The scene from Exodus, with the three horses charging after the Jewish people was made famous by tattoo artist Gus Wagner in the 1920s.

One of the most uncommon tattoos out there as well as exceptional in terms of its message and Traditional iconography, the subject of the Pharaoh’s Horses was inspired by a fundamental event in the Bible, the Exodus recounted in the book of the same name.

Rich Hardy, On The Road, Sydney, Australia
Rich Hardy, On The Road, Sydney, Australia

According to scripture, the Jewish people, led by Moses and fleeing from Egypt, managed to cross the Red Sea to then wander in the Sinai desert for forty years before reaching the longed for Land of Canaan which later would become the kingdom of Israel.

Reaching the shores of the Red Sea, Moses – with the help of divine intervention – managed to part the waters so that the Jewish people might pass, to the utter amazement of the soldiers of the Pharaoh who were following the horde of fugitives.

Paul Dobleman, Spider Murphy's Tattoo, San Rafael, USA
Paul Dobleman, Spider Murphy’s Tattoo, San Rafael, USA

Among them there were also three horses – the famed Pharaoh’s Horses – who were more astounded than anyone at the sight of the sea parting and closing behind that people in flight.

The episode which is recounted in the Book of Exodus, was little known until the 19th century when the figures of the three horses began to appear in certain religious paintings.

Florian Santus, Private Studio, Paris, France
Florian Santus, Private Studio, Paris, France

And in the 1920s, it was one of these very paintings which caught the eye of the tattoo artist Gus Wagner who made a sketch of it and added that drawing to his archive, making it more popular with every tattoo he produced.

Ben Grillo, American Tattoo, Vista, USA
Ben Grillo, American Tattoo, Vista, USA

By the 1950s, the Pharaoh’s Horses had become one of the most respected and highly requested Traditional tattoos; in the third millennium we have seen a minor revival among aficionados of both Old School and New School.

Particularly suited for pieces on the back, chest, stomach and thighs, this subject (often drawn in a frame or together with other animals or flowers) symbolises the strength of willpower. The will to fight for self-determination which is summed up by the horses which want to keep gallopping onwards regardless of the raging sea and the risk of drowning.

Stizzo, Best of Time, Milan, Italy
Stizzo, Best of Time, Milan, Italy

That is why the Pharaoh’s Horses remain to this day a symbol of inner fortitude and willpower; just as the horses refuse to give up in their pointless, tragic pursuit, the person wearing this tattoo will know no rest as long as their freedom is at stake.