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. Celtic tattoos are in demand as people dig around 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. 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 with a vast knowledge of Celtic culture. She can translate the spirit of ancient Celtic artworks onto the skin, and sees her work as “living art”. Fish brings her designs to life in her Santa Barbara, California studio where she has created some truly stunning body art.

Fish says that some of her favourite works of skin art come from historical Irish texts. The Book of Kells is by far the most well-known of the illuminated manuscripts. Fish has also delved into the pages of the Book of Durrow, created at Durrow Abbey in County Laois. Both books now reside at Trinity College, Dublin (The Book of Kells, among other great historical Irish texts are available to look at online, for free).

But that’s not all, another source of inspiration is the ancient Irish monument. “I’ve done many tattoos of stone carvings in ancient monuments such as Newgrange.  I’ve even done charcoal rubbings of high crosses in graveyards while travelling the country,” says Fish.

When Fish started out in tattooing, Celtic tattoos weren’t really heard of. “When I began tattooing in 1984 there were very few people tattooing Celtic images. I had a strong attraction to the style, and made it my goal to bring it back, alive, in skin.

“My efforts have been successful, and now it’s 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 taught me had ever done this style, and they made it clear that you had to do whatever the customers wanted. 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 Irish diaspora who arrive at her tattoo parlour – Irish people occasionally get a tattoo. One Irishman 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’s 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 to people of Irish heritage is that of an Irish family crest. This is 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). Some 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, subsequent generations inherited the coat of arms. Over time, it 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 family crest tattoo can be appealing to many people of one clan. Says Fish, “Family crest tattoos are very popular with people who want to connect to their genetic lineage. Traditionally they’re placed on the right side of the body if commemorating the paternal line, on the left for the maternal connection. All Celts have access to a rich tradition of these tattoos.”

So, if you’re thinking of getting one of these Celtic masterpieces, there is a little groundwork to do first. “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 I can’t do distance work for complex wrap patterns that fill an entire body part, 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 1,800 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.”

It’s well worth scrolling through the gallery even if you’re not 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 tattoos are a fine way to celebrate being Irish.”

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