INSET: Book cover and author’s portrait © Christina Heinrich, H2 Fotografie.
IN A.D. 793, hitherto unknown Nordic warriors swept out of Scandinavia like a firestorm and laid waste to the English monastery at Lindisfarne to begin what scholars have called the Viking Age. The Vikings have long been known for their less than reputable history as raiders and plunderers, but they excelled in shipbuilding, exploration, trading, war, and art production. Viking culture is rich in art, religion, and intellectual life and these aspects of their society have been preserved in monuments, such as burials, church art, rune stones, and more recently tattooing.
Nearly 25 years ago, pioneering Danish tattooists Erik Reime (Kunsten pä 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 and passed this knowledge on to the next generation of Neo-Nordic tattoo masters, like Colin Dale (Skin & Bone Tattoo, Copenhagen) and German-born Kai-Uwe Faust who works with Reime in the Danish capital.
Faust’s tattooing vision is now captured in his new 191-page English/German/Danish language book “Nordic Tattoo: Black Art” published by Arun-Verlag. What is black art you may ask? As Faust writes (p. 6): “This seems slightly occult; an atmosphere and creation. Black art stands for an artistic way of controlling darkness, for handling the shadows in order to be able to create wisdom and beauty.”
In a recent magazine interview, I asked Faust why he only sent me black and white photos?! He replied: “If you look at the oldest possible evidence for Nordic tattoos they are all black, and I only work in black.”
While there is no firm evidence regarding the types of tattoo pigments used by the ancient Scandinavians, I (like Faust) suspect that they were probably derived from natural substances, such as charcoal and soot. The oldest evidence of tattoo 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, as I have traveled the Tribal world documenting tattoos, charcoal is definitely the most widespread pigment used in tattooing because 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 Nordic tattoo artist be if he hadn’t cut his teeth wielding the traditional tools of his ancient ancestors?!
Nordic Tattoo is organized into several chapters and accentuated throughout with stunning images by German photographer Christina Heinrich of H2 Fotografie. Since 2009, Christina has been producing dramatically lit photo shoots with Faust’s tattoo clients who bare all to expose his elegant work that enhances the contours of the body in a very naturalistic way. Christina also travels to major tattoo conventions across Europe (I have met her in Brussels and Frankfurt) to provide her clients with exquisite shots of their newly acquired tattoos in the comfort of her mobile studio.
Throughout the book, Faust discusses the meanings and symbolism of the Nordic designs he uses to create his lasting works of art. These motifs are inspired by runes and magic symbols, power animals, petroglyph sites, Nordic deities, and mythological beings. Faust says: “My clients want to tap into the spiritual energy of nature and the holy places that dot the northern landscapes. Their chosen motifs are varied and 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.”
I have noticed a recent surge of interest in Nordic tattooing across the international tattoo community (eg., Marisa Kakoulas‘ recent tome BLACK TATTOO ART 2 features a chapter on the Nordic tattoo revival authored by Colin Dale). From Italy to Germany, Russia to the UK and beyond, tattoo collectors are very interested in the braided bands, writhing animals, and stippled organic forms that resonate with the life-power of the Nordic world.
I was curious to hear what Faust had to say about the future of the Neo-Nordic tattoo revival. So I asked, “Do you think it is here to stay?”
Bjørn with body suit by Astrid Köpfler and Dotwork elements by Kai Uwe Faust.
He replied: “We had all these recent waves in the tattooing world, from tramp stamps, Chinese characters, sugar skulls, and now it seems to be portrait art. But during the same time when all of those trends were popular, Neo-Nordic tattooing was being practiced but it was on the sidelines – it was never really popular, but then again it was never too unpopular. However, it is increasing in popularity now and I don’t see it going away any time soon.”
While I agree with Faust’s observations, I do know one thing is for certain. Today, there is a new wave of Neo-Nordic artisans that have appeared on the horizon, bearing a symbolically rich and meaningful body of ancient Scandinavian tattooing tradition for all to witness and experience for themselves. “Nordic Tattoo” captures the essence of this emergent world, and also the sacred body art of its many peoples.
Mange tak og skål!