In this article, I will discuss History of Celtic Tattoos, a sampling of different types of the Celtic art source material. That is by no means an exhaustive survey, and we encourage you to seek your inspiration in the
world’s museums, libraries, and historical monuments.
History of Celtic Tattoos
In the tattoo world, “Celtic” has come to be an umbrella term for tattoos. based on the art of the various cultures of the British Isles and surrounding regions from the Iron Age
through the medieval period.
Historians find significant common themes in the art of the seven Celtic nations, all of which are influenced by the Pre-Celtic art of the La Tene culture. With successive waves of invasion and cross-cultural exchanges, the stylistic themes common in what we now think of as Celtic art spread widely throughout
the Western European region.
It is difficult to say that there are separate definitively Irish or definitively Scottish styles. The demarcation lines are fuzzy, and the art of many neighboring cultures also bleeds
over into Celtic art. The most notable of these is the Nordic/Viking influence.
Sources of Celtic Art
The artistic traditions of these cultures have been preserved and handed down in many different ways. It includes,
01. Illuminated manuscripts
02. High crosses and grave markers
03. Picture carved stones
04. Metal artefacts (such as jewellery and weapons)
Studying these glimpses into the past, we find the aesthetic connections that thread their way through the centuries. We’re going to take a look at the different sources and discuss translating them into tattoos.
01. Illuminated Manuscripts.
These are handwritten and illustrated books, most often the four Canonical Christian Gospels, in what is known as the insular or Hiberno-Saxon style, characterized by abstract and extremely complex figures, geometric linear patterns weaves and twists, bright pure colours, and Zoomorphic imagery.
They are written on pages of vellum, called folios, each of which has two sides, recto and verso, or front and back. Probably the best-known Celtic illuminated manuscript is the Book of Kells.
It is a transcription of the Christian gospels in Latin created c. 800 CE. It consists of 340 folios, most of which contain text, but some of which are decorated with highly detailed
Here are some pages from Kells with the tattoos they inspired.
Another excellent source is the book of Durrow. It is the oldest known complete
insular gospel book, predating the Book of Kells by over a century.
Here’s a great example of what’s called a carpet page.
It is entirely decorated and without any text – A glorious show of ornamentation for its own sake.
Here are some tattoos based on images from the book of Durrow.
“The Lindisfarne Gospels” was written and decorated at the end of the 7th century in the Priory on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne England. It is widely regarded as one of the finest works in this style and is exceptionally well-preserved.
Here’s a page from Kells, on the left, compared to the corresponding page from Lindisfarne on the right.
Note: how much better preserve the colors and details are in the Lindisfarne page.
Here are some tattoos drawn from folio 211; you can see that even one single page can yield dozens of designs.
grave markers and high crosses
Now let’s read about grave markers and high crosses. The Isles are dotted with places like this, full of carved stone markers, many of which have beautiful Celtic ornamentation.
here is a cross tattoo based loosely on a high cross stone rubbing
As you can see, the design has been modified for simplicity, and a few custom elements have been added. Here is a view of the churchyard at St. Brynach’s in Nevern, Wales.
Each side of this standing cross is slightly different.
Pictish Carved Stones.
The Picts were a Pre-Celtic people who inhabited what is now Scotland during the middle ages. Between the 6th and 9th centuries, they carved hundreds of stone monuments that still dot the Scottish landscape today.
They are my ancestors, and I find their art fascinating and compelling. Pictish stones fall into two main categories.
Class 1 stones retain a fairly rough or natural shape, and there is no cross on either side.
These are the earliest known picture stones and date from the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. On the left and right sides are examples of Class 1 stones. Class 2 stones are roughly rectangular in shape, with a large cross on one or both sides.
These appear after the Christianization of the Picts beginning in the 8th century. The symbols, as well as Christian motifs, are carved in relief, and the cross with its surroundings is filled with designs.
Class 2 stones date from the 8th and 9th centuries. In the center is an example of a Class 2 stone.
A particularly nice Class 2 stone is in the churchyard at a Aberlemno, Scotland.
Nearby Aberlemno is the Meigle museum. Here I am with slab number two.
This small museum contains 27 stones and stone fragments, all covered in enigmatic Pictish art. This inspirational collection has stones carved with many classic Pictish symbols, including this fantastic mermaid design.
We cannot now know the meaning that the carvers may have assigned to these patterns, but it is
fortunate that so many carvings have been preserved to give us a glimpse across time into that long ago world.
There are still quite a few stones standing in their original locations, and some of them have been protected, like the Shandwick Stone.
This beautiful Class 2 stone has suffered some wear and been blown over by the wind at least once, but many details are preserved in nineteenth-century drawings like the one at the right.
Here is a tattoo based on the spirals from the inland facing side.
Still other stones have been replaced with facsimiles, the originals having been moved into museums for protection, study, and display.
Here you can see the original Hilton of Cadboll Stone in the National Museum of Scotland on the right, and an artist’s copy in the original location on the left.
The carvings on this stone are especially elaborate and have inspired many tattoos. It is like a sampler of all the Pictish styles – there are spirals, key patterns, knot work, figural representations, and wild little eels. It presents details in stone every bit as intricate as the pages of the illuminated manuscripts.
