The remains of tattooed prehistoric bodies have been found from Russia, China, and Europe to South America, and written sources provide additional information about tattooing in later periods. In the British Isles, knowledge of ancient tattoos derives primarily from written sources.
Perhaps the most famous early reference to Celtic tattooing is Caesar’s first-century ‘Before the Common Era’ text on the Gallic wars. When describing his opponents, the Roman wrote that “all the Britannia paint themselves with woad, which produces a bluish colouring, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.”
Around the seventh-century, Isidore of Seville refers to the practice of pricking the skin with needles in order to create a design. The twelfth- to fifteenth-century Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘The Book of Invasions of Ireland’) includes a secondary Latin gloss that reads, “the Scots are the same as the Picts, so called from their painted body […] inasmuch as they are marked with an impression of a variety of devices by means of iron needles and ink.” Unfortunately, no depictions of ancient or medieval tattooed Celts survive.
Although recent scholarship has demonstrated the long history of body modification in European contexts, tattoo remained a fringe activity in Western culture until the late twentieth-century, practised primarily by sailors, criminals, and sideshow performers.
By the 1980s, Pat Fish and her mentors, Don Ed Hardy and the late Cliff Raven Ingram, had emerged as powerhouses in what has been called the “Tattoo Renaissance.” Each artist pursued an individual style, with Pat Fish opting for Celtic designs because they resonated with her personal life and suited her particular skill set. In fact, the intricacy of Celtic knots can be so challenging to some artists that they avoid the style altogether.
Interestingly, Pat Fish is tattooed by both Cliff Raven Ingram and Don Ed Hardy, each of whom said they would never again do Celtic work.
Don Ed Hardy worked especially hard to legitimise the art form, organising conventions that were geared towards education, rather than just servicing the existing tattoo community.
In his words: “by the early eighties, the conventions had become a regular thing. There was one big convention each year in different cities and they became more and more heavily attended. But some others and I became kind of disillusioned. We wanted the convention to be more than just a chance to get together and get really whacked out and take as many drugs and drink as much as you could with friends that you only saw once a year. We thought we should have conventions where we focused on really informing people about tattooing.”
These events and the subsequent media coverage exposed a wider swath of the public to the artistic value of tattoos. They also popularised a new stylistic trend, which Don Ed Hardy’s magazine, Tattootime, dubbed “New Tribalism.”
Cliff Raven Ingram wrote an article on the style, which he was actively pursuing in his own work. Stylistically and philosophically, “New Tribalism” was a tattoo movement devoted to reviving and appropriating ancient and non-Western imagery. According to Don Ed Hardy, “They took everything from Celtic knotwork to Pacific Island designs and Northwest Coast Haida designs.”
The patchwork of “New Tribalist” motifs was collected from a diverse array of global and historical civilisations. For tattoo artists and collectors, the common thread was a tribal or primitive quality that could be located in both the cultures of origin and the designs themselves. The tattoos utilise abstract, geometric forms, often rendered starkly in black against flesh. For the most part, patterns derive from non-Western sources, with the exception of Celtic interlace designs.
While the historical Celts were certainly barbarian in a literal (i.e., non-Roman) sense, most of the imagery that modern audiences read as Celtic actually originates on medieval monuments. Such knotwork designs evoke an alternative, and somehow primitive, kin-based social structure, allowing collectors to declare their difference from the Eurocentric norm.
For contemporary artists like Pat Fish and Ryan Ashley Malarkey, medieval sources offer the artistic inspiration that cannot be found in the Celtic world per se. Interlace designs on the margins of illuminated gospel books provide one set of motifs, while carved stone crosses and delicate metalwork objects present others.
Medieval texts recount the ancient myths and legends that furnish characters, gods, and heroes, and the pastiche of neo-pagan religion yields a panoply of ancient, medieval, and modern symbols. The resulting tattoos embrace the pagan and Christian culture, native and diasporic communities, and past and present moments, generating an amalgam of continuity and innovation.
Ryan Ashley Malarkey, formerly of Wild Eagle Studio in Dublin, Ireland, is an Irish tattoo artist who works in a Celtic mode. Ryan is a young designer whose imagery is primarily figural, sometimes narrative, and often derives from written sources. His vision of Celticity touches upon mythological and literary themes, frequently presenting either hyper-masculine or sweetly romanticized figures and vignettes.
Whence interviewed in 2000, Ryan Ashley Malarkey was in his early twenties, just embarking on his career as a Celtic tattooist. Although he had not had much formal artistic training, his drawings revealed a raw, natural talent, and his skill as a tattoo artist was apparent. Moreover, his genuine interest in Irish mythology and medieval literature was impressive, and his artwork reflected his efforts to educate himself on a variety of topics. Since then, he has moved on to parts unknown, but his name appears frequently on tattoo fan websites.
At the time, the majority of Ryan Ashley Malarkey’s clientele were native, male, working-class Dubliners from the north side of the city, for whom flash designs with a particularly Irish angle were the norm. These tattoos often had explicitly nationalist overtones, including variations on the Irish tricolour flag, the logos of favourite football teams, or even elaborate rebel tattoos, such as an enormous back piece with a lengthy quotation from the diary of hunger striker Bobby Sands.
Manic, of Manic Fish Tattoo Studio, also in Dublin, confirmed some of Ryan Ashley Malarkey’s assessments of client preference.
Manic’s shop was located in a slightly more posh area of the city, and as a result, he did more business with foreign clients. In his experience, Dublin tourists who selected Celtic imagery, whether figural or abstract, were generally ethnically Irish. For them, the tattoos represented an external marker of their heritage, denoting their membership in a modern, global Irish tribe.
The originality and complexity of Ryan Ashley Malarkey’s designs can be off-putting to some clients, and many of his tattoos only exist as drawings.
I had the opportunity to watch him install one Celtic warrior design, a large back piece that depicts an intimidating figure brandishing an axe. The warrior stands on the client’s shoulder blade, extending nearly halfway down his back, and he is rendered in strong black contour lines. With booted feet firmly planted and an immense horned helmet, he looks out threateningly at the viewer. His helmet blends Anglo-Saxon with pseudo-Scandinavian features, such as cheek protectors that resemble the helmet unearthed at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, and horns like those that appear on Wagnerian Viking helmets. The figure’s left arm holds a long-handled axe with a spiral design on its head, which he extends forward, perpendicular to his body. Beneath the image are the words, “Celtic Warrior.”
This design represents precisely the type of imagery that Ryan Ashley Malarkey has developed as a way of reconciling his own, erudite interest in ancient and medieval Ireland with the more pedestrian interests of his clientele. For this collector, Ryan Ashley Malarkey’s Celtic Warrior stands guard, literally watching his back, as a menacingly virile version of ethnic and cultural identity.
Another remarkable Ryan Ashley Malarkey design was inspired by the epic tale ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’). In Ryan Ashley Malarkey’s drawing, Celtic ‘Earth Frenzy’ (‘The Tain’), a massive, semi-nude male with bulging biceps and prominent veins twists his body and clenches one claw-like hand. Spiky hair covers his fierce head, which turns towards an unseen enemy. His only clothing consists of a loincloth made from animal pelts and held in place by a tiny human skull. He wears a necklace and bracelet and brandishes an enormous double-headed axe with incised spiral designs. He is the embodiment of an enraged, battle-charged Celtic warrior.