The History of the Celtic Knot Tattoo
09:15 PM
colin dale celtic tattoo.jpgceltic tattoo colin dale.jpgCeltic tattoos above by Colin Dale.

UPDATE: Just added a new tattoo above by Colin Dale, and some more words from Pat.

Yesterday, NPR posted a radio piece and article entitled, "The American Origins Of The Not-So-Traditional Celtic Knot Tattoo" -- a rather obnoxious discussion led by Ari Shapiro, who seemingly knows nothing about tattoos, but finds himself funny to mock them. Ari focuses his snarky lens on tattoos inspired by Celtic art, which he describes as a "sort of the 'lite rock' radio station of tattoos: pretty, bland and inoffensive."

In the article, Ari interviews Kevin McNamara at the Dublin Ink tattoo parlor, who states that he tattoos, although "not a literal number," about 40 of Celtic knots and shamrocks, a week, mostly on Americans with fanny packs and baseball hats. He explains that, for the first couple of years, that's how he made his money. Putting aside the bad taste of publicly mocking clients who contribute to one's retirement fund, what is left out of that interview is really why Americans of Irish heritage seek that type of artwork, how many want to celebrate their roots and feel a connection to something they hold important.

The only redeeming feature of this piece is tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman, who runs the blog TattooHistorian, and has been a guest blogger here a number of times. Anna explains that there's no evidence of Celtic tattooing in antiquity, but that the practice only came to Ireland in the last century. She also offers some thoughts on the American origins of Celtic tattoo work. With her expertise, Anna should have been asked more substantive questions to make this a less superficial piece.

A more interesting conversation should also have included Pat Fish in Santa Barbara, CA, who has been tattooing Celtic designs for three decades, and says that she finds it "endlessly fascinating and challenging to bring the intricate art of the ancient illuminated manuscripts and standing stones to life in skin."

When I discussed the NPR piece with Pat, via email, here's what she said:

Well, isn't THAT a bit rude. Except for the fact that, if it "started" on the West Coast in the 1980s, that was solely down to me. No one I met at the time in the USA was doing any Celtic designs, too busy with kanji and Harley wings! As for tribal/blackwork Cliff Raven was doing what he called "Pre-Technological Black Graphic" tattooing in the 1980's but what we now call "Tribal" didn't start becoming wildly popular until that 1991 flash by Leo Zulueta...But I always saw the inspirational Celtic tattoo work by Europeans at the conventions, from the very beginning in 1984, I was watching Micky Sharpz, Lal Hardy, John Sargerson, and Tattoo Eus. They were all ahead of me by years.

In 2010, when I worked in Ireland at the Traditional Arts Tattoo Festival, I was the only person doing traditional Celtic designs. I think they are a lot better than kanji, that's the perspective that comes from watching trends come and go for 30 years. In the 1980s, I had both Cliff Raven and Ed Hardy do Celtic designs on me and both said they'd prefer never again.

It IS accurate that there is no evidence of Irish tattooing in antiquity. Lots of descriptions of the Picts in Scotland, but the Romans never invaded Ireland, so no mention of the Irish by their historians, tattooed or not. BUT there was a great deal of cultural exchange, so it seems very likely that the practice would be shared.

All in all, the tone of the article is way too much like the derisive "tramp stamp" attitudes that poisoned the lower back as a placement of choice for women. Which can of course be a lovely feminine and discrete place for a tattoo, but now it has become a bad joke.
On Pat's site, she shares more of her work and thoughts on Celtic tattooing. I also highly recommend you check her process of creating the designs on this page of her site.

Another artist who I would have loved to see included is Colin Dale of Skin & Bone in Copenhagen, who is renowned for his Nordic & Celtic tattoo work, particularly his hand tattoo work. Colin curated and wrote the introduction to the chapter on Celtic and Nordic tattoos in my latest book, Black Tattoo Art 2, showing the power and beauty of these designs.

But to present something weighty like that would take more work, and it's much easier to point & laugh.

celtic tattoo leg.jpgpat fish celtic tattoo.jpg

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