Swallows are one of the most common motifs seen in traditional tattoos today (you’ve probably caught sight of one perched on some hipster’s hand or behind their ear), but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t rich with symbolism. These birds may be tiny, but, historically speaking, they are representative of a great deal.
It used to be customary for sailors who had completed long journeys to get tattoos of swallows as a way to commemorate their voyages. Surviving a lengthy stint at sea was no small feat. In fact, for seamen, such travel was likely the most formative experience in their lives. Though most people who sport swallows on their skin today probably haven’t ever set foot on anything more than a paddleboat, much less sailed around the world, these scissor-tailed icons retain their connotation as markers of incredible accomplishments.
Though it is difficult to ascertain how swallows ultimately became emblematic of the seafaring lifestyle, it probably stems from the fact that they never fly too far out to sea. Because of this, they were one of the first signs that land wasn’t far off, so they became associated with the idea of homecoming. Imagine what a sore sight a familiar shore would be after going from never seeing the ocean to not seeing home for months if not years on end. For this reason, tattoos of them became evocative of long voyages, acting as stamps of completion.
Others speculate that they accrued this metaphorical stature due to the fact that barn swallows migrate long distances every year, traveling from England to South Africa, through western France, down eastern coast of Spain, and across the Sahara. Their natural instinct to journey so far parallels the life of a sailor perfectly, so it only makes sense that they would take on such a connotation.
Since swallows fly for such long distances in real life, they’ve became veritable mile-markers in the realm of body art. According to most accounts, if a seaman had one swallow tattooed on his chest, it signified that he had sailed 5,000 nautical miles, while if he had two it meant he’d gone 10,000 nautical miles. Images of these birds were not only odometers, though. They also carried spiritual connotations along with them. Because of myths from various cultures, swallows were believed to usher souls of drowned sailors to heaven, so sailors also got tattoos of them as a sort of spiritual insurance in hopes of faring better in the afterlife.
In the contemporary tattoo landscape, swallows are no longer associated as immediately with life on the high seas, but they haven’t waned in popularity at all. Some tattooists, like Ashley Love, Bert Krak, and Ruslan Tsvetnov, keep their swallows as close to the traditional nest as possible. Johann Ingemar’s piece is even based directly on a design by Christian Warlich, an early pioneer in the style. Others — Beau Brady, Hugh Sheldon, and Samuele Briganti — take liberties with their designs of the birds, adding their touch to the timeless motif. But to make a long story short, swallows are still the perfect tattoo for commemorating any achievement in a person’s life, even if it’s not traveling around the world and back.
To see more traditional tattoos, make sure to follow all of these artists on Instagram. If you’d like to commemorate one of your achievements, be it a long journey or some other personal tour de force, have one of them design a swallow tattoo for you.
You just set sail with Bold that Holds, our series where we explore the meaning behind classic motifs in the world of traditional tattoos. We hope you enjoyed learning about the symbolism of swallows. If you want to find out more about the history behind the style, check out these other installments about anchors, reapers, pigs and roosters, phonographs, the Sacred Heart, lighthouses, and the Rock of Ages design.