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Viking Tattoos

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

I have been unsuccessfully trying to research whether my viking ancestors wore tattoos and what the designs looked like if they did. I would like to get a tattoo but want it to be a recreation of a viking tattoo so it has some significance to my heritage. Do you know of any resources that might help me out?

(signed) Art

Gentle Reader:

Tattooing is one of those art forms that is poorly preserved in the historical record. Because skin is so fragile, and rarely survives in burials, we almost never have confirmation of patterns or designs. Unless we find a tattooed Viking frozen somewhere so that the skin is preserved, we will never know what patterns exactly might have been used.

Still, we know that the Rus at least wore tattoos, for the Arabic observer Ibn Fadlan says in his Risala:

81. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Every man is tattooed from finger nails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, figures, etc.

The Arabic word for the color of the tattoos can mean green, blue or black. Almost certainly these were dark blue tattoos, created using wood ash as the dyeing agent.

Ibn Fadlan calls the designs "trees", but it is highly likely that he is actually describing knotwork patterns that were so common in northern art.

My recommendation is to look at Viking art sources, and select your design from patterns used during the Viking Age. I have listed some useful sources for Viking art in the bibliography below to help you.

Although it predates the Vikings by about 1300 years, an interesting parallel are the tattoos found on a Scythian chieftain in Southern Siberia in the Pazyryk region, ca. 500 BC. The Scythians inhabited the steppes regions, and their descendants were probably in contact with Rus and other Vikings who traded through Russia with Byzantium. This particular Scythian is very well preserved, because the burial mound or kurgan in which he was interred was dug deep enough to have the burial chamber below the level of the permafrost. Thus the chieftain's skin, and his tattoos, have been preserved. The artwork used in these tattoos is clearly based in Scythian artistic styles, and it is not hard to speculate that if Vikings practiced tattooing, their body art might reflect the designs found in their woodcarvings and metalwork.


Viking Coloring Books
Adults often ignore or underestimate the value of children's books, especially coloring books, as a source of artistic inspiration. The coloring books listed here are especially useful for artists and craftsmen.

    • Lindow, John. Myths and Legends of the Vikings. Santa Barbara, CA: Bellerophon Books. 1979.
      This excellent little coloring book is chock-full of line drawings of Viking Age art and artifacts, carefully selected to accompany the brief text retellings of the Norse myths by a noted scholar of the Viking Age. The best use of this particular coloring book is not for children, however, but for artists wishing to utilize Viking Age artistic motifs in their own work -- this book provides line drawings which can easily be used as artist's cartoons for projects ranging from embroidery to woodwork to stained glass to carving and so on.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Smith, A.G. Story of the Vikings Coloring Book. New York: Dover. 1988.
      The illustrations are line drawings adapted from Romantic Revival paintings and book illustrations, rather than actual Viking Age art and artifacts, and the scenes illustrated are mostly of warriors, warfare, and similar subjects.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Smith, A.G. Viking Designs. Dover Pictorial Archive Series. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1999.
      Another excellent little coloring book full of line drawings of Viking art and artifacts, perfect for use by craftsmen and artists.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

Tattoo Resources

    • Crowe, J. D. Vikings Vol. I. J. D. Crowe Productions. 1996.
      Although these "Viking tattoos" owe more to modern fantasy than to true Viking art, this book of professional tattoo designs is in wide use.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Davis, Courtney. The Viking Tattoo Workbook. Awen Press. 2002.
      This 49-page book is a collection of designs adapted from Old Norse sources, and includes over 150 images of birds, mythological creatures and interlacing adapted from Viking artwork. There are sections on Early Viking Styles, Broa Style, Borre Style, Jellinge Style, Mammen Style, Ringerike Style, Urnes Style, the influence of Viking art on Celtic decoration and modern interpretations suitable for tattoo art. This would be the tattoo flash source for those looking for more authentic Viking tattoos, rather than fantasy designs, though it is expensive at $50 and the Viking coloring books above are probably a better value. A lot of the work here is similar to Davis's much less expensive A Treasury of Viking Design (see below), but has the advantage here of having some textual explanations of Viking art periods and timeframes for the various illustrations presented.
      Available direct from Courtney Davis via PayPal.

