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Tattoo Ideas: Sparrows and Swallows

I have 13 tattoos as well as several piercings, and I think they're all pretty cool.

Sparrows and Swallows: What's the Difference?

First and foremost, let's understand the difference between swallows and sparrows. They are not the same thing. They are not the same bird and have vastly different meaning between them.

The words swallow and sparrow cannot be used interchangeably.

Swallow Tattoos: History and Meaning

Swallows are a traditional old-school tattoo symbolizing enduring love. These tattoos first appeared on sailors during the world wars.

  • Because swallows are migratory birds that are known to always return home each year without fail, it was believed that sailors with a swallow tattoo would always return to their homes and families as well.
  • Because swallows never fly too far from home, the sight of a swallow by a sailor was a symbol of hope; it meant they were close to land.
  • If a sailor had the misfortune of dying at sea, legend had it that a swallow would carry his spirit to heaven.
  • If a sailor had a friend who passed away, he might get a tattoo of a swallow with a dagger through its breast.
  • But swallows are also an enduring symbol of love and loyalty, as swallows are monogamous creatures. They choose only one partner and will mate with them for life.

What does a swallow look like?

Many swallow tattoos were modelled after the barn swallow native to Europe: blue in color, with a long, forked tail, barn swallows make their nests with mud and are believed to represent the free blue sky and eternal happiness.

One swallow or two?

Sailors would get one swallow tattooed on them to represent having travelled over 5,000 miles; a sailor with two swallows had travelled over 10,000 nautical miles, denoting a very experienced sailor.

Many sailor tattoos were modeled after the blue Barn Swallow

Many sailor tattoos were modeled after the blue Barn Swallow

The sparrow is a smaller, shorter-tailed bird

The sparrow is a smaller, shorter-tailed bird

Sparrow Tattoos: History and Meaning

Sparrows, on the other hand, are small, brown-grey birds with stubby beaks. They are land-dwellers who subsist primarily on seeds and insects. They are NOT the tattoo to get if you're seeking to illustrate love and loyalty or pay homage to a relative who worked as a sailor.

  • Sparrows do have their own special symbolism, however, having been featured prominently in several works of literature. In the New Testament, Jesus assures his disciples that even a sparrow cannot fall without God's notice, implying that no suffering goes unnoticed.
  • Likewise, Luke 12:6 says, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God."
  • In The Dark Half by Stephen King, sparrows function as creatures that carry spirits from the land of the living to the land of the dead. In Ancient Egypt, sparrows were believed to carry the souls of the dead up to heaven.

What does a sparrow look like?

They are small, brown-grey birds with stubby beaks.

Swallow and sparrow tattoos are great accentuations to a woman's natural curves

Swallow and sparrow tattoos are great accentuations to a woman's natural curves

Despite the masculine, maritime history of the swallow, they have exploded onto the tattoo scene among men and women alike as one of the most popular images currently. Whether keeping the original Sailor Jerry 1940s design or streamlining the bird's form to fit the curve of a woman's hip, understanding the symbolism of a swallow or mistaking it for a sparrow, both birds are representative of the beauty of flight and the immense freedom it brings.

Sparrow tattoo on the foot.

Sparrow tattoo on the foot.


Wrong on July 06, 2016:

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Read More from Tatring

Not a single of those tattoos were sparrows. They all have split tails which a sparrow does not.

unlikely_tat_girl on April 19, 2012:

i feel i need to say something to the young ones commenting on here, getting a tattoo in the uk under the age of 18 is ILLEGAL, its actually classed as assault, i am in no way against tattoos, im a good 30-40% covered, and by some awesome artists too but i waited till i was 18 to start, have respect for the artists, the art and the blank canvas that is your body, put in the time, effort, and patience it takes to get your tattoos right the first time and you will never regret them, art is art, everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it, tattoos are walking art and you don't have to earn them, whatever they are, they mean something to the person wearing them and that's all that matters, i don't ask people what theirs mean, just who did them, those that are proud will explain them and those that are not, wont, judging someone by the art on their skin is wrong and if the girl wanting awesomeness right at the top of this page ever had it done....kudos, that tattoo will forever remind you of your youth and how bonkers you were then!

wooo on April 11, 2012:

first of all, i am glad that SOMEONE finally tried to make sure people understand that swallows and sparrows are different. I want a sparrow (not the ever popular swallow) because of biblical symbolism, but it sucks thinking people may confuse it with a swallow.

also, obviously everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and everyone is entitled to get whatever tattoo they want. I agree with being able to decide for yourself, but i also agree with a healthy respect for tradition. i would be a little peeved if got something that was meaningful and symbolic and then someone else just got it cause it was popular; but again, to each his own, try to put yourselves in other peoples shoes, both sides! i am researching tattoo ideas i have wanted because i wouldn't want to find out that something i make permanent has some meaning i don't know about.

