We’ve all seen those awesome old black and white photos of swallow tattoos inked across the chests of burly sailors, but why does the bird continue to fascinate and compel us, even in the modern world of popular ink?
It’s not just the retro tatouage revival that’s catapulting ink featuring songbirds to new heights. In many ways it’s also the symbolism, both traditional and contemporary, that serves to popularize specific birdies as major tattoo motifs. Using the swallow as a prime example, it’s easy to see why so many would choose to adopt it. For those who spend a portion of their life at sea, this feathered friend still holds the meaning of generations past, when it was inked primarily upon ship hands who had traversed over 5,000 miles of ocean. In the modern era however, it also represents loyalty and tenacity through hardship, and for many is accompanied by the name of the one who leads them home.
Crows are another high-flying tattoo subject, laden with a plethora of meanings both metaphysical and cultural. In many American Indian traditions, the crow is a companion of the shaman, lending its magics and intuitions to the performance of mystical endeavors. It can also be seen as a messenger of the divine, able to lead souls between the worlds of the living and the dead at will. And in contemporary mythologies, the crow is often believed to hold a secret, ancient knowledge of natural magic and spiritual truth.
Another popular avian tattoo subject that holds a significance in tribal traditions is the phoenix, or thunderbird, a giant mystical bird believed to hold the powers of both fire and rebirth. The phoenix features in ancient Grecian mythology as well, where it was said to burn out and then rise again from its own ashes, perpetuating a cycle of fiery death and resurrection. Some European cultures attributed other powers to the bird as well, including healing tears, and magical tail feathers. Due to these spiritual connotations, popular contemporary symbolism cites the phoenix as a herald of rebirth, as well as an embodiment of tenacity.
Whether peacock, hummingbird, sparrow, or swan, one thing is certain: we tattooed folks love our birds. And we’re not likely to be giving them up any time soon.