned that album for quite some time before I learned that “Dazzle Ships” referred to something real. It seemed so surreal and made-up. I mean, the military must have had some very creative people to come up with that pattern, considering the time period and stuffy, conservative reputation they have. I later learned that the navy stopped using those patterns because it was argued that they did nothing to camouflage the ship – the patterns were found to do the opposite.

    OMD still put out music and even tour from time to time.

    -Charles Roland

    Tom on April 1, 2010 8:53 AM:

    I did some research into Dazzle painting for a project on a canal boat here in the UK (pics here: http://www.simonandtombloor.co.uk/page16.htm and here: http://www.ikon-gallery.co.uk/programme/past/event/322/hey_for_lubberland/)
    Some of the original dazzle patterns are really amazing – it’s a shame colour photography wasn’t in general use because so many images are in just black & white, but a number of designs were colourful and must’ve looked pretty great.
    Someone mentioned the RISD site above and maybe someone already posted this link but there’s loads of stuff here: http://www.risd.edu/dazzle/
    As for printed material there’s a pretty good book by Albert Roskam called Dazzle Painting: kunst als camouflage, camouflage als kunst which seems incredibly hard to find and is also all in Dutch (which I can’t read, but the pictures are good!), but Amazon have Naval Camouflage 1914-1945: A Complete Visual Reference by David Williams and Camouflage and Art: Design for Deception in World War II by Henrietta Goodden. False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage by Roy R. Behrens has some interesting stuff in it too.
    It’s always good to see more Dazzleness!

    Nick Heywood on April 1, 2010 9:56 AM:

    My great aunt Bernadine was in some way involved with the design of these or other Dazzle Ship patterns, and I’ve always wished I knew more about her work on them.

    And yeah, the RISD Library show was pretty excellent, and if you were lucky enough to see it in person there were some fun brochures and other ephemera.

    Dylan Adair on April 4, 2010 12:38 PM:

    That OMD album artwork was done by none other than Peter Saville. It’s not the album cover of his that gets the most attention, but it is – in my opinion – one of his finest.

    He discusses it during this interview with Arkitip:

    from last year.

    Specifically at the 3:00 mark.

    A nice little piece…

    TJean Petro on April 12, 2010 2:12 PM:

    RISD | Works is releasing 10 prints a year to preserve their funding for the Fleet Archive. Worth checking out all 10 of them here(60$): http://www.risdworks.com/search.aspx?SearchTerm=dazzle

    REP96st on April 13, 2010 12:02 PM:

    Did ya’ll peep the Statue of Liberty in the background of the first pic? NYC.

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