The art culture has flourished throughout Europe for thousands of years, so it's no surprise that some of the most talented tattoo artists in the world come from countries in Europe like Italy, Spain, Poland, France, and the UK. Many of the best European tattooists have adopted classic art styles, like impressionism and water color, but you can also find a plethora of talented artists who specialize in more modern tattoo art styles, like biomechanical tattoos.
How has the art of tattooing progressed in Europe throughout time? Who's who in the European tattoo community now? What styles of tattoos are most popular there? What do you need to know before getting a tattoo souvenir in Europe? We answer these questions and more in this first post in our Tattoo Culture Abroad Series, which aims to take you on a virtual tour of global tattoo art. We'll globe trot from Europe to South America to Africa and beyond, pausing along the way to explore the similarities and differences between tattoo cultures on each continent. Today our tattoo culture abroad spotlight is focused on Europe and the amazing tattoo art that permeates one of the world's first modern civilizations.
A Brief History of Tattoo Art in Europe
The art of tattooing dates back more than 5,000 years and may have originated in Europe. This theory comes from the scientific discovery of the body of Ötzi the Iceman, named so because his mummy was found in the Ötz Valley, which is nestled in the Alps. Ötzi's body was adorned with tattoos that scientists believe were inked sometime around 3001 B.C. The crude line tattoos found on him are believed to be evidence of a neolithic pre-writing system, and dot-style tattoos on Ötzi's mummy are placed around traditional acupuncture points, suggesting that he may have also been tattooed for healing purposes.
Scientists have also uncovered tattooed mummies that date back to around 2,000 B.C. that appear to be of mixed Western Asian and European heritage and others of Russian descent. These tattooed mummies lead us to believe that tattooing had become a more common practice among both Europeans and Asians within a thousand years of the time that Ötzi the Iceman lived.
Between 1200 and 400 B.C., the tribal Celts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales adopted the art of tattooing. They were particularly fond of blue woad tattoos. Most ancient Celtic tattoos included spirals, complex knots and braided designs that symbolized the interconnectedness of all life forms, as well as labyrinth or key patterns that represented the many paths one's life can take.
Tattooed Pazyryk mummies dating back to 385 B.C. were found in Siberian mountain tombs just north of the Russian/Chinese border, further documenting the progression of tattoo art throughout Europe. Some of their tattoos are believed to represent tribal status, but the mummies are also adorned with primarily decorative tattoos of animals, monsters and mythical creatures. Pyzyryk tattoos may have had magical significance, but they're some of the earliest examples of tattoos inked primarily for self-adornment rather than strictly for religious or healing purposes.
The first physical example of tattoo art in Greece was found on a mummy believed to have lived around 300 B.C. However, it wasn't until between 100 and 1 B.C. that tattoo art became prevalent in Greece. Women adopted tattoos as exotic beauty marks at that time, and Romans began to follow suit, first using tattoos to mark and disfigure both slaves and criminals. Tattoos were also popular among the tribal Picts of Scotland around the same time, but they used tattoos to adorn their warriors with fierce, war-inspired designs intended to intimidate their rivals in combat.
The practice of tattooing in Europe ebbed and flowed in the centuries after the Greeks and Romans first adopted the art of tattooing. Between 306 and 337 A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine banned facial tattoos, which had been popular among criminals as well as his own soldiers and gladiators. That didn't stop all Europeans from engaging in tattooing, though, because Vikings were documented as being "covered in pictures" around 1100 A.D., and other European tribal cultures continued the practice in the years after Constantine's ban.
In the 1700s, tattoos became popular among British naval officers after Captain Cook brought back tattooed natives from Polynesia. It was also common for French sailors to return from trips to the South Pacific with tribal tattoos–a trend that continued until 1861, when tattoos were banned in the French military due to health concerns.
Over the next 150 years, tattooing continued to evolve into a progressively more refined art form with more mass appeal than ever before, leading people to begin looking for more efficient ways to create tattoo art. In the mid 1800s, an American invented the first rotary tattoo machine, and two Londoners created the first two coil tattoo machines. Alfred Charles Souths' first double-coil tattoo machine was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling via springs to be operable. In the 165 years since then, tattoo machines have been dramatically improved, with most modern coil and rotary machines weighing a mere few ounces.
As for the art of tattooing, it's advanced so dramatically just in the past 165 years that modern tattoo art puts Ötzi the Iceman's simple dot and line tattoos to shame. People now get complete scenes, portraits, biomechanical designs, water color-inspired artwork, and other elaborate designs tattooed on them, in addition to old school tattoos and tribal tattoos with a flavor that calls back to the first modern European tattoos from the 1700s.