finally, with all the comments about 16 and 17 year olds getting tattoos, i think the main point (although poorly stated) is this: don't be in too much of a hurry, because things you think are set in stone now may change in a few years. the reason people who are older are speaking out so strongly about it is because they have lived it with one thing or another, so don't take it too personally. heck, i was POSITIVE about some things in my life at 19, and now i am 25 and i have grown and changed and thank goodness i didn't make some of my "loves" then permanent. however, i have wanted tattoos since... i can't remember when, and as long as you are doing the research and being responsible, don't worry. i am personally a big fan of tattoos with meaning, both of the ones i have now have meaning, and the ones i am researching for have it too, but hey! it's life, to each his own.

sarah on January 26, 2012:

look, forget these 'rules' about who can get what. It's wonderful that there are tattoos that represent the military, and are considered badges of honor. But for the average person nowadays, tattoos are art. Tattoos represent moments in our lives. I am in my 30s, have several tattoos, and have never been military. One piece is a heart aflame with a swallow on either side, along with gladiolas and my daughters name, all on the back of my neck. It has a deep

meaning to me, I'm entitled to it. I don't have to go to sea for it to be valid, and that shouldn't be insulting. I can understand if someone is newly enlisted and gets that tattoo'd why it'd be in poor taste, but for 'civilians' that find different meaning and beauty in them, why should anyone care? I love our military, I'm very patriotic. But really tattoos

don't belong to anyone, and their symbologies can multiple.

meow on January 14, 2012:

I like swallows.

Capt on November 14, 2011:

As a Captain and a Merchant marine you are all getting a Tattoo you didn't earn. If you are gonna get a swallow don't put it on your chest! Its reserved for us that put in our miles at sea. I don't care who you knew or are related to you. If you didn't ear the miles you are disrespecting us that have. I have 45,000 miles at sea at the age of 28 and I am just know getting my swallows and the exta stars for the extra miles. You should have respect for the tradition that we live not some hipster shit. BTW the guy getting the swallows before going to the Navy u will get an ass woopin first week on the boat. Just a heads up.

becca on November 14, 2011:

I have wanted a swallow tattoo since I was 17. I'll admit, I just thought it was cool & that's why I wanted it. Ive always been a bird person, they are just so free. They can touch the sky, but I know the meaning now & I still love the idea. I am 23 now & getting married next year to love of my life & I LOVE the fact that swallows are monogamous. I come from a family of divorce & I don't believe in it & when I found my fiancé I knew wed always be together. & yes I want it on my lower back, Cough NOT A TRAMP STAMP cough.. I want it there for my own reasons, so I can hide it if I want & show it when I want. Its not because im ashamed or anything, its for my own reason, so yeah I thought of this idea when I was 17 & I still want it 6 years later. so if you want it get it, its YOUR body decorate it how you want. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION.

esme on July 07, 2011:

im 16 and i was pregnant and for reasons my baby died. me and my boyfriend are going together pretty soon to get a sparrow in memory of a child that we have lost in faith that the sparrow will take his or her spirit to heaven.

Kitty on June 21, 2011:

Clearly the arguing isn't changing anyone's mind.

bmeguest on March 15, 2009:

You should credit BME or wherever you took the photos from. I see my own tattoos in those pictures and while I'm certainly not sorry they're on the internet, you should really be giving credit where it is due.

sean on March 02, 2009:

you are all fags

amanda on February 28, 2009:


Stephanie on February 21, 2009:

Okay. I understand what a lot of people on here have said defending their beliefes that sailors and servicemen should only be getting swallows/anchors/nautical stars put onto their body. It's perfectly natural to feel that way, and I encourage you to express your opinions... But seriously, all the little hipsters that get these as tattos do it because they're "pretty" or "in style". Other people, attatch their own meaning to the designs.

No one is claiming to be a sailor when they're not. It doeasn't devalue what you have done to earn your tattoos. If anything, it brings more meaning, because you can have the pride that you actually earned yours. Don't judge other people by the tattos they decide to get...

ANYWAYS, I've been in love with the idea and look of sparrows for about 3 years now. I have nautical stars on my hips, and I'm thinking of getting sparrows done on my shoulders. Personally though, I'm not a huge fan of color, so I think, like with my stars, I'm gonna keep it simple... Black and skin :]

millertime on February 18, 2009:

OK, personally, when I first saw the art of the swallow I was really just taken aback--then I read into the history of the swallow tattoo. I have not ever been to sea, nor have I served in the Navy or Coast Guard [but I have considered the idea]; however, like how a swallow stays close to home/family/roots--I have found myself really drawn to that aspect of the symbolism. I am planning on getting two flying together up the side of my back--I do not want to offend any sailors or military, that is not at all my intention--I just really like the symbolism of staying close to home/family/roots and loyalty as these have always been important aspects of my life.

