The swallow tattoo was a symbol used historically by sailors to show off their sailing experience. 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.
According to one legend, a sailor tattooed with one swallow had travelled over 5,000 nautical miles (9,260 km); a sailor with two swallows had travelled 10,000 nautical miles (18,520 km). Travelling these great distances was extremely difficult and dangerous in the early days of sailing, so one or more swallow tattoos denoted a very experienced and valuable sailor.
Another legend holds that since swallows return to the same location every year to mate and nest, the swallow will guarantee the sailor returns home safely. A sailor would have one swallow tattooed before setting out on a journey, and the second swallow tattooed at the end of their tour of duty, upon return to their home port.
It is also said that if the sailor drowns, the swallows will carry his soul to heaven.
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.
- "Hardtack and marlinspikes – life and work aboard ship" (PDF). Sailors’ tattoos post-visit activity, teachers’ handout. Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Retrieved 2007-12-01.
- Vanishing tattoos (on-line) Retrieved 17 November 2007[unreliable source?]