Skip to content
TATTOO LORE: Pharaoh's Horses

TATTOO LORE: Pharaoh's Horses

Welcome to Tattoo Lore, where we explore the history and symbolism behind some of the world's most iconic tattoo designs. In this instalment, we delve into the cultural significance of Pharaoh's Horses. From the majestic horses that symbolise power and nobility to the intricate art and architecture that continue to inspire artists and historians, Pharaoh's Horses offers a window into the rich history and legacy of one of the world's most captivating civilisations.

History and Cultural Significance of Pharaoh's Horses Tattoo Design

The source of the Pharaohs' Horses tattoo design is commonly known; it is an exact copy from a painting produced by the British painter, J F Herring Snr, called "Pharaoh's Horses". The painting "Pharaoh's Horses" is so named because it depicts three horses that are thought to be of the Arabian breed, believed to have originated in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arabians were prized horses that wealthy and powerful individuals, including Egyptian pharaohs, often used.Pharaoh's Horses Original Painting

In addition to their cultural significance, Arabian horses were known for their speed, agility, and endurance, making them popular for use in racing and other equestrian competitions. The title of the painting also suggests a connection to ancient Egypt, where horses were highly valued and used in various roles, including transportation, warfare, and sport.

This makes sense given the initial and similar painting by the artist "Pharaoh's Chariot Horses", which featured an ancient Egyptian war chariot in a race.

The Painting

"Pharaoh's Horses" is a small painting compared to typical works by the artist and was created in 1870, after the earlier painting "Pharaoh's Chariot Horses", considered one of his finest pieces.

The painting features three Arabian horses in a dynamic composition, set against a dramatic sky. The horses are shown in full gallop, with their manes and tails flowing in the wind and their muscles tense and powerful.

The painting is an excellent example of Herring's equestrian paintings, demonstrating his skill at capturing the power and beauty of horses in motion. It was considered notable for its technical skill and attention to detail, particularly in the way that Herring captured the texture and movement of the horses' coats, and for its dramatic composition in the use of light and shadow, which add to the sense of energy and motion in the scene.

Queen Victoria gave away many of her Arabians. Imaum, a grey Arabian stallion, was given to a groom who then sold the horse to the artist John Frederick Herring. Imaum became the model for many of Herrings' paintings.

This beloved image has found a place in many homes across the country, and the three charging steeds it portrays have remained enduring symbols since the 19th century.

The Painter

John Frederick Herring Sr. (1795-1865) was a British painter who was known for his equestrian and animal paintings. He was born in London and worked as a coachman before pursuing his painting career.

Herring's early paintings depicted coaching scenes, and he later became known for his paintings of horses, dogs, and other animals. He was particularly famous for his paintings of racehorses, and his work was sought after by wealthy patrons in the 19th century.

Herring was a prolific artist and produced many works throughout his career. He was also a successful businessman and ran his own art publishing company, which produced prints of his paintings.

Today, Herring's paintings are highly prized by collectors and can be found in museums and private collections worldwide.

The Birth and Evolution of the Pharaoh's Horses Tattoo Design

The history of the Pharaoh's Horses tattoo design can be traced back to the early 20th century when tattoo pioneer Gus Wagner created the first dated tattoo, a backpiece featuring a reversed image of the iconic horses surrounded by flowers and an eagle at the top (see Note below).

In his interview with Alan Govenar, Leonard "Stoney" St Clair recalls the emergence of some of the more popular, enduring tattoo designs during World War I. The Rose of No-Man's Land design was extremely popular during this period. Created by Charlie Wagner, who also originated other designs, including putting the Pharaoh's Horses into ink on skin. These designs remained popular through to the forties until more gothic and "biker" style designs emerged into popular flash, such as reapers, skulls, fire and cobras.

Charlie Wagner was a highly influential tattoo artist who worked in New York City from the early 1900s until his death in 1953. Wagner began his career as an apprentice to tattoo artist Samuel O'Reilly, who was instrumental in the development of the modern electric tattoo machine.

Wagner was instrumental in the development of the electric tattoo machine. Working with his partner, George F. Burchett, Wagner refined and improved on O'Reilly's original design, creating a faster, more efficient, and more precise machine than previous models. This innovation at the time helped to revolutionise the tattoo industry and made it possible for artists to create more intricate and detailed designs than ever before.

Wagner was also known for his distinctive style of tattooing, which featured bold, colourful designs that often incorporated iconic American imagery such as eagles, flags, and military insignia.

Note: We have relied on the account from Stoney St Clair and others on the attribution above to Charlie Wagner. We also note that some have attributed the first Pharaoh's Horses tattoo to Augustus "Gus" Wagner (1872-1941), unrelated to Charlie Wagner, and one of the more influential American tattooists of the era, who has been photographed tattooing this design. It is a picture of a tattoo by Gus that is the earliest known picture of the completed Pharaoh's Horses tattoo.

This design quickly became a favourite among tattooists, who often used it as a centrepiece on front and back tattoos. By the 1920s, it was common to see the Pharaoh's Horses design paired with other classic tattoo images like the "Rock of Ages," Percy Waters made a significant impact by featuring the design on the cover of his "How-to-Tattoo" booklet. Despite its long history, the Pharaoh's Horses design remains a popular and enduring tattoo choice, a testament to its timeless symbolism and beauty.1950's Milton Zeis Flash - Pharaoh's Horses

Interpretation of Pharaoh's Horses Tattoo Design

The Pharaoh's Horses Tattoo Design has different meanings for different people. For some, it represents strength, power, and freedom; for others, it symbolises nobility and royalty. In addition, the three horses in the design are often believed to represent different aspects of life: past, present, and future. The Pharaoh's Horses Tattoo Design can be interpreted as a reminder to live in the present moment while appreciating the past and looking forward to the future.

In the Skin: Pharaoh's Horses Tattoos Over Time

From its painting in 1870 by J F Herring Snr to being put into ink on the skin by Charlie Wagner in the early 1900s, the Pharaoh's Horses design has remained highly consistent in composition, a testament to the strength of the artwork that is so recognisable. So let's look at examples of this beautiful tattoo over the past 100 years up to modern designs by today's tattooists!

Percy Waters (1888-1952)

Born in 1888 in Alabama and tattooing in Detroit and New York, Percy Waters' influence on modern tattooing with his flash designs and the design and manufacture of several tattoo machine frame styles, creating patented designs for what would become the first modern tattoo machine, in terms of frame geometry in 1929.

In the 1920s, Percy Waters established his own tattoo supply company. When Percy Waters published his supply catalogue and subsequent "How-To-Tattoo" booklet, both of which prominently featured the Pharaoh's Horses, he likely achieved more than anyone else in popularising this tattoo design and photographs of his tattooed version of the image soon became widely available.Percy Waters

Des Connolly (1943-1985)

Our very own Australian legend Des Connolly sported the Pharaoh's Horses design on his chest, completed by his mentor and idol Alf Mingins. A Melbourne-based tattooist from the 1960s, Des has many tattoos from Alf, including a Battle Royale on his back.

Des Connolly

You can read more about Des Connolly and his incredible role and contribution to tattooing in our blog article here.

Inspired? Checkout these works!

Otherwise we'll part here, leaving you with a collection of some of our favourite Pharaoh's Horse tattoo designs, created by incredible artists around the country. Enjoy!

 Pharaoh's Horses Studio Gallery 1Pharaoh's Horses Studio Gallery 2Pharaoh's Horses Studio Gallery 3

Previous article The Future of Tattoo Art: We Reveal the Tattoo Community's Attitude Towards AI Technology
Next article Words of Tattoo Wisdom (from the ones who know best)