The International Rise of the Irish Tribal Tattoo


Across the world, people are feeling a need to connect with their “tribe” – especially in New World countries. Body Art with Irish Celtic themes are becoming in demand as people dig around in their family tree and discover their rich histories in Celtic lands.

Nicole Buckler reports.

Gone are the days of the quick and easy triskelion tattoo, procured during an episode of drunken revelry in Temple Bar. The rise of meaningful and truly beautiful Celtic body art is here.

Spearheading this art form is Pat Fish, a world-renowned specialist in Celtic and Pictish tattooing. Fish is gaining a name for herself as a tattoo artist who has a vast knowledge of Celtic culture. She has an ability to translate the spirit of ancient Celtic artworks onto skin and she sees her work as “living art.” Her designs are brought to life in her studio in Santa Barbara, California where she has created some truly stunning body art.

Fish says that some of her favourite works of skin art have been lifted from historical Irish texts. The Book of Kells is by far the most well-known of the insular illuminated manuscripts. The book was begun on the island of Iona and then finished in the Abbey of Kells in County Meath in Ireland. Fish has also delved into the pages of the Book of Durrow, which was created in Durrow Abbey in County Laois. Both books now reside in Trinity College, Dublin. But that’s not all.

“I have done many tattoos of stone carvings in ancient monuments such as Newgrange, in County Meath. Many of the Celtic cross designs I do are inspired by charcoal rubbings I have done of high crosses in graveyards while travelling the country.” (The Book of Kells, among other great historical Irish texts are available to look at online, for free. )

When Fish started out in tattooing, Celtic art tattoos weren’t broadly heard of. “When I began tattooing in 1984 there were very few people tattooing Celtic images. I had a strong attraction to the art style, and made it my personal goal to work to bring it back, alive, in skin. I have been successful in this effort, and now it is recognised as a true tribal art style. I have enjoyed drawing in this style since I was young. None of the older tattoo artists who were teaching me had ever done this style, and they made it clear that you had to do whatever people who walked in your studio wanted, not my own eccentric preference. So I just put up lots of Celtic designs on the walls of my tattoo studio and offered them to potential clients.”

Most of Fish’s clients come from the surrounding area; they find her on the internet, fall in love with the Celtic style, then arrive at her door. “Mostly they are the descendants of the diaspora, who want to have a permanent mark of the connection to their ancestry.”

However, it’s not just the diaspora who arrive at her tattoo parlour. Irish people occasionally get a tattoo, including an Irish man who got a Salmon of Knowledge edged with spiral patterns. Says Fish, “I like the challenge of making the patterns that fill an entire body part, with the effect of chain-mail conforming to the skin. It is very difficult to do, because the pattern must continue the over-under weave and expand in scale with the flow of the musculature. But the effect is very dramatic.”

A style that might appeal strongly to modern-day Irish people is that of an Irish family crest – a coat of arms which represents a family, clan or sept. (A sept is a subdivision of a clan, a term originally used only in Ireland.) Many families still use their family crests today on letterheads and even on plates and other tableware. In medieval times, a coat of arms was granted to a single person. When the person died, the coat of arms was then passed to subsequent generations. Overtime, the coat of arms represented the whole family or clan. When at war, warriors wore their crests into battle.

Images on a crest often symbolised values held by the family, like bravery and endurance. A tattoo of a family crest can be very appealing to many men of one clan. Says Fish, “Family crest tattoos are very popular with people who want to connect to their genetic lineage. Traditionally they are placed on the right side of the body if they are the paternal line, and on the left if they memorialise the maternal connection. All Celts have access to a rich tradition of these tattoos.”

So if you are thinking of getting one of these Celtic masterpieces, there is a little groundwork to do first. Says Fish, “Clients only need to come with a desire to have a tattoo, and we begin the process with a consultation. This happens the day before we plan to do the actual installation. Sometimes they have an idea, or they have seen a tattoo in my online portfolio that they like. We work together to make it unique for them. Sometimes they only have a loose idea of what they want, for instance, a Celtic cross. To make the best possible tattoo I will let them look through my archives and they can pick out the shape they prefer, and perhaps the knotwork pattern, and I can combine them to make a new cross that is faithful to the style. I sometimes do custom designs for people at a distance. But for the complex wrap patterns that fill an entire body part with knotwork, this simply isn’t possible, there are too many measurements to be done.”

Fish is based in California, but anyone can buy a tattoo template from her collection to give to a local tattoo artist. “Since 2001 I have had an online image sale site,, and I add new images constantly as I create them. There are almost 1800 original tattoo patterns there for sale and immediate download, providing a clear, precise template that a tattoo artist in any part of the world can work from.”

The gallery is worth scrolling through even if you are not interested in getting a tattoo. The designs are beautiful and could comfortably inhabit any art gallery wall. Says Fish, “People of all cultures love to express their enthusiasm for their heritage, and Celtic tattoo art is a fine way to celebrate being Irish.”

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