    • The Tribal Bible Discusses the art of tattooing worldwide, with a very good discussion of the Scythian chieftain and his tattoos. Webpage accessed 28 Jan 2000.

Viking Art Resources

    • Bartholm, Lis. Scandinavian Folk Designs. Dover Design Library. New York: Dover Publications. 1988.
      This small book includes drawings and photos of designs in many media, including weaving, carving, jewellry and more. There are Viking Age and medieval examples included, although this book also includes later periods as well. This book is useful mostly as a source of inspiration to craftsmen rather than as a "pattern book".
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Davis, Courtney. A Treasury of Viking Design. London: Constable & Co. 2000.
      This 64-page book contains black and white line-drawings of motifs and designs from Viking art and artifacts. Many are enlarged versions of designs found in Wilson and Klint-Jensen's Viking Art (see below), plus motifs usually shown only in artifact photos elsewhere. The major weakness of this book is the lack of any text identifying or discussing the various images presented - it's purely a collection of designs, ranging in period from the earliest part of the Viking Age through the start of the more medieval Romanesque style art of the Scandinavian Middle Ages. Contains a lot of knotwork and "gripping beast" type motifs.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Meehan, Aidan. Celtic Design: The Dragon and the Griffin -- The Viking Impact. Thames & Hudson. 1995.
      The artwork of the Vikings and of the Celts share many similarities -- both cultures are Indo-European, and there was considerable intercourse between the two peoples via warfare, trade, and settlement. This book takes a close look at the stylistic differences between Celtic and Viking art, providing valuable insights into the fine details that make each culture's art unique. In general, Viking art is less formal and precise than similar Celtic works, and often shows a greater energy and originality. Includes illustrations that would be useful as designs for craftsmen.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Wilson, David M. and Ole Klindt-Jensen. Viking Art. 2nd ed. London: George Allen & Unwin. 1980.
      Not only includes a discussion of the art-history of the Vikings, but also includes 69 line drawings and 80 photographic plates showing details of Viking design. A must for any craftsman, from calligrapher to jeweler to leatherworker, etc.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

Viking "Coffee Table" Books
There are a large number of "art" books, often referred to as "coffee-table books" containing high-quality, large, full-color photographs of Viking art and artifacts. These can provide an excellent resource and source of inspiration for artists and craftsmen of all disciplines.

    • Graham-Campbell, James. The Viking. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields. 1980.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Graham-Campbell, James. The Viking World. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields. 1980.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. London: Penguin Books. 1995.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Roesdahl, Else, and Wilson, David M., eds. From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200. New York: Rizzoli. 1992.
      A very extensive catalog of a huge exhibit of Viking artifacts. Very hard to find, but well worth it!
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

Children's Books About the Vikings
Children's books are frequently overlooked by adults, however since they are usually copiously illustrated, they are a visual feast and often an inexpensive way to gain access to high quality photos of the same Viking art and artifacts featured in the larger, more expensive, "coffee table" type books. Many times these may be found second hand at your local used book store.

    • Clare, John D., ed. The Vikings. Living History Series. New York: Gulliver/Harcourt Brace & Co. 1992.
      The illustrations from this book are photos of European Viking reenactment groups, as well as recreations of actual Viking artifacts.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Margeson, Susan. Viking. Eyewitness Books Series. New York: Alfred Knopf. 1994.
      The illustrations from this book are photos of European Viking reenactment groups, as well as recreations of actual Viking artifacts.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

    • Roberts, Morgan J. Norse Gods and Heroes. Myths of the World Series. New York: Metro Books. 1995.
      The illustrations here are a mix of photos of Viking artifacts and prints/woodcuts from Romantic art depicting the Norse gods and myths.
      Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

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