The History of The Swallow Tattoo

The History of The Swallow Tattoo
22/03/2019 SarahB
In Lifestyle, Tattoos

Those sailors have been at it again, starting trends and making waves.

As with most symbols in traditional tattooing Swallow Tattoos started on the high seas.

Before modern navigation systems were invented, sailors would know they were close to land when they would spot swallows flying overhead. This translated to them becoming a symbol for a safe return home.

It was for this reason that Big Boss Lady Sarah got a swallow tattoo when she first moved to London for university. Years later as London got too expensive for our budding brand, we moved back to Yorkshire and adopted the swallow as our new logo. Symbolising our safe return home.

You can shop the Swallow collection here.

Legend has it the origins of the swallow tattoo go back to a ship named (you guessed it) The Swallow. There was a mutiny on board and in order to recognise each other the 7 mutineer’s who started it tattooed a swallow on their chest.

Symbols of Accomplishments

After the mutiny on The Swallow, Sailors often got swallows tattooed as symbols of various nautical accomplishments. Traditionally a sailor would get a swallow on their chest for every 5,000 nautical miles they had sailed.

As travelling by the sea was so dangerous at the time. Someone who had a couple of swallows on their chest was seen as a very experienced and valuable sailor.

Sailors also used to get swallows after sailing all 7 seas, crossing the equator and sailing around the horns of Africa.

Legend also has it that should a sailor drown the swallow would carry his soul to heaven.

Symbols of Love

Swallows are monogamous and only have one mate for their entire life so are often tattooed as a symbol of eternal love. The fact they always return home when they have the freedom to take flight gives a visual meaning to “If you love someone, set them free. If they love you, they will come back.”

Sailors would often pair a swallow with a banner of their ladies name and a heart to symbolise their undying love for them.

Symbols of Strength

Swallows are fast birds,it has been said that getting a swallow on your had gives a fighter extra speed and accuracy. Sailors and fighters would often get swallows tattooed on their hands to show they are swift, strong and ruthless fighters. A Swallow with a lightning bolt in its design symbolises overcoming a particularly tough stage in a journey.

Symbols of Rebirth

In some cultures, swallows are seen as a symbol of rebirth and positive change. Something we all experience at one time or another in our lives. In countries where migrating swallows live, their return is a sign that spring has arrived.

In the past it has been said that Swallows carry the spring with them when they return. Spring is associated with new beginnings and rebirth, so as a creature that brings spring to different places around the world it has become a symbol of newness, joy and new beginnings.

There has been a surge in the popularity of swallow and other old school tattoos since the rockabilly scene has took off.

The iconic swallow we know today was created by Norman Keith Collins aka Sailor Jerry. Its smooth, elegant lines and expressive pose are what we normally think of when we think of swallow designs.

The red white and true blue colours come from the Barn Swallows feathers but it is also said that they represent the American Flag.

Like with many traditional tattoos; combining the swallow with other symbols tweaks the meaning slightly.

Compass and Swallow Tattoo

A Swallow with a compass tells us the person is ready for change and adventure. Traditionally the compass points west, a nod to the sailors exploring the Americas. So if you’re ready to travel the world or escape your life this is the perfect tattoo for you.

Dagger and Swallow Tattoo

A swallow with a dagger through its heart traditionally represents a friend lost at sea to those in the British Navy.

Though this day and age, it’s meaning has moved towards a betrayal by a loved one. As swallows are symbols of love, the dagger through its heart represents cutting ties with a loved one who has betrayed you.

The placement of a swallow tattoo can also change its meaning.

As mentioned before, swallows on the backs of hands were worn by fighters to give them fast punches, and swallows on the chest are given to represent a sailors skill.

A swallow tattoo on each wrist represents two people taking a journey taken together as they travel in a flock.

A swallow on the neck represents deep love and affection for someone as it is the most prominent place on the body.

A small swallow between the thumb and index finger shows a person who has done time in prison. In Scotland it usually signifies a spell in the infamous Bar-L or Barlinnie prison in Glasgow.

The colours of a swallow  tattoo also hold some meaning.

While the blue, red and white colours have been popularised by Sailor Jerry as I mentioned above it hails back to sailors before modern times.

The black and white swallow is what sailors would get tattooed on their chest to mark their journeys and skill; while red and black symbolises adventure.

Swallow tattoo’s are rich in Nautical history.

Now, these days the meanings and symbols of tattoos have largely been lost. We just like stuff that looks good, but I think its kinda fun to know where the core designs in traditional tattooing come from and how they have evolved over the years.

Its pretty interesting too I think. What we can takeaway from this is that its all about home, freedom and being a pretty badass sailor.

Don’t forget to check out our Home collection inspired by traditional swallow tattoos. Click here to check it out.


Sarah x


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