The popularity of Celtic tattoos have soared in recent times and the trend shows no signs of relenting. There are many reasons for this growth, ranging from the pure visual appeal of these striking, elaborate designs, to identifying with what was an embattled, underdog civilisation in terms of western culture, to the wide variety of meanings of Celtic tattoos, which allows for deep, personal statements.
This openness in interpretation is likely down to the extremely scant nature of written records from the Celtic lands – history instead being passed down through oral storytelling and visual symbols, the latter of which forms arguably the most enduring legacy of the Celts.
Few people disagree that war was a hugely important feature of Celtic life. Warriors sought to intimidate enemies by battling barechested, or even naked, as well as possibly adorning their bodies richly in tattoos. These would have been created using the woad plant, native to Britain and Ireland, which when dried and subsequently boiled into a paste produced a vivid blue dye.
Indeed, the battle-ready characterisation of the Celts likely forms one of the most appealing aspects for modern humans getting inked in this style: Celtic tattoos signify strength of character, defiance, fierceness. As such, people may get a Celtic tattoo as say a motivational prompt, or to represent conquering a major setback in life.
While there is a huge variety of Celtic tattoos, there are a several common themes which are pervasive. Shapes featuring three or four parts are widely seen and practically all variations of highly-distinctive Celtic knot patterns form an infinite loop, which broadly symbolises the replenishing cycle of life and death, sunrise and sunset – a harmony of opposites.
The trinity, or triquetra, knot is a hugely popular modern tattoo piece. It has varied meanings from Christian (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to pagan or secular references such as mind, body and spirit, or in terms of femininity, the key stages of life – maiden, mother and crone.
The four-part (quaternary) knot is also an important Celtic tattoo. Rendered with no beginning or end, these four interlocking sides originally probably represented ancient fundamental natural concepts such as the four elements or four seasons, but can be interpreted by individuals in many ways.
In all approaches to Celtic tattooing mentioned, the basic visual style of swirling, interwoven patterns provide a template for everything from raw minimalist statements to hugely elaborate, ambitious pieces on the body. The primary reference point for such highly-intricate tattoos are the world-renowned Celtic-Christian manuscripts, such as the dazzling work seen in the Book of Kells.
Such detailed displays lend themselves perfectly to milestone pieces, and go some way towards explaining the soaring popularity of Celtic tattoo sleeves and back work.
As well as knot-inspired pieces, human and animal shapes are seen more and more in large Celtic tattoos, often depicting male or female warrior figures in heroic poses and/or wolves and rams, which feature prominently in Celtic lore.
As the world grows ever more technological and endlessly complex, Celtic tattoos are but one of the many ways modern humans seek to creatively engage with the ancient world. As well as the strong emotional message many Celtic tattoos express, such ink work can also provide either a reference or entry point to, or indeed a deepening involvement with, neo-paganism or other esoteric belief systems. Celtic imagery has also often been associated with Irish republicanism, and this idea of anti-colonial revolt may provide for some the key appealing aspect of such tattoos – that they symbolise revolution and differentiating oneself from the crowd. With such a fertile visual culture, the magical world of Celtic tattooing allows for vast personal experimentation.