Taylor on February 15, 2009:

I have 2 swallow tattoos simply because im a salty sailor that has sailed well beyond 10,000 nautical miles...

sylvie on February 10, 2009:

I started thinking about the swallows when i heard about it thorugh a tatoo artist. I have had a particularly hard life. I have been moving non-stop since birth from my home land. I miss home dearly, but i am not ready to go home yet. In the end i will return. The meaning Not far from home, or i will return has been my thought of what swallows means. I also lost a son and feel there is some value of getting that tat as a reminder. A bird can also signify angles wings and or guardian angel in a time of struggle.

megan on February 10, 2009:

hahahahaha puke! ur comment was awesomeness!

Lina on February 06, 2009:

People shouldn't be allowed to get a TATTOO if they aren't even able to correctly spell the word.

emma on February 04, 2009:

I'm 15, and I got 2 sparrows on my hips and it was a great choice.


bone on February 01, 2009:

Rabbit has hit the nail right on the head, personally as a U.S. Marine, all the dumbass kids getting military themed tattoos is very insulting to me. the swallows i have actually represent something ive accomplished and have meaning, ive actually got my 10k nautical miles and I actually have something to worry about when it comes to returning home safely.

rabbit on January 31, 2009:

i understand what a lot of you are saying in that you want a swallow tattoo and you are going to do what you to do no matter what. i understand that. i think however you should not be so quick to write off people with strong opinions over the symbolic meaning of the swallow tattoo to sailors. i am 22 and in the merchant marines. i have multiple atlantic crossings under my belt with thousands and thousands of nautical miles. its important for sailors to keep traditions and share their sea stories. the swallow tattoo is an important representation for sailors to identify with. so when i see people my own age with a lot of nautical tattoos being either swallows, nautical stars, or anchors it is a little bit annoying. the reason being is that is takes hard work to earn these tattoo rights. when i see a hipster doofus running around with them it kind of deminishes the meaning for the true sailors. sort of false advertising. i have asked people with swallow tattoos if they went to sea and they don't know what i'm talking about. so its no big deal. but there is history behind the tattoo and for some people it means more then just a pretty bird. i just thought that instead of getting high and mighty or self righteous you should also consider the men at sea.

angelica on January 30, 2009:

Hey My dad is 83 years old he has an old school swallow tattoo he had done in jail. Hes the best dad in the world. I want to have the same one done a little updated with color and the bird is carrying a banner. Any ideas on what to put on the banner? Is " daddy's girl" too ghetto or predictable?

peace on earth on January 26, 2009:

^ totally agree - go for it !

k27 on January 26, 2009:


to me tattoos are a symbol for freedom of expression, no mater how young or old you are you should always consider that a tattoo is permanent. it is something you will always have with you, a picture or words that will always carry a story. different people can have their opinions on tattoos , ages at which you get them, and even what something means - but you have to remember there is always a reason as to why someone wants a tattoo. it will always mean something special to them. don't judge people due to what tattoo they have or want. it's their body, their skin, their life, and most importantly their decision.

I'm sixteen years old, my great grandfather just recently passed away. i was so extremely lucky to know such a great person like him. We had a very special relationship, one in which I've never found before. I've always liked tattoos and I've always considered asking for one. When i did my research on swallows i found the meaning to relate to him in almost every way. No he was not a sailor. But he was and always will be near my heart. He always found a way to overcome every struggle he ever faced. He always talked about the love of his life ( my great grandmother ) and how she was the only woman he could love so much. i know he will always be here for me, watching over me and guiding me - the reason i chose a swallow. in addition to the swallow i'd like to incorporate a buckeye. He always carried his lucky buckeye with him every where he went. When we buried him he still had that buckeye in his hand. He was the most loving and loyal man i knew , the reason why i'd like to put a beautiful piece of art on my body to always remember and show my love for him.

Mizfitiyam on January 23, 2009:

Wow, people are still tripping on this? I got mine, don't care what anyone thinks of it... it doesn't just stand for military, and if they get offended, they can kiss mine! if you read up on them you would know this! Just because back in the day some dude got a tattoo with one and started a trend doesn't mean other people cant do the same thing! My uncle was in the Navy, he thought it was a trip knowing I got the same bird on me. Im 29 years old and love every one of my tattooos and plan on getting more and cant wait for my son to get older so I can tattoo something on him. He loves tats and knows I am learning right now and wants me to tattoo my bird on him. That rocks! People really need a life if they are offended by what other people do. It's a sad world we live in