Here’s a great example of an older Class 1 Pictish stone, discovered in Invereen in the 1930s.
Note the unworked shape, lack of Christian imagery, and less precise carving.
Here’s a close-up of what’s called a ‘Crescent & V-rod’ design on that Invereen Stone,
and here is a tattoo based on that design.
A client brought in a photograph of this 8th century cross slab from Rosemarkie, Scotland, and requested an adapted version of the central Crescent and V-rod design.
It’s always a pleasure when the client has found a fresh source of inspiration. On the left is the sandstone slab known as the Dunnichen Stone.
It is incised on one face with three symbols: a Pictish flower, a double disc and Z rod, and a mirror and comb.
For this tattoo, we created a geometrically precise version of the double disc and Z-rod motif – a fairly common symbol represented on many Pictish stones.
The maiden stone was named for a local legend, long after the Pictish culture faded away. The stone is heavily weathered, but some patterns are still visible.
The inset photo shows the lower right corner. Often I need to consult earlier drawings of the stones to puzzle out what the carvings are, because time has erased much of the detail.
In the center here is an archival drawing from the early 20th century book on the left.
The drawing on the right is our reconstruction using Photoshop to extrapolate the ring pattern. Because only a portion of it was drawn, I pieced together multiple sections to recreate the whole.
Metal Artifacts can also be great sources for tattoo inspiration. Pins, jewelry, armor, and other metal objects are durable and often well-preserved, leaving fine details intact for us to draw from.
This heavy silver chain, in the National Museum of Scotland, has a clasp decorated with a Pictish double disc and Z-Rod pattern. The custom design on the left is a modern creation using similar symbols.
This bronze disc was dredged out of the River Bann in Ireland in the 1930s and is dated by its style to the 1st century CE. It is a beautiful example of early Irish metalwork, and as you can see, it makes for a graceful and dynamic tattoo.
The British Museum has a magnificent collection of Anglo-Saxon artifacts from a ship burial discovered at Sutton-Hoo Dating from the 7th century, these metal decorations and shield boss survived the decay of the wooden shield to which they were attached, and they’re displayed here on a reproduction.
The pieces are highly detailed. As with the illuminated manuscripts, designs may need to be simplified and/or enlarged to be effective tattoos, like this bird of prey design.
Here is a fantastic dragon or sea monster from the same shield.
Check out those teeth! He’d make a great tattoo, but I have yet to have a client choose to get it.
This annular brooch, dubbed the ‘Tara Brooch‘ by an art dealer, is an exquisite example of Irish insular art in gold, silver, copper, amber, and glass.
It was probably crafted around the year 700 C.E., and would certainly have been a status symbol worn by a wealthy patron of the arts. The tattoo shown at right is a stylized design inspired by this beautiful artifact.
There are several other places one can look for tattoo inspiration in The Isles, and we’ll briefly mention a few of them here.
Newgrange is a passage tomb and monument near the Boyne River in Ireland. Like the famous Stonehenge in England, Newgrange was constructed in the stone age or neolithic period, thousands of years earlier than all the other source material we’ve discussed . . . even predating the Egyptian pyramids.
The kerb stones outside, as well as some interior surfaces, are carved with intricate spiral designs that are readily translated into tattoos. During the Late Iron Age the La Tene culture dominated much of Europe, including the southeastern portion of what’s now England.
Many metal artifact survive, including swords and mirrors with ornate swirling designs. The Vikings were frequent visitors to the Celtic lands and there is much overlap, both artistically and genetically.
Much like the Pictish stones in Scotland, the Scandinavian countryside is dotted with picture stones of a similar age. If you have viking heritage, or you’re looking for a twist on the familiar Celtic motifs, you might do well to seek inspiration in this rich tradition.
The Nordic art is a much looser wilder style, while still sharing the Celtic love of intricate weaving lines. This dragon or serpent picture stone was among those discovered beneath the wooden floors of a church in Ardre, Sweden. They now reside in the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm.
Heraldry gained popularity in the late Middle Ages, and continues to be used today.
A family crest or clan badge can be an excellent choice for a tattoo, connecting the wearer to history and heritage.
Clan badges are particular type of heraldry unique to Scotland. To tattoo a badge or crest, it is important to remember that with heraldry the written description is key, but the visual representation can vary.
Here are four examples of a clan Hamilton badge, and the tattoo compiled from the best elements chosen from several versions.
Like clan badges, family crests can make excellent and meaningful tattoos. Here are a couple of examples of Irish family crest tattoos. Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, tartan became very popular in Scotland, and distinct patterns became associated with individual clans.
Due to the complexity of the weave, tartan is not suited to small tattoos, and I have only done a piece like this once. In this final section we’re going to discuss practical considerations for Celtic tattoos, including sizing, customizations, and common errors.
As you’ve seen throughout this presentation Celtic art can be incredibly intricate and highly detailed some of the illuminations in the Lindisfarne Gospels are so fine they may have been painted with the single hair, and they still look sharp today.
