Swallow tattoos are rich with history and symbolism; the little bird has been linked to health, wealth, loyalty, and the rigors of long-distance travel. This has made the Swallow tattoo a popular image for sailors. The majority of swallow tattoos are designed in the image of the barn swallow which is native to Europe. Traditionally blue in colour, with a long, forked tail, representing the freedom of the blue skies and eternal happiness.
Swallows, except when migrating, will never fly too far from home. So when sighted by the sailor the swallow represented a symbol of hope; as it meant they were close to land and home. Migrating swallows are known to always return home to San Juan Capistrano each year. The traditional old-school Swallow is said to be a symbol for enduring love and loyalty; so it is believed that sailors with a swallow tattoo would always return to their homes and families as well. Swallows being monogamous creatures choose only one partner to mate with for life.
Legend says that the swallow would carry the spirit of any dead sailor to heaven. Leaving the friends of the dead sailor to get a tattoo of a swallow with a dagger through its breast; representing their lost friendship. A sailor with one swallow tattooed on them has travelled over 5,000 miles and a sailor with two swallow tattoos has travelled over 10,000 nautical miles and indicates a very experienced sailor, distances are extremely difficult and dangerous in the early days of sailing,
In terms of jail house tattoos, swallows on the upper part of a hand between the thumb and index finger can also symbolise that the person has been in prison, having ‘done bird’. The swallows, have also been used to represent white authority. In Scotland it usually signifies a spell in the infamous Bar-L or Barlinnie prison in Glasgow. The swallow tattoo in England means “these fists fly” when referring to fights and ‘hard men’.
It is also considered an “American Traditional” or “Sailor Jerry Adams” style of tattoo.