Modern Day Tattoo Art in Europe
Today, the tattoo culture of Europe is much like that found in the US. From one end to the other, Europe is practically littered with tattoo shops ranging from quaint little boutiques to large, modern tattoo studios. The European tattoo convention circuit is constantly in motion, too. Tattoo shops and independent tattoo artists strive to provide their clients with sterile tattooing environments, quality tattoo inks that are often organic and sometimes even vegan, and high-quality service that will generate referral business. It's a scene that's a far cry from that found through most of the Middle East, Africa, and other largely-tribal areas, where hole-in-the-wall tattoo shops with questionable sanitation standards abound.
Many of the current top US tattoo artists are also sought-after in Europe–artists like Dan Henk, Paul Acker and Carl Grace, just to name a few. However, quite a number of exceptionally talented tattoo artists have come out of Europe. Complex.com's 2015 50 Tattoo Artists You Need to Know includes European tattoo artists Angelique Houtkamp from Amsterdam, Valerie Vargas and Xed Leadhead of London, Louis Molloy from Manchester, UK, Woon Kim of Germany, and Daniel DiMattia from Belgium, and this last barely scratches the surface of Europe's most talented tattooists. As in the US, tattoo art is varied, with some artists focusing on styles ranging from old school tattoos to portraits to sci fi designs and others touching on every tattoo style known to man.
Getting a Tattoo in Europe
When searching for a reputable tattoo artist in Europe today, the effort is as simple as getting out your phone, tablet or laptop and Googling "best tattoo artists in [location]". From the comfort of your hotel room, a coffee shop or even a train station, you can peruse the portfolios of the best tattoo artist near you, wherever you are in Europe. If you're in a more rural area, you may have to travel a little way to get to a seasoned tattoo artist, but you're likely to find a good shop where you can get a tattoo souvenir you'll treasure forever by traveling within a couple-hour radius of your current location. If you want to meet up with a specific tattoo artist, you should plan ahead and schedule your European trip around your tattoo appointment. Some of the top artists have calendars booked up a year or more in advance, so don't take it for granted that you'll be able to walk into a shop like England's Triplesix Studios and have the infamous Bez tattoo you the same day.
Whether you wait to meet a European tattoo artist whose artwork you've been dying to add to your tattoo collection or get a more spur-of-the-moment tattoo souvenir from a reputable local tattoo artist you found online, it's important to choose a tattoo artist whose portfolio shows consistently does quality work that heals well. You should also give careful consideration to the tattoo design you choose, keeping in mind that it's going to be with you forever unless you go through the costly process of having laser tattoo removal or getting a cover-up tattoo later. Don't cop out and opt for a four-leaf clover while you're in Ireland or something else equally cliche relating to the area you're visiting. It's fine to incorporate local culture and traditions into a tattoo design, but make sure your choice is unique to you and something you know you'll always look at with fond memories of your European adventure. Also, take your chosen tattoo artist's style into consideration. If s/he excels at a particular style of tattoo art, then that's the way to go. Tell your artist the elements you want incorporated into your tattoo, and see where s/he takes the design. You can always request changes, but if you really like the artists' work in general, you should be able to trust him or her to create a unique design you'll love.
When you walk into an unfamiliar European tattoo shop, there are a few things you should look for to ensure that you'll be getting your tattoo souvenir in a safe, sterile environment. Here's a short checklist of things to investigate when you get to the shop:
- Do they have an autoclave? A dry heat sterilizer or chemical baths are sufficient alternatives, when used correctly. However, boiling tattoo tools, steaming them in something like a pressure cooker, or just hand-washing tattoo tools are not acceptable sterilization methods. Make a U-turn if you find out the shop you're considering uses anything but a proper sterilization method. If a shop does have an autoclave, you can ask to see a record of their last spore test to make sure it's up-to-code, but not all European countries require tattoo shops to keep this information for client review.
- Does the tattoo artist you'll be seeing have all equipment that can't be sterilized bagged or covered with other appropriate forms of barrier protection? Is the artist wearing disposable gloves? At minimum, their tattoo machine, connective cables and hands should be covered.
- Are all tattoo needles, disposable grips and tubes, and other disposables being removed from sterile packages in front of you before being used? Are all used needles being disposed of properly in bio-hazard containers? If not, get out!
For more tips on choosing a tattooist and shop in Europe or anywhere, check out our How to Choose a Tattoo Artist and Choosing the Most Sanitary Tattoo & Piercing Shop articles. Also, be sure to tune in next week for the next installment of our Tattoo Culture Abroad Series.
History of Tattoos Article on PainfulPleasures.com
50 Tattoo Artists You Need to Know Article on Complex.com
A Do and Don't Guide to Getting a Tattoo Article on Travelettes.net
Getting Tattooed While Traveling Post on SeattlesTravels.com