Tattoos, on the other hand, are alive. We all age, and tattoos inevitably soften and fade. This means that there’s a limit to the line thin-ness and complexity at small sizes.
Often a very small design from a primary source will need to be significantly larger to be an effective tattoo. In this example, a knot about one-half inch across in a manuscript is rendered several inches wide as a tattoo that will age well and look good for a lifetime.
Sometimes a design can be simplified instead of enlarged. The example shown on the left has paired leases making up the knot pattern; the tattoo on the right is the same weave, but with a single wider lace instead of two thin ones.
In the course of translating source material into tattoo designs, most of my compositions are redrawn multiple times, as I take the best parts of a pattern and seek to achieve a balance and symmetry that may not have been possible on a carved stone or a tiny part of a vellum page.
An important consideration is the alternating nature of the weave. It is vital that it always go over-under- -over-under precisely; you never want to end up with two or more “overs” or “unders” in a row.
It must hold to the logic of the weave, just as something knitted in wool or braided in leather. As you can see from the two line drawings on the right, it can be difficult to spot mistakes when a design is in the lines only phase.
I find that shading the design on paper when I think the lines are complete helps to reveal any mistakes in the weaving that might be lurking.
Now, you can see that on the upper one there are three overs in a row in two different places, while the lower design follows the proper over-under alternation. I recognize what an act of faith it is for a client to look at a drawing and trust me to turn it into a permanent work of art on their skin, so I try to give them a final version on paper that illustrates my vision for how it will look on them.
Sometimes, rather than copying an existing Celtic pattern, we want to create a new one. In this example, I found a hummingbird silhouette that I liked and used pieces of other knotwork patterns to roughly fill it.
Then I linked those individual pieces together into a completely new knot, weaving correctly, and “voilà” – a custom Celtic hummingbird.
Sometimes a pattern from a historical source could use a little refinement. We like to say that the original artists did the best they could with the materials and methods available to them at the time.
We do the same, but we have Photoshop and graph paper and light boxes available to us.
This tattoo, for example, has been made into a more precise square from a pattern that was slightly rectangular.
A really exciting advancement that we’ve made is the repetition and linking of patterns into a complete and seamless sleeve of Celtic knot work body armor. As you can see from the drawing shown here, new shapes and patterns emerge when the basic building block of knotwork is tiled into a larger design.
This particular example started with the square from the previous tattoo. And here’s another leg, starting with that previous leg’s design, and adding a new knot to the center.
This kind of work requires specialized techniques, familiarity with the logic of Celtic knots, and serious attention to detail. As you can see here, adjusting the proportion and size of the stencil is only the first step on installation day.
It still needs to be laced up by hand on the back side in order to become continuous and seamless knot. If these steps aren’t taken, the consequences are unfortunate.
Here is an example of someone who purchased one of my patterns online. Their artists ignored the “readme” text instructions included with the design, and left a gap of the back of the tattoo.
This defeats the purpose of a sleeve made completely and seamlessly out of knots.
Here is the same design on one of my clients done the right way.
Another thing to keep in mind with this kind of work is it will take multiple sessions to achieve equality result. Given the size and complexity, the first session is usually just lines.
Subsequent sessions a month apart will be for shading, background, and line tune-up. The result is totally worth it.
Here’s another example note how from either side there is no break in the pattern – no obvious starting or stopping point.
And here are a few more examples.
This truly is the most challenging and satisfying work that we do, and I think you’ll agree that the results are impressive. It is a process that progresses from the original source material, to a simplified drawing of a section of it, to a tiled grid, to a “warped” shape that form fits the body part of the client, and finally to the sized stencil on the skin that is then custom adapted by pen before the actual tattooing can begin.
Sometimes though, a sleeve can be built in stages from several independent pieces. This one began with the triquetra pattern in the center, followed by the shoulder cap above, and was finished off with a wide band at the bottom.
Using the same background of dots behind all of the pieces helps to integrate them into a cohesive whole.
Here are a few more examples of sleeves that take inspiration from traditional knots, but have been customized to become original tattoo art.
So far in this video we’ve discussed the basic Celtic art styles and imagery. A stand-alone historically sourced design can make a great tattoo, but these can also be combined with one another and with other types of art, and we’d like to show you a few examples of that.
In the center of this tattoo is a custom Pictish double disc – a combination of patterns from several sources. To its left is a wolf design from a Class 1 Pictish stone found in Ardross, Scotland.
On the right is a bear design rendered in the style of the wolf, but using the bear silhouette from the California flag.
Here are two tattoos that combine other graphic styles with Celtic art. On the left is a hazmat symbol we put together for a fire chief, and on the right is the Crescent from Rosemarkie we saw earlier combined with iconic California poppies – A fitting design for a Californian of Scottish heritage.
On the left here is a combination of two traditional styles. A Pictish stone boar with a La Tene style spiral band . . . and on the right, a completely custom knotwork tree of life with a DNA double helix trunk.
This client chose to get two corresponding but not identical sleeves by combining a lion from The Book of Kells on one side and a Pictish spiral pattern on the ther side with matching custom knotwork backgrounds.