The first known origins of the swallow tattoo date back to a ship named The Swallow. Seven crew members staged a mutiny and had a swallow tattooed on their chests to recognize each other. After this event, the swallow became the go-to design for showing off sailing skills. A swallow tattoo was traditionally tattooed on the chest for every five thousand nautical miles that sailor has traveled, so the more tattoos of a swallow the sailor had on his chest, the more experienced he was.
Of British origin in the early days of sailing, it was the image of a Barn Swallow, usually tattooed on the chest, hands or neck. It is also legend that if the sailor drowns, the swallows will carry their soul to heaven, representing freedom and hope.
Swallows have always had great meaning to sailors, because before modern navigation, birds were a sign that land was close at hand. They are a symbol of returning home safely.
The swallow is a bird that chooses a mate for life. Tattoos that include two swallows is often a symbol of soul mates joined together. Therefore, another meaning for a swallow tattoo is loyalty to family. Other meanings include a struggle that has been overcome, a victory gained, and a hardship survived. Swallow tattoos are rich in symbolism and usually mean something special to the specific owner of that piece of artwork.
Today, the symbol of the swallow can mean many different things. It is considered a staple of the “British Traditional” and “Sailor Jerry Collins” style tattooing.
Ex-Sailors of the British Royal Navy have a swallow tattoo on both hands above the thumbs as a symbol of a successful voyage.
Another coined term in the UK for the swallow tattoo on the hands is a symbolism of a prison sentence from an ex-con to the meaning of “done your bird, done your time”.
One kind of swallow tattoo is done in the old school style. Either black and grey or shaded with muted colors, these tattoos channel the style of sailor tattoos. There is often a banner with a message surrounding the bird to enhance the symbolism. Another style of bird tattoo is the new school style. This is more stylized and colorful than the old school style of tattooing. Bright colors, shading, and other accents including stars are included.
Either way bird tattoos are strong symbols. Due to the varied meanings of the tattoos, anyone can get a swallow tattoo and have personal meaning behind it.
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