Celtic tattoo designs cover a wide range of styles. Traditional Irish symbols and artwork are popular motifs for tattoos, particularly among those people who wish to connect with their heritage and illustrate their pride in their ancestry. The most iconic art work of Ireland is Celtic knots. Celtic knots are flatly represented lines that interweave and loop in an endless maze. These designs sometimes depict humans or animals, but might just be decorative.
The most famous source for Celtic knot-work comes from the Book of Kells, which contains the illuminated manuscripts of the four gospels.
The knots themselves often have a deep and symbolic meaning and are sometimes used as wards against evil. People who choose to get tattoos of Celtic knots, especially those with historical significance like the triskele or triquetra, should research the meaning of the designs.
Celtic crosses are also historically and culturally important, not to mention beautiful, and, as such, are popular tattoo designs. Oftentimes, these tattoos represent Irish heritage more than religious belief. The Celtic cross is a cross that intersects a circle. It is usually decorated with intricate knot-work and traditional designs.
As a tattoo, the cross design is primarily seen as an Irish or Christian religious tattoo design. However, the Celtic cross design is significant in Wales and Scotland, as well as parts of Scandinavia. Furthermore, it has as much Pagan history and influence as Christian. Because of this, the Celtic cross is an appropriate tattoo design for many different people, not just Irish Catholics. Cross tattoos are typically designed based on actual crosses that still exist or designs from illuminated manuscripts.
The Claddagh is one of the most prevalent Irish symbos. The Claddagh is two hands holding a crowned heart and began as an Irish wedding band or engagement ring, where the hands are extended around the finger to form a band. Symbolically, the Claddagh represents friendship, loyalty, and love, which are each portrayed by a different feature of the design and are all aspects of a good and successful marriage.
The hands are for friendship, the heart is for love, and the crown is for loyalty. Interestingly, the rings weren’t given by the loved one, but instead were used to show the wearer’s relationship status. When the heart is facing away from the wearer, it shows that she is available. When the heart faces her, she is taken and her heart is not open to others. The symbol, originating in a small village in Galway, has existed since the 17th century. As a tattoo, the Claddagh usually just represents Irish heritage and cultural pride, rather than a symbol of romantic involvement.
The shamrock is another common design to represent Ireland. A shamrock is a type of clover that has three heart-shaped lobes. Oftentimes, people confuse the shamrock, a symbol of Ireland, with the four-leafed clover, a symbol of luck. The four-leafed clover is not associated with Irish culture. Irish folklore suggests that true shamrocks, generally agreed to be a variety of white clover, can only be grown in Irish soil.
St. Patrick, a notable Irish saint, once used the shamrock to illustrate the idea of the trinity to druids and pagans. In the 17th century, the shamrock became a symbol of rebellion against control of the British, and wearing a shamrock was grounds for execution. Today, the shamrock is an unofficial symbol of Ireland (the harp is the official symbol), just like the thistle is associated with Scotland and the rose represents England. Shamrock tattoos are obvious designs to display Irish pride.
Americans often think of leprechauns when they think of Ireland. These little, fairy-like creatures didn’t appear in Irish folklore until around the 14th century, but they are, perhaps, the most well-known of all Irish tales. Supposedly, the little men, for they are always men, enjoy mending shoes and making mischief. They are sometimes portrayed as mean spirited or cruel. According to legend, they will grant three wishes in exchange for their release when they are captured. Leprechaun tattoos are whimsical and fun.
Most leprechaun designs are stereotypical and exaggerated versions of outside ideas of Irish culture. Often, they are depicted as little men with bright red hair dressed all in green. Although entertaining, leprechaun designs do not have the same historic tradition as other Celtic symbols.