The Fascinating Significance of the Swallow Tattoo
Historically, swallow tattoos were used by sailors to brag about their experience on the ocean. The swallow tattoo originates in Britain and was traditionally worn on a sailor’s chest. The beautiful barn swallow is native to British back gardens and was also a reminder of home for sailors spending many months at sea and away from home and their loved ones.
The tattoo was not merely an adornment; it carried serious prestige along with it and could mean the difference between one sailor being hired over another with less experience. A sailor was gifted the honour of a swallow tattoo after serving so many miles at sea. One swallow was equal to 5,000 nautical miles, a great distance in treacherous seas during the early days of sailing. For every 5,000 nautical miles of sailing under the seadog’s belt, another swallow was added. Travelling such great distances was extremely dangerous and the mark of the swallow tattoo denoted only the best and most experienced guys for the job. Experienced sailors were a valuable commodity so before being inked, the man’s sea mile credentials would be carefully checked to ward against cheating. The swallow tattoo commanded respect and was a great emblem to look up to and something for young inexperienced sailors to aspire to.
Swallows return to the same roost to nest and find a mate every year so it was also believed in, different sailing communities, that the swallow tattoo would guide the sailors back home safely. This is a concept held and incorporated into many traditional and tribal tattoo designs such as the turtle and the dragon and the same cultural beliefs will be tacked onto different animals. The sailor would have a swallow tattooed on his forearm before setting off on a treacherous journey as a talisman for good luck. On his safe return he would have a second swallow to mark the end of his journey. If the sailor didn’t make it home it was said that the swallow would carry his soul to heaven.
The bird is also representative of: love, care, affection, loyalty, freedom and hope. The swallow is traditionally British and worn as a mark of National pride. Ex-sailors of the British Royal Navy still have swallows tattooed on both wrists when they come out of service as a mark of thanks and respect for the tours undertaken and for bringing them to the end of their service in good health.
In other ideas of symbolism ex-cons have swallow tattoos on the back of their hands. Doing time is known as, ‘doing bird,’ and when a prisoner comes out of jail he has done his bird, hence the swallow tattoo on the back of his hand. Similarly, in Scotland there is a term meaning ‘This Fist Flies,’ and the swallow represents this. This one is also worn on the back of the hand, left hand for bird and right hand to indicate a man’s fighting prowess. It is worn by hard men in Glasgow as a status symbol. Over time, many tattoo symbols and meanings shift and alter.
The Nautical Star and Pride
The swallow is often combined with the nautical star and is worn by lesbians. Originally, when the trend was taken up, it was only the star that was of lesbian significance but in recent years, the swallow has become intrinsically entwined with the star. Lesbians wear stars as a mark of pride in their right to choose their gender preference and as a memorial to women in the past who had to hide their lesbian status. In the 40’s and 50’s women had tiny stars tattooed on their inner wrist where it could easily be hidden by jewellery and was used as a secret lesbian sign to other like-minded women. They would cover them through the day and leave them exposed at night when they were looking to take a new lover. Today the stars are worn by both gay men and lesbians and often combine with swallows to indicate a lesbian or gay pride tattoo.
Swallows and Ladies
The swallow is a beautiful blue and white bird with a split tail to streamline their flying and give them better anchor and direction. It makes for a delightful tattoo regardless of symbolism and some of the rawer connotations surrounding the design. Ladies often compliment the image with
- Garlands of flowers
Swallows make the basis for a great ankle band, wrist band or breast adornment. In contrast to much of its history being synonymous with fists and fighting, it is also an emblem of peace and love and it is worn over the chest in pairs with the two birds facing each other. The humble swallow is many things to many people and then again, some people just get one because it’s pretty—and why not?