Having a swallow tattoo is a creative way of expressing yourself. If you are going to get one, you may want to understand what it means first. The symbolism of the swallow tattoo is cause for controversy and confusion.
Possessing a swallow tattoo symbol used to be a sign of status among sailors. The meaning behind it was that swallows, supposedly, protected the sailors from harm on their journeys. However, a similar version of the story is that, if the sailors did die at sea, the swallow would protect their soul and carry them to heaven. Either way, the meaning is similar. It was a great comfort, as well as a status symbol, to sailors out at sea.
According to legend, after sailing for at least five thousand miles, a sailor could get a swallow tattoo symbol put on his chest, to mark the occasion. This gave him a great sense of honor and achievement. A longer version of the legend is that, when he had traveled over ten thousand miles, he was entitled to get a second swallow tattoo on the other side of his chest.
Getting a second tattoo gave sailors an enormous sense of pride and accomplishment. It also served as a sort of pictorial resume. Since traveling by ship was very dangerous during that time. Thus, it was a sign of an experienced sailor who could be counted on in a crisis. Sailors with two swallow tattoo symbols on their chests, instead of one, were especially sought after. It meant that they had weathered many storms and gotten through many challenges. Therefore, any captain looking for new crew members was always happy to see a sailor with two swallow tattoos on his chest.
Here is one story of the origin of the swallow tattoo: there was a ship named the swallow, the men had a mutiny and the original seven mutineers had swallows tattooed on them so that they could identify each other. Out of this, two things happened:
- The authorities heard of this identification and searched for the seven sailors who got swallows.
- Their friends got swallows tattooed on them and lied about being one of the original seven to throw the authorities off the right trail.
To a sailor the swallow means a "safe return home". Seeing a swallow is the "first tsign that land is near." Swallows are known to travel far distances out to sea during migration and would rest on boats close to shore which gave early mariners the first sign that land was indeed close by. The horizon is 12 miles from a boater's standpoint in the ocean (more if higher up) and swallows fly further then 12 miles out. The swallow is also known as a sparrow and was worn by the famous pirate "Jack Sparrows".
The story also goes that if a sailor with a swallow tattoo drowns; the swallows come down and lift his soul to the heavens.
The swallow is a noble bird, with a rich history. It is a symbol of honor, faith, love and hope. To sailors in olden days, it represented everything from luck to loyalty. It served as a reminder of family, friendship and honor.
In modern times, the sparrow has come to have many, sometimes quite different, meanings when worn as a tattoo. Here are some of them:
- Swallow tattoos are associated with loyalty and fidelity - swallows choose a mate for life and will only nest with that bird and no other.
- They carry a message of hope, when sailors saw a swallow they knew that land was near.
- It's a symbol of good luck for adventurers and travelers who will always find their way home. The swallows return home to San Juan Capistrano every year. So the tattoos were used to say that you will always come home.
- They are a sign of loyalty and pride.
- The swallow tattoo is a sign of enduring life, love and hope. It represents enduring courage and happiness.
There also seems to be a small connection to music. Some people connected swallows with a love, respect and appreciation for music. Much like the swallows always returning to San Juan, their home. The tattoo can represent always being home when you're within the music.
Before you run out and get a swallow tattoo, you might want to consider the following. Here is what one person shared about his grandfather's swallow tattoos:
"I grew up in a bad area in Australia and a grandfather of a friend of mine came from England. He was a very hard man and the whole family was very tough and underworld related. I remember being a kid in their house when the grandfather was there and I asked him what his tattoos meant. He looked down on me with a hard face and said in a thick English accent (they moved to Australia in the 70's) "It means I can walk into any pub and put my hands on the bar and if anyone would want to fight, then I would fight them". He was a big guy and I had heard rumors of him tearing people apart. So I guess that they kind of mean courage, strength and loyalty. Oh yeah he was also a "Teddy Boy" in England, but I am not so sure what that is."
Depending on where you grew up, and the places you hang out, swallow tattoos can also mean:
- "Live long and live hard".
- Swallows on the back of the hands are supposed to give you faster hands, such as in a fight or at work.
- The swallow tattoo in England means "these fists fly".
- If they're on the backs of the hands, it means you'll be faster and stronger in a fight. it's mostly in Great Britain and Australia though.
- In terms of jail house tattoos, the bluebirds, swallows or sparrows can stand for white supremacy or white power.
- In Great Britain, the swallow tattoo on your hands means you've earned your 'wings' in a UK prison, i.e. you have been inititated into male-male sex rituals.
- Swallow tattoos on a man's hands and neck originated in British prisons from the term 'jail-bird'. They indicate that you've gone to prison and done your 'bird'.
- In Scotland it usually signifies a spell in the infamous Bar-L or Barlinnie prison in Glasgow.
- The swallow's wings are so long that the bird never reaches the ground. It always flies high above everything else on earth. Prisoners are known to tattoo themselves with a swallow when they leave prison as a symbol of freedom.