The swallow is one of the oldest tattoo symbols in the west. Traditionally, it was acquired by sailors to show the extension of their experience on sea.
While there is no official documentation, it is believed among tattoo enthusiasts that one swallow tattoo represents 5,000 nautical miles; two swallows meant the sailor had travelled over 10,000 nautical miles. It was customary for a sailor to have one swallow tattooed before setting out on a voyage, and then another one upon return home safely to port.
Since swallows return every year to the same location to mate and nest, an image of the bird was thought of as a charm that will guarantee the sailor safe return home. If a sailor dies at sea, it was believed that a swallow will carry his soul to heaven. So, based on nautical tattooing traditions, the swallow has become a symbol of love, freedom, loyalty towards friends and family, and hope during a dangerous sea voyage.
As with most old tattoo symbols, there is also a negative meaning attached to swallow tattoos. When done on hands, it can mean prison sentence served, as the British saying goes, “done your bird, done your time”. It also means impulsiveness and brute strength, sending a message that “this fist flies”.