How do we know the Vikings really had tattoos?

Posted on by Emma Levy

By now, it’s pretty widely accepted that the Vikings wore tattoos. It’s seen as an integral part of their fearsome, intimidating appearance.

One series that has helped that perception is the TV show Vikings. TattooedNow! is very proud to have the exclusive rights to distribute the designs used in the cult historical drama.

That means you now have the opportunity to decorate your skin and replicate the look of your favourite characters in the popular series.

But how do we know for sure that the actual Vikings were big fans of using tattoos to enhance their look while they went on their marauding travels?

The question persists. Did Vikings have tattoos?

When you go looking for convincing and conclusive evidence that they did, it’s surprisingly thin on the ground.

No Viking corpse has ever been discovered in a condition where the skin has been preserved so that we can say definitively that they wore tattoos.

The Vikings themselves showed very little interest in writing down their history, so there is no clinching detail to be sourced from their own records.

Indeed, the only piece of writing that makes a persuasive case in favour of the argument comes from an Arab traveller of the early 10th century.

And Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a scholar from Baghdad, had his encounter with Norsemen in the steppes of Russia, more than 1,000 miles from Scandinavia.

However, his account is extensive, eloquent and highly detailed. And at one point he writes: “Never have I seen people with a more perfect body than them. They are tall like palm trees, with blond hair and ruddy skin. From fingertips to their neck, each of them has a collection of trees, figures, and the like.”

That sounds pretty conclusive. And to back up Ibn Fadlan’s account, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that suggests anyone who depicts Vikings with tattoos is on solid ground.

Julius Caesar reports, in his account of the Gallic Wars from 54BC, that the Picts – a people with whom the Vikings would have come into contact – wore elaborate designs on their skin. They could have been paintings or tattoos but the visual effect would have been the same.

Similarly, William of Malmesbury writes that Anglo-Saxon warriors were heavily tattooed at the time when Viking invasions of Britain began.

Clearly, decorating your own skin was a widespread practice in Europe in the Dark Ages – and before. A body found preserved in ice in the Alps that dated back to the fourth century BC had no fewer than 61 carbon-ink tattoos on his back, arms and legs.

Take all these disparate sources and add a little bit of poetic licence. Then throw in our knowledge of the sort of designs Vikings created in their artwork on metal and stone.

What you end up with is the brilliant depiction of Vikings wearing tattoos as created for the TV show by make-up designer Tom McInerney.

To answer the question, did Vikings wear tattoos? Yes, we are pretty sure they did. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.