Irish Tattoos and Traditions


The great majority of the Celtic designs used in modern tattooing come to us from historic sources. It has been my personal quest and challenge to research and travel to view these artifacts in their native lands, and then to return to my tattoo work both humbled and inspired. 

I thought for many years that I was going to retire to Ireland, but since I wasn’t SURE that was really going to happen I determined I should live there as often as possible, for a few weeks at a time, and practice being there. I was fortunate to make friends across the country, and so for many summers I went over and traveled around and visited any places my scholarship led me to. The Irish are a splendid and welcoming people, Cead Mille Failte, the land of ten thousand welcomes. I highly recommend it as a holiday destination.

The first and most accessible source of archival material useful to my tattoo work are the Illuminated Manuscripts. These books are extensively illustrated visual metaphors of faith, painstakingly copied by hand in the scriptoriums of monasteries. They were carried from Ireland and Scotland, where they were created, throughout Europe after the Dark Ages by traveling saints and scholars. Their beauty captivated the hearts of those who saw them, and served to spread the Christian gospel as Europe rebuilt its civilization.

The second source of inspiration for me are the intricately carved stone high crosses found in graveyards, memorials and monuments throughout Celtic lands. Their knotwork panels, spirals and interlaces preserve the same themes and styles of the manuscripts, but translated into a more bold and geometric form. 

I was privileged to study the Irish monastic tradition in two summer courses at Trinity College, Dublin. With like-minded scholars I traveled throughout the Irish countryside with several professors to see sites such as the actual scriptorium where the Book of Kells was finished, and stayed in monasteries where the monks still maintain the vow of silence and continue communal work as they would have done in the Middle Ages. I developed a deep sense for the act of faith each manuscript represents, the selfless devotion of countless hours by nameless scribes.

Many of the most famous manuscripts, including the Books of Kells and Durrow, are on public display in the main library at Trinity College, Dublin. A fascinating educational display explains how the books were created, and learning the technical details removes none of the mystery.

The crosses and gravestones are everywhere, and as I have traveled on many trips through Ireland and Scotland I carry a camera and a roll of paper and charcoal to do rubbings of the patterns. Sometimes a camera cannot see beneath the lichen and moss, but rubbing with charcoal will reveal the details. The Celtic cross incorporates the circle of the native celestial religions with the cross of Christianity, a unique blending and coexistence of the two faiths. Both Christians and Pagans can claim the equilateral wheel crosses, and they are very popular as tattoos.

Because we have no preserved "bog bodies" with tattoos, it is impossible to say with confidence what tattoos the ancient Celts wore. But it is easy to surmise that they would have replicated on their bodies the same patterns we know they wove into their clothing and carved into household implements. I have taken the interpretation of traditional Celtic design into tattoos as a focus for my work, and it is continually opening up new methods of rendering and representation to me.

Understanding well that most people are seeking meaning in their lives and tattoos, it is nevertheless important to note that the most delightful knotworks, braids, and zoomorphic animal figures are in essence illustrations used to fill up precious vellum page space around texts from the Bible. It is not necessary to know what they might have "meant" to the monks who painstakingly painted them. Yes, certain animals may have had a coded iconographic symbolism, but it is enough that has aesthetic appeal and resonance. If the design speaks to you, it can be your tattoo. Through the act of wearing it will take on personal meaning, it will become a personal totem and symbol for you. Through the years you will discover nuances that will give depth to the choice.

I believe that the best way to look at these artworks is as a meditation and a prayer. They are not strictly representational, they do not attempt to duplicate nature exactly. They are a sinuous line, an intricate interweaving, and a thought that returns to source.

These are not particularly easy designs to tattoo, and I would strongly advise anyone contemplating getting one to make sure they have seen other Celtic style tattoos done by the artist they are considering. Not every tattoo artist has the eye for detail and exacting line placement, any more than every tattooist can do a portrait. I have specialized in this work for several decades, and am still learning, with every tattoo, how best to join the pure weave of the line with the musculature of the body. This link will take you to my Celtic Tattoo Portfolio, where you may see many photos of my work.

Should a trip to lovely Santa Barbara appeal to you, I would be pleased to see to it that you leave with a permanent souvenir. Make sure that you plan in advance, as appointments are always necessary. In my studio I have a very large archive of material to consult for designs, so people wanting custom work are encouraged to plan to come in at least a day before their appointment date to consult. That way I have time to draw up something custom before the time of the installation. I invite you to check out my 

LuckyFish Art

store where I sell my designs as tattoo flash. If you cannot come to me to have your tattoo done these clear and accurate patterns will help your local tattoo artist achieve the best possible result. 

Murphy the Irish Wolfhound and I encourage everyone to Get A Celtic Tattoo and BE ART !!!!