Tattooing is so popular because it offers for many not just a chance to explore and express their creativity or personal aesthetic, but in many cases to connect with their cultural roots as well. Younger generations especially have, in recent years, nearly perfected the practice of marrying old with new and proclaiming their ethnic heritage through a design inked onto their skin.
This isn't actually as strange as it may seem at first. After all, tattooing has been around for millennia, and was actually gifted to the West by other cultures, specifically from Asia and Polynesia. But despite the rich cultural history underpinning tattooing, many of the heritage-specific emblems people seek out in tattoo form are not strictly speaking "traditional" tattoos. One design in particular – the increasingly popular Celtic knot tattoo – has actually had its origins uncovered as far more modern than many may think.
The knot is not as traditional as you'd believe
Chances are, you've seen the popular image of the Celtic knot cropping up more and more in recent years. This sigil, dating back to the days of the Celts around 450 A.D., ties in closely with the cultures tradition of mysticism. According to Whats-Your-Sign.com, the Celtic knot could take many forms, but was typically associated with the mysterious and cyclical nature of beginning and endings. However, despite the fact that the ancient Celts were fond of the symbol of the knot, there is almost no evidence to suggest that the practice of tattooing it onto individuals was ever done in that time.
In fact, one artist located in the U.K. indicated that the Celtic knot tattoo is a "tradition" that may only be a few decades old. As Dublin artist Kevin McNamara told NPR, Celtic knots represent one of his most-performed tattoos – and also one of his least authentic. As the source noted, most of McNamara's clients requesting the knot are American, with few, if any, native Irish or Scottish customers seeking to explore their heritage in such a way.
According to NPR, the Celtic knot is thousands of years old, but the tattoo version is quite a bit younger – estimated to have originated in the U.S. in the 1970s and '80s. Developed on the country's West coast, the Celtic knot tattoo actually began as a variation on tribal tattoos – a popular class of tattoos featuring heavy black geometric lines, often meant to mimic or imitate the appearance of tattoos performed by Polynesian tribes.
A history of nontraditional tattoos
Of course, the Celtic knot isn't the only historical symbol to erroneously get the tattoo treatment. In fact, cultures from all over the globe have had symbols appropriated and turned into trends via body art and even some bad tattoos. The Internet is awash with blogs and Pinterest boards filled with people's tribal tattoos, images of dreamcatchers and other cultural symbols that were never actually meant to be portrayed in tattoo form.
Many of the more popular designs within modern tattoo culture originated from the roots of other cultures – from Asian or Polynesian to nautical and sailor-oriented. However, many of these designs, such as the near-ubiquitous Chinese character, were not actually implemented as tattoos in their culture of origin. This highlights an interesting effect of the growth of the tattoo industry – the merging of old and new, to produce what some may see as appropriation and others may hold up as a new type of art.
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