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The American Origins Of The Not-So-Traditional Celtic Knot Tattoo

What is the most cliched tattoo you can think of? Chinese characters? A tribal armband?

How about a Celtic knot? Those interlocking lines that look like ropes or basket weaving.

Last week I was in Ireland and decided to investigate the roots of this trend.

I spoke with Kevin McNamara at the Dublin Ink tattoo parlor.

"It would be a weird week in the shop if I didn't do at least, like 40," he told me. "That's not a literal number, but yeah, it's nuts."

Ah, it was the very first one I got. You know, when you're just getting a tattoo and you don't know what to think.
Irishman Greg Donne, on his fading Celtic knot tattoo

Without Celtic knots and shamrocks, McNamara said, he would never have learned how to tattoo.

"The first couple months, or first couple years, that was how I made my money," he said.

Now, the Celtic knot is his retirement fund.

He said he can spot Celtic knot customers the minute they walk in the door: young, earnest and almost always American. Other telltale signs: the style of jeans they wear, fanny packs, baseball caps.

"And also they let you know that they're American, you know?" he said. "You don't have to worry about that."

The image of the Celtic knot is thousands of years old. It's carved into ancient stones all over Ireland. But it turns out the Celtic knot tattoo is a bit like the Chinese fortune cookie: American born and bred.

There's actually no evidence of Celtic tattooing, according to Anna Felicity Friedman, a tattoo historian who runs a blog called TattooHistorian. In fact, while people in other parts of the world have been tattooing themselves for thousands of years, the practice only came to Ireland in the last century.

The Celtic knot tattoo seems to have started on the American West Coast in the 1970s and '80s, part of a trend in tattooing called blackwork: big, black geometric designs — much bolder than the old-school mermaid or cobra.

"Blackwork is sort of the more PC term for what used to be called tribal tattoos," Friedman says.

Some of the early designs came from Native American or Aboriginal patterns. The style took off.

Tattoos that mark heritage have always been popular, says Friedman. Combine the trend in blackwork with a desire to mark European heritage, and you have the Celtic knot, which spread across the U.S. and over the ocean to Europe.

It was sort of the "lite rock" radio station of tattoos: pretty, bland and inoffensive. It could work for women or men. It didn't have biker or sailor connotations. And it implied heritage and history.

At Dublin Ink, Irishman Greg Donne is getting a geometric pattern on his right shoulder. On his left shoulder, an intricate Celtic knot has begun to fade.

"Ah, it was the very first one I got. You know, when you're just getting a tattoo and you don't know what to think," he said.

He was 19, he explained with a shrug.

Tattoo artist McNamara has a lot of ink on his body.

So does tattoo historian Friedman.

But their personal tattoo collections do not include a Celtic knot.

If you have a Celtic knot tattoo, tell us why on Twitter @npratc.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is the sound of a tattoo needle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TATTOO NEEDLE)

SHAPIRO: And as it buzzes away, I want you to picture in your head, what is the most cliche tattoo you can think of? Chinese characters? A tribal armband? How about a Celtic knot? Those interlocking lines that look like ropes or basket weaving.

KEVIN MCNAMARA: It would be a weird week in the shop if I didn't do at least, like, 40.

SHAPIRO: Forty? Four, zero?

MCNAMARA: Not 40. That's not a literal number. But yeah, like, it's nuts.

SHAPIRO: Last week I was in Ireland and decided to investigate the roots of this trend with Kevin McNamara at the Dublin Ink tattoo parlor.

MCNAMARA: Without Celtic knots and shamrocks, I would never learned how to tattoo. And the first couple of months, or first couple of years, that was how I made my money.

SHAPIRO: The Celtic knot is his retirement fund. And he can spot a Celtic knot customer the minute one walks in the door - young, earnest and almost always American.

MCNAMARA: You can tell, like, maybe a rain jacket, the style of jeans they wear, like, kind of fanny packs, glasses, baseball caps. And also, they let you know that they're American, you know? You don't have to worry about that.

SHAPIRO: The image of the Celtic knot is thousands of years old. It's carved into ancient stones all over Ireland. But it turns out the Celtic knot tattoo is a bit like the Chinese fortune cookie - American born and bred.

ANNA FELICITY FRIEDMAN: I'm Anna Felicity Friedman. I'm a tattoo historian. I run a blog called tattoohistorian.com. There is actually no evidence of Celtic tattooing.

SHAPIRO: In fact, while people in other parts of the world have been tattooing themselves for thousands of years, the practice only really came to Ireland in the last century. The Celtic knot tattoo seems to have started on the American West Coast in the 1970s and '80s. It was part of a trend in tattooing called blackwork.

FRIEDMAN: So blackwork is sort of the more PC term that's come to be common lingo for what used to be - in the 1980s and 1990s - called tribal tattoos.

SHAPIRO: Big, black geometric designs - much bolder than the old-school mermaid or cobra. Some of the early designs came from Native American or aboriginal patterns. The blackwork style took off.

FRIEDMAN: Combined with this desire to mark European heritage. Tattoos that mark heritage have always been popular.

SHAPIRO: The Celtic knot tattoo spread across the U.S. and over the ocean to Europe. It was sort of the lite rock radio station of tattoos - pretty, bland and inoffensive. It could work for women or men. It didn't have biker or sailor connotations. And it implied heritage and history. At Dublin Ink tattoo parlor, Irishman Greg Donne is getting a geometric pattern on his right shoulder. And on his left shoulder, an intricate Celtic knot has begun to fade.

GREG DONNE: Oh, this one?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DONNE: Ah, it was just the very first one I got. You know when you're - you just really want a tattoo, and you don't know what to think - what you want.

SHAPIRO: He was 19, he explains with a shrug. Tattoo artist Kevin McNamara has a lot of ink on his body. So does tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman. But their personal tattoo collections do not include a Celtic knot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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