The sight of a bird soaring high in the sky has always fascinated humankind. It epitomizes the freedom of mind and spirit that all of us crave and cherish so fondly.
While eagles and owls have often represented this sense of ‘flight without boundaries’ and ‘transcendent wisdom’, other birds like swallows are also associated with the sense of unfettered exploration and adventure. And this is why swallow tattoos are growing in popularity among youngsters all over the world.
Ancient Greek and Roman mythology told us that the swallow represents a departed person’s soul, and spoke of Gods who could transform themselves to take the form of a swallow. Today many people consider the swallow their ‘spirit animal’ that represents fidelity, grace, happiness and peace in their lives.
This helps explain why swallow tattoos have grown into a popular fad. Not only do people find their attractive designs appealing, they are also drawn by the deeper symbolism in having swallows tattooed on their bodies.
So what exactly does a swallow tattoo stand for?
Certain species of swallow can travel long distances while migrating every year. This has led swallow tattoos to be linked with travel and homecoming, making it a frequent choice for travelers and adventurers.
A conventional tattoo of two swallows symbolizes a long journey. Historically, British sailors used swallow tattoos to boast of their extensive travel experience. A legend claims that the tattoo of a single swallow implies that the wearer has sailed five thousand nautical miles, and that two swallows represent 10,000 miles at sea – no mean feat in the 17th or 18th centuries when sea travel was risky and fraught with danger.
Fortunately, these days you won’t be ordered to justify how you earned your swallow tattoo. But even shorn of that honor, it stands for some important qualities and characters that mean a lot to the wearer.
Some sailors considered a swallow tattoo to be a lucky charm, lending hope of a safe, happy homecoming after an extended voyage across the ocean. Some had a swallow etched when they crossed the equator on a ship – and then got another one done when they returned!
Another myth suggests a connection between swallow tattoos and a mutiny on board a ship named ‘The Swallow’. The 7 mutineers who initiated the revolt had a swallow tattooed on their chests so they could recognize each other.
Swallows are also closely associated with Spring, the season of fresh hope, awakening and renewal. In Egyptian poetry, it is often a swallow that brings the first signs of new love. So a swallow tattoo represents the revival of hope and love. Two lovers might display swallow tattoos on their bodies as an expression of their deep rooted affection for each other.
And, of course, the swallow symbolizes freedom. A tattoo of a swallow can suggest risk-taking, bold and change-oriented behavior, standing for the hope and dream of a better, brighter future.
Swallow tattoos can also be symbols of patriotism, offering a way to cherish and respect one’s country, region or even family. The interesting combination of freedom with love that’s depicted by a swallow tattoo is encapsulated in the pithy quote, “When you love a person very much, set them free.”
The swallow is a symbol of purity and holiness. Seeing the first swallow in spring was for long considered a good omen, foreshadowing the arrival of great financial success. In a broader sense, you can expect that nothing bad or harmful would ever come from a swallow. Other symbolic meanings attached to these tattoos include surviving hardship or gaining a victory after a tough battle.
All this information should give you something around which to weave your own narrative about your body inking, and to help interpret your tattoo in a uniquely individual way.
The Most Popular Swallow Tattoo
Sailor Jerry, a fond nickname for tattoo artist Norman Collins, is known as being the creator of an iconic American swallow tattoo. Jerry, whose clients were often sailors, used simple, elegant lines to etch colorful swallows in expressive poses.
His tattoos were beautiful sketches of Barn Swallows in rich red, blue and white plumage, with an occasional touch of brown or green. It helped that the primary color choices were also in the same colors of national flags of the USA, United Kingdom and France, making his designs especially appealing to citizens from those nations.
You say ‘Swallow’, I say ‘Sparrow’
There’s often a lot of confusion between swallow tattoos and sparrow tattoos. This is so common that the meaning and symbolism of both sparrow and swallow tattoos have become inextricably mixed up, even diluted to a significant degree.
This is hard to understand because even though the two birds look similar, and even have a few behavioral characteristics in common, they are otherwise completely different, more so in their symbolic meanings as totem figures and as an inspiration for tattoos.
Sparrow tattoos, for instance, are often considered to represent determination and assertiveness that go hand in hand with a strong character. Swallow tattoos, on the other hand, are gentler and subtly optimistic in a distinct way, as they primarily indicate a sense of freedom and growth.
Where to get your swallow tattoo?
Getting down to practical matters, if you’re looking to get a trendy swallow tattoo, where do you have it done? And what else do you have included in your design along with it?
A little swallow nesting on your left shoulder can signify travel and adventure, loyalty and patriotism. Since these images can be scaled down to really small sizes, you could get one or more swallows inked onto your wrist on the inside, too. Many people like having a flock of birds in flight as part of their tattoo design.
But the same image on the hands or neck could also mean something more sinister – like having spent time in jail, having “done your bird” (‘bird’ comes from Cockney slang for “bird lime” which means “doing time”). In the United Kingdom, a swallow tattoo on the hand also means “these fists fly” – and is worn by men who were known as good fighters, or were just hard men.
The most common locations for a swallow tattoo, however, are the chest, hip, shoulders or lower back. A swallow can be all by itself, or combined with elements like an arrow, cherry, banner, stars, or some text. Some swallow tattoos are in black only, while others are in bright, beautiful colors.
Which swallow should your tattoo model?
Most often, these tattoos are modeled on the Barn Swallow or European Swallow, a colorful little bird with an orange head/face, white belly and blue colored back. These colors may either be faithfully reproduced in a tattoo, or swapped for brighter shades.
If you aren’t clear about the kind of image you want for your tattoo, be sure to explore the extensive swallow picture galleries online. You’re sure to get some creative ideas by seeing what others have done with their body art.
Then read a little more about the symbolism of the pictures or designs you find most appealing. Pick the one that speaks to your heart, and have it inked by a skilled artist. It will be a meaningful, personal and lasting reminder that you’ll cherish for a long, long time to come.
Bird designs have always been popular choices for body inking. It’s hard to imagine them ever going out of style. And swallow tattoos will continue to be appealing and interesting because they have meaning and purpose as well as historic context attached to them.
While cultural significance will vary with context and region, one thing remains constant. A swallow tattoo stands for good things in your life – and in your future.