It is a fact that tattooing has grown in popularity in the west in recent years, but most people do not take time to learn of the origins of the artform. There is archaeological evidence of tattooing stretching back five thousand years, but of course the practice could be much older than that. Tattooing has fallen in and out of favour in the west over the past few hundred years. Until recently it was not the done thing for members of polite society to mark themselves in this way, and some people still feel the artwork belongs in the gutter, despite the fact that many of the crowned heads of Europe were tattooed in the eighteen hundreds.
An interesting question for those of us in the Nordic world is what role did tattoos have to play for our Viking ancestors? Of course they had no electric tattoo machines to work with, so what did they do exactly? Their skill of tool-making, fine jewellery, wood carvings and ship-building serves as proof that they took pride in their creations. Tattooing would be no exception. They would tattoo themselves with a simple hand tool and poke the ink into the skin, the same way I tattoo my clients. I tattoo people without the aid of an electric tattoo machine, and instead I insert the ink with a sterilized tattoo needle attached to a stick.
A tattoo by Habba Nero
When I first started I didn't really think of my ancestors doing the same thing. Of course the Icelandic magical staves weren't created until the 16th century and tattooing had fallen out of practice by then due to Christians seeing it as a fundamentally pagan practice. Since starting work at Íslenzka Húðflúrstofan (the Icelandic Tattoo Corp.) I have really sunk myself into the Sorcerer's Screed. Reading about all the crazy spells that Icelanders in the 16th century thought would aid them in their harsh living conditions is interesting and I find that I see or read something new every time I open up the book.
A tattoo by Habba Nero
Habba Nero. A tattoo by Boff Konkerz
After going through the book again and again, I decided to pick a stave to get as a tattoo. I picked "Veldismagn" which is supposed to keep you safe and get you home unharmed after travels and it certainly seems to be working. Nothing bad has happened so far and I have traveled far and wide since receiving it. When Boff Konkerz (who also works at Íslenzka Húðflúrstofan) tattooed my stave I got instantly hooked. I started telling our clients about other staves and that generated a lot of interest. We started offering a range of staves as tattoos at the Icelandic Tattoo Expo and the attention it got was astounding. Icelanders and other nationalities seem just as hooked on receiving a part of our Icelandic culture permanently on their skin as I am giving it to them. The most popular one is without a doubt 'Vegvísir', also known as 'Waymark' or 'the Viking compass', possibly because our nations icon, Björk, had one tattooed on her upper arm years ago.
Tattoos by Habba Nero
Since the Sorcerer's Screed was released there has been an increase in the variety of Icelandic magical staves decorating people's skin worldwide. It is getting more and more popular for tourists to have a permanent momentum from Iceland, and more and more people are becoming aware of the handpoking technique, and it intrigues them to have their stave tattoos done the 'old fashioned way' just like the Vikings did all those centuries ago.
Tattoo by Habba Nero
Of course the people in Iceland in the 16th century didn't even know anything about tattooing, and if they practiced it they would have been burned for witchcraft anyway, so why even bother?
Frederick IX of Denmark
That's why I celebrate the increased interest in stave tattoos and respect that there were people who risked their own lives to create and use them. And who doesn't need a stave against dizziness or tummy ache, or to see who has stolen from you, or even a stave to see a ghost?
– Article by Habba Nero
Hrafnhildur, better known as Habba Nero, is an Icelandic machine-free tattooist who has worked in the UK, Ireland, France, the US, Austria and other places, and is now based at Íslenzka Húðflúrstofan in Reykjavík. She has had a life long interest in Icelandic magical staves, runes and symbols. Here she shares some of her thoughts on the connection of tattooing and these symbols.
Habba Nero, photo taken at MINK Viking Portrait Studio