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.
Yet another more common legend originating from the British Royal Navy and Merchant Navy is that a swallow tattoo between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, denotes that the sailor has sailed around Cape Horn. This tattoo design is worn by the comedian Billy Connolly, who acknowledges the legend but admits he has never sailed around the Horn but just admires and likes the design.
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. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Vanishing tattoos (on-line) Retrieved 17 November 2007[unreliable source?]