IN A.D. 793, HITHERTO unknown Nordic warriors swept out of Scandinavia like a firestorm and laid waste to the English monastery at Lindisfarne, in Northumbria, to begin what scholars now call the Viking Age. The Vikings have long been known for their less-than-reputable history as raiders and plunderers, but they also excelled in shipbuilding, exploration, and trade. Theirs was a society rich in art, spirituality, and intellectual life. These aspects of their culture have been preserved for us in the form of archaeological monuments and artifacts…and, more recently, tattooing.
Nearly twenty five years ago, pioneering Danish tattooists Erik Reime (Kunsten på Kroppen, Copenhagen) and Jorgen Kristiansen (Mjølner Tatovering, Aarhus) resurrected the ancient tradition of Nordic skin art through painstaking research of Celtic, Pict, and Viking tattoos. They passed this knowledge on to the next generation of Neo-Nordic tattoo masters – artists such as Colin Dale (Skin & Bone Tattoo, Copenhagen) and now Kai Uwe Faust, who works with Reime in Copenhagen.
Kai Uwe Faust, known to his friends as Dr. Faustus, gravitated to this organic, naturalistic, and zoomorphic style of tattooing very early in his artistic career. Originally from the small town of Siegen in Germany, he grew up in a deeply Christian household where television was not allowed but books were welcomed. One book that particularly intrigued him contained images of tattooed nomadic warriors – the Scythians, who ruled the Eurasian steppes over two thousand years ago. Today, Faust wears a Scythian-styled deer inked on his forearm (by Astrid Köpfler) as a tribute to these Iron Age warrior artisans who continue to fascinate him and inspire his epidermic talents.
In fact, Astrid Köpfler (all-around badass German tattooist, of Tattoo Tarot Project fame) took the young Faust under her wing for nine years. Kai tells me, “I was a lost kid. She took me in after seeing my drawings and offered me an apprenticeship. I can honestly say that was the best thing that ever happened to me in my entire life. She gave me so much perspective. And she also helped me land a guest spot at Kunsten på Kroppen, where I work to this day!”
According to Faust, the Neo-Nordic tattoo revival is “in his blood,” because “as a native northern European, it’s a thing that we have naturally inside of us. You see, where I come from we have stone circles in the forest, rock art sites and old places and monuments where you can still see the traces of the ancestors. The soil we are walking on was cultivated by our forefathers for thousands of years. We are connected to these places and to the things out there on the landscape. They are power centers, deeply spiritual and sacred.”
The term ‘Neo-Nordic’ was actually coined by Colin Dale. Faust says, “Colin came up with the term and it is perfectly fitting because, although the style references the ancients, the designs do not copy actual artifacts. ‘Neo-Nordic’ is an amalgamation of artistic elements from Sweden, Ireland and other northern European countries that even scientists would have a hard time characterizing.” The term generally refers to bold black and grey tattooing (though Dale has pioneered the use of natural red ochre pigments in some of his designs, I myself wear two of them). So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Kai sent only black and white photos for this article! When I asked the reason for this, he said, “I don’t work in color. I’m color blind.” For a moment, I thought he was serious…but then he went on: “No really, if you look at the oldest tattoos they are all black, and that is my preferred palette.”
Although there is no firm evidence regarding the types of tattoo pigments used by the ancient Scandinavians, I myself suspect that they probably used natural substances such as charcoal and soot. The oldest preserved example of tattooing in Europe is a 5300-year-old “Iceman” and it has been shown that his tattoos “were born of fire” and composed of vegetable carbon. Moreover, in all my travels through the tribal world documenting tattoos, I have found charcoal to be the most widespread pigment used. It is sterile and takes to the skin easily, especially when hand-tapped, hand-poked, or skin-cut; techniques I should note that Faust excels in. After all, what good would a true Neo-Nordic tattoo artist be if he hadn’t cut his teeth wielding the traditional tools of the ancients?!
Some of Faust’s clients have ‘gone back to nature’ and been tattooed with organic sooty pigments – on the tips of chert-tipped lancets and other skin-poking tools that severely test one’s courage, strength, and pain threshold. But in the end the ordeal is well worth it. As Faust says, “My clients want to tap into the spiritual energy of nature and the sacred places that dot the northern landscapes. Their chosen motifs are varied. Some people want to get their kids’ names in runes, make a memorial to a lost loved one, or have their spiritual cosmos or power animals tattooed on their bodies because they are very much into Shamanism and have these kinds of images already imprinted upon their minds.”
Kai Uwe Faust, Colin Dale, and other Neo-Nordic tattoo artists often wield their hand tools at the Viking fairs and other Nordic festivals that take place at heritage sites across northern Europe. As Kai tells me, “It’s a very special experience to create tattoos at these places because, over one thousand years ago, the Norsemen themselves were developing this artistic style at locations just like these.” Some of these fairs offer historical re-enactments and demonstrations, such as blacksmiths forging tools at their furnaces and heavily-armed (and tattooed) fighting men in armor who expertly maneuver their Viking longboats upon the water. Faust has entered into collaborations with many of the craftspeople involved in the Neo-Nordic network, such as traditional jewelry designers and leatherworkers. But one of his most enduring creative relationships is with his close friend, German photographer Christina Heinrich of H2 Fotografie, whose work is featured in this article. Christina has been producing her dramatically lit images of Kai’s elegant work since 2009, often taking her mobile photo studio to major tattoo conventions across Europe so that she can provide Kai’s clients with exquisite shots of their newly acquired tattoos.
Neo-Nordic folks seem constantly to be re-educating themselves about ancient forms of northern European art through book research or active engagement with the environment, where they seek out petroglyphs, runestones, and other monuments from which they might source design ideas. Faust says, “A lot of thought goes into finding meaningful sources of inspiration, and people are really interested in making the history come alive again by having it tattooed on their skin.” He goes on, “It may sound cliché, but it is really important to think about what you are putting on your body. So I really appreciate it when people come to me asking for a tattoo that will symbolize something with which they have an intimate connection – like family, the land, or spirituality – because that is something that is greater than themselves, and also greater than Facebook or Instagram! I know many artists look for inspiration on the Internet, but I don’t. My inspiration comes from old books, artifacts, nature, and carvings from religious sites, like old stave churches.”
As my interview draws to a close, I was curious to hear what Faust has to say about the future of the Neo-Nordic tattoo revival. Does he think the movement is here to stay?
Faust replied: “We’ve had all these recent trends in the tattooing world – tramp stamps, Chinese characters, sugar skulls, etc. – and now it seems to be portrait art. Neo-Nordic tattooing has always been there, all this time, but it’s been practiced on the sidelines. It’s never really been popular, but then again it’s never been too unpopular either. However, it is increasing in popularity now and I don’t see it going away any time soon. But we are still a really small niche in the ever-expanding tattoo world and that’s a fact.”
While I agree with Faust’s observations, I do know one thing is for certain. Today, there is a wave of Neo-Nordic artisans coming over the horizon bringing with them an ancient Scandinavian tattooing tradition, a body of art rich in symbolism and meaning, for all to see and experience.
Mange tak og skål!