Feathers, as an icon, can’t really be separated from their animal origins — birds. Each type of feather carries its own significance, due to the color patterning and the bird’s cultural meaning. There is what can be considered the generic feather tattoo, the simple silhouette or shape that implies that a bird of any kind dropped a feather along its travels. When taken at face value, the generic feather has come to represent spirituality and the sacred — birds fly, and their ability to fly has always been closely associated with the heavens. Plus, the other most famous winged icons in western culture (and also one of the other most famous tattoos) is the Angel.
The feather has been more than a symbol of western spirituality though, for a long time. Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice, would weigh her feather of truth against a departed’s soul to determine whether that soul belonged in paradise. Feathers have also been strongly associated with witchcraft and magic — one could decorate the clothing of a Voodoo doll, for example, with a specific feather to cast spells over the human the doll represents. Or, using the right tools, a modern witch could use the Native act of smudging and use a feather to gently waft the smudged smoke throughout the room — choose the feather you want to symbolize your smudge, and you’ve got a cleansed space with deeper meaning.
Specific bird feathers have come to have their own interpretations and meanings, depending on the culture and the bird itself. A blue jay feather symbolizes familial bonds; a blackbird feather invokes magic and mystery; a hawk feather has come to mean focus. Since it’s easy to come across feathers in our usual wandering, whether you’re a city-dweller or a country-liver, snagging a feather and using it as inspiration is an easy, accessible form of its own magic.
Some folks go further: not ready to be satisfied by simply using a real feather, tattoo aficionados have gone further to have feather tattoos inscribed in their skin. General or specific, feather tattoos have a permanent place in our tattoo lexicon, due to their simplicity, ubiquity, and allure.