Arts & Entertainment


74 Western Tattoo Ideas, from Cowboy Skulls to Scorpions

western tattoo ideas
Photo credit: D.T. Christensen

Traditional American tattoos may be rooted in the open seas of the 1800s, but vast Western landscapes inspired their own signature brand of bold body markings.

After Olive Oatman was captured by Tolkepaya Yavapai and later traded to the Mohave in the 1850s, she arrived back to white civilization with five tattooed lines running the length of her chin — a traditional Mohave marking that signaled she had been accepted into their culture.

Some three decades before tattooed women became a popular carnival and circus attraction, Oatman hit the lecture circuit, sharing her story as the first known white woman tattooed by an indigenous group.

Oatman’s experience was unusual, but it wouldn’t take long for tattooing to take hold in the U.S. What had been a tradition in other cultures dating back thousands of years — 5,000-year-old “iceman” Ötzi had 61 tattoos, and early Egyptians also marked their bodies — soon became a trend as sailors explored areas like Indonesia and Polynesia, where tattooing was a significant part of the culture and heritage. In fact, the word tattoo comes from the Polynesian tatu or tatau, meaning to “mark” or “strike.”

In the 1870s, early tattoo artist Martin Hildebrandt opened up a tattoo shop in New York City, and tattoos soon made the leap from sailors to all sorts of folks looking to ditch the social norms of their time.

Traditional American tattoo designs often focused on the sea: think classic designs from Sailor Jerry, like anchors, ships, sharks, pin-up girls and skulls. They represented a spirit of adventure, courage and good luck — which all happen to be things you’d need to venture west, as well.

Today, traditional Western tattoos are more popular than ever. They pay tribute not only to the bold-will-hold roots of American tattoos, but to the mythology and (often fictionalized) ideals of the frontier.

Here are 74 tattoo ideas inspired by classic symbols and icons of the American West.

Cowboys & Cowgirls

Few occupations define the West as much as the cowboy, tasked with the job of herding and moving cattle over long distances, like the Chisholm Trail, which ran about 800 to 1,000 miles depending on where you started.

And though they don’t get as much historical attention, cowgirls have been roping and riding since the 19th century, when the daughters and wives of ranchers, cowboys and settlers took the the reins as needed — blazing the way for well-known women like Annie Oakley, Lillian Smith and Vera McGinnis.

Related read: 8 Famous (and Infamous) Sheriffs of the Old West

Western Animal Tattoos

Animals in the West are built different. They’re fanged, sturdy, venomous, stealthy, versatile, resilient and often deadly. But they’re also badass, which makes many of them — like snakes, scorpions, bison and wolves — perfect for a Western-inspired tattoo.

western bison tattoo
Photo credit: D.T. Christensen

Related read: Frank Hamer: The Tough Texas Ranger Who Brought Down Bonnie & Clyde

Western Landscape Tattoos

The landscapes that make up the West are found nowhere else on Earth, including the 100,000-square-mile Sonoran Desert — the only place Saguaro cacti grow. Aside from the hottest desert in North America, the West is home to diverse environments and geographical features like the Rocky Mountains, the Teton Range and the Sierra Nevada, all worthy of permanent ink tributes.

Related read: 10 Blood Meridian Quotes That Define Cormac McCarthy’s West

Cowboy Skull Tattoos

Back in the 1800s, heading west was a dangerous affair, and not always for the reasons settlers assumed. Sure, there were occasional skirmishes between white settlers and indigenous groups, but for the most part, the deadliest parts of the frontier had to do with disease — cholera, dysentery, small pox and even influenza — and accidents, like getting ran over by a covered wagon, or drowning while crossing a swollen river. However you went west, death was always around the corner.

cowboy skull tattoo
Photo credit: Allef Vinicius/Unsplash

Related read: Colt Peacemaker: How the Colt Single Action Army Won the West

Western Horseshoe Tattoos

Superstitious cowboys took all the good luck they could, and today, horseshoes are still a talisman of good fortune. Whatever their roots — some say the iron in early horseshoes warded off witches and evil spirits — the horseshoe is a classic Western tattoo design with plenty of creative room to make it your own.

Related read: 10 Famous Guns of the Old West, from Revolvers to Rifles

Miscellaneous Western Tattoos

Revolvers, rope, barbed wire, steam trains, lanterns, pick axes and shovels all helped carve the west, for better or worse, and these tools of the trade all make for classic Old West tats.

western rope tattoo
Photo credit: D.T. Christensen
lantern tattoo
Photo credit: D.T. Christensen

Related read: 8 Murderous Facts about John Wesley Hardin

Western Sleeves, Back & Chest Pieces

Most Western tattoos are simple “flash” style designs that are straightforward and easy to bang out, but there’s plenty of custom sleeves and full-body pieces that combine all sorts of Western motifs into one. Here’s a look at a few complex sleeves, back pieces and chest pieces with dashing Western themes.

Explore the Old West

Sources & Further Reading

OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints when possible.

  1. Clerk, C. (2015). Vintage Tattoos: The Book of Old-School Skin Art. Universe.
  2. Friedman, A. F., & Elkins, J. (2015). The World Atlas of Tattoo. Yale University Press.
  3. Hellenbrand, K., & Jerry, S. (2002). Sailor Jerry’s Tattoo Stencils. Schiffer Pub.
  4. James, K. (2020). Tattoo Inspiration Compendium: An Image Archive for Tattoo Artists and Designers. Avenue House Press.
  5. Schonberger, N., & Munden, O. (2022). The Language of Tattoos: 130 Symbols and What They Mean. Frances Lincoln Limited Publishers.
  6. Shaw, J. (2016). Vintage Tattoo Flash: 100 Years of Traditional Tattoos from the Collection of Jonathan Shaw. PowerHouse.

D.T. Christensen is the founder and editor of OldWest.org, a history website committed to sharing and preserving stories of the American West. He was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, studied journalism at Northern Arizona University, and lives in Massachusetts with his wife and kids.

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