Every spring, the city of Norfolk, Virginia, is transformed by a spectacle of sound, movement, and cultural vibrancy. This mesmerizing event is the Virginia International Tattoo, a vibrant tapestry woven from the threads of military tradition, breathtaking performances, and international camaraderie. The Virginia International Tattoo is itself a portion of the greater Virginia Arts Festival.

What is a Military Tattoo?

A military tattoo is a performance of music or display of armed forces in general. The term comes from the early 17th-century Dutch phrase doe den tap toe (“turn off the tap”), a signal sounded by drummers or trumpeters to instruct innkeepers near military garrisons to stop serving beer and for soldiers to return to their barracks and is unrelated to the Tahitian origins of an ink tattoo.

Virginia International Military Tattoo

Imagine, if you will, a vast arena bathed in the warm glow of stage lights. Anticipation crackles in the air as thousands of spectators lean forward, eager to witness the magic about to unfold. Then, a thunderous drumbeat erupts, sending shivers down spines and setting hearts racing.

Out march the massed bands, their uniforms a kaleidoscope of colors representing nations from across the globe. The air vibrates with the stirring melodies of bagpipes, the rhythmic pulse of marching drums, and the soaring crescendos of brass instruments. It’s a sonic kaleidoscope, each note a brushstroke painting a picture of martial precision and musical splendor.

The Virginia International Tattoo is more than marching bands

But the Virginia International Tattoo is more than just a feast for the ears. As the music swells, drill teams emerge, their movements as synchronized as clockwork. Military personnel from around the world execute complex formations with unwavering focus, their boots striking the stage floor in unison, a visual testament to discipline and teamwork.

The Tattoo isn’t just about military might, though. It’s a celebration of cultural diversity, too. Traditional dancers pirouette across the stage, their vibrant costumes and infectious energy infusing the arena with a joyous spirit. Celtic reels blend with Highland flings, and the hypnotic sway of Bollywood dances intertwines with the stomping rhythms of Irish jigs. Each performance is a window into a different culture, a testament to the unifying power of art.

Norfolk NATO International Village

And throughout the evening, moments of poignant reflection interweave with the celebratory mood. Tributes to fallen heroes, veterans marching with pride, and families embracing their loved ones in uniform – these are the threads that bind the Tattoo’s tapestry together, reminding us of the sacrifices made and the bonds forged in the name of freedom.

The Virginia International Tattoo is more than just a performance; it’s an experience. It’s a chance to be transported to different corners of the world, to witness the power of music and movement, and to celebrate the spirit of unity and shared humanity. It’s a dazzling display of discipline and delight, a vibrant reminder that even in the face of adversity, the human spirit can soar.

So, if you ever find yourself in Norfolk during the springtime, don’t miss your chance to experience the magic of the Virginia International Tattoo. Let the music wash over you, let the colors dazzle your eyes, and let the spirit of camaraderie fill your heart. It’s a spectacle that will stay with you long after the final curtain falls.

The Virginia Arts Festival Itself

The Washington Post has called the Virginia Arts Festival the “Tidewater Tanglewood. From a two-week festival in its first year, the festival has tripled in size and attendance. In 2016, the Virginia Arts Festival celebrated its 20th Anniversary season, presenting 72 ticketed performances throughout the region from mid-April through June, with patrons traveling from 49 states and 13 countries.

Fine Arts Festival

Begun in 1997, the Festival is focused on cultural and artistic education and exhibition. The Virginia Arts Festival offers year-round arts education programs, presenting special student matinee performances and aligning visiting performing artists with area schools for master classes, in-school workshops, and demonstrations. According to the Festival’s 2016 Annual Report, the organization’s education programs reached 39,644 area school children during the 2015–16 season.

One of the anchor events of the Festival is the Virginia International Tattoo.  Inspired by the grand traditions of Tattoos in Edinburgh and London, the Virginia International Tattoo had big dreams.  Led by J. Scott Jackson, the Virginia International Tattoo has become the largest such event in North America and numbers among the largest Tattoos in the world.

Tattoos around the world

According to Wikipedia, there are 23 officially recognized Tattoos that have been held or are still held around the globe. There are also smaller, less-promoted festivals that have taken in most Western Nations. While a commonality among the International Tattoos are the military band and weapons competitions, the sharing of cultural and military history is always a focal point.

Historically, International Tattoos have been used to bridge divides, build international partnerships, and at times have even been major stages for diplomatic negotiations. Dignitaries and Diplomats from across the globe are often on hand for the festivities, and use the festive nature as a working environment to build bridges between nations.  While visiting the Virginia International Tattoo, keep your eyes open; you never know who you might see.

International Tattoo Dignitaries