Taboo tattoos?

Three New Age Vikings tell their stories

tattoos

Photo courtesy of Viking Maddie

LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American

For many, a tattoo symbolizes permanence, self-expression, creativity, and transformation. Getting at tattoo may signify making a greater commitment to a profession, a relationship, a belief, or in the case of many Norwegian Americans, a connection to their heritage—and the choice of a Viking symbol is not unusual.

There is some evidence that the Vikings bore tattoos on their bodies. In his famous 10th-century chronicle of his encounters with Swedish Norsemen in the Middle Volga area of Russia, the Arab diplomat and scholar Ahmad Ibn Fadlan mentions that the men were tattooed from the tips of their fingers to their necks with dark green figures of trees and symbols.

In a discussion of whether Vikings had tattoos on the History Unplugged podcast, Scott Michael Rank speculates:

“It is likely, however, that the tattoos were probably dark blue, a color that comes from using wood ash to dye the skin. While Fadlan describes the tattoos as trees, he could have seen the Vikings trademark gripping beast or other knot work patterns of which the Vikings were fond. To him they resembled the women’s neck rings of gold and silver.”

Modern-day tattoos are created with special tools that use needles to insert permanent ink into the dermis layer of the skin. Most tattoos will hold up for at least 10 years before they require any retouching. In fact, because the tattoo pigment can lie so deeply encapsulated in the skin, forensic pathologists sometimes use them to identify burned, putrefied, or mutilated bodies.

While it is now possible to remove at tattoo with special lasers to remove or lighten the ink under the skin, these procedures can be problematical and costly—thus the decision to get a tattoo should not be taken lightly.

In light of the misappropriation of Norse symbols today, the choice of a Viking tattoo becomes even more problematic. Individual context is, of course, essential, but how can it be delineated within a broader context? Does getting a Viking tattoo constitute a meaningful connection to heritage or does it by design simply degenerate into fascinating fascism? Whose symbols are they anyway?

To explore these questions, The Norwegian American reached out to some of its followers who wear their tattoos with pride. As you read some of their stories, we’ll let you be the judge.

tattoos

Photo courtesy of Viking Seth

Seth got his tattoo about seven years ago. His mom and two sisters were getting tattoos, and they wanted him to have one as well.

At the time, Seth had a huge fear of needles but was finally able to convince himself to help get over that fear to just get a tattoo. He chose a design to represent his heritage. He personally designed and drew out the tattoo, taking different motifs and combining them in a historical manner.

He decided on Mjølnir (Thor’s Hammer) to represent the Norse people during the Viking Age, the trinity to represent being Christian, and the name “OLAF” in the runic alphabet to represent his “Viking” name. Seth has gone by Olaf as an alternate persona for many years. He first started using Olaf as a camper at the Camp Normanna Youth Camp for District 2 Sons of Norway near Everett, Wash., about 27 years ago. Since then, he has used that name as his alter ego. 

Seth explained that his tattoo means a lot to him, as it gave him the courage to get over his great fear of needles. It also is special because he started a Viking living history and reenactment group, Hrafngardr, six years ago. Sponsored by the Bothell Sons of Norway and as a member of the Northwest Viking Alliance, they demonstrate authentic Viking Age life, crafts, and steel fighting at festivals throughout the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada. As stated on their website: “We do not support any faith or worldview. We have no interest in racist or political ideology and distance ourselves from such views. We are here for the enjoyment of everyone, regardless of ethnic and cultural affiliation, faith, or gender.”

tattoos

Photo courtesy of Viking Kelly

Kelly explained that her tattoo represents her children. The valknut is for her son, Odin, now a grown-up man, as this symbol is often tied to the god Odin. The ballerina shoes and ribbons are for her daughter, who is 11 years older than her brother. The ribbons encircle the valknut to represent her protection over him. When Kelly named her son and up until this day, she has loved everything relating to Norse mythology. When she got her tattoo, she was a single mom, so the three triangles were intended to represent the mother and two children bound together in the face of the world.

It wasn’t until about 14 years ago that Kelly discovered that here paternal great-grandmother was 100% Norwegian; she had always been told that the family was “Swedish.” In her research, she discovered when her ancestors came over from Norway, they were under Swedish rule, hence the misunderstanding.

She has since been able to track her Norwegian lines back to the late 1500s in western Norway. She has also done DNA testing and confirmed that she, in fact, is “Norwegian,” as Norwegian DNA is predominant in her body. For Kelly, this was a “wake-up call and discovery” into who she was, and this knowledge makes her tattoo all that more special to her.

Photo courtesy of Viking Maddie

Maddie has a Vegvisir tattoo on her left foot, about 2–3 inches in diameter. It faces upright when you look at. It is the only tattoo she has. Maddie shared that she got her tattoo after her first trip to Norway in 2014. She had seen the place of her ancestors’ births and deaths and wanted to commemorate her visit to her ancestral home; she didn’t want to lose her memory of it as time went on.

It wasn’t a decision taken lightly. For nine months, Maddie did extensive research, from looking at things found on Viking ships to studying single runes. Most of all, she didn’t want to reproduce a typical cliché like a Viking ship. 

Her tattoo is an interesting conversation piece, and she is very proud of it. “Some people think the Vegvisir is a snowflake or something else,” she said, explaining that the roots of the symbol go back to Sámi culture. It is a compound rune, important for Maddie, who felt that one couldn’t encompass everything. She who bears this symbol will not lose her way in bad weather, even if the way is unknown. For Maddie, this means stepping on the right path and faith in the experience of her ancestral land; it brings her a sense of purpose. The symbol gives her a feeling of moving forward, going with the time, carrying on the Viking spirit.

It was important that the tattoo artist she chose understand the symbolism behind her tattoo. At the time, white supremacy groups were not on her radar; it was all about her connection to Scandinavia, a lifelong commitment to her heritage. She has no tolerance for racism, and it is connected to her Norwegian heritage. “The Viking system was merit-based system, not about race,” she said.

Maddie regrets that symbols like Thor’s Hammer are being misappropriated by racist hate groups. “It’s a violation, something stolen from our culture to create fear and discomfort,” she said. “We should not let them do it; we need to let them know it’s not OK. We need to tell the real story behind our symbols.”

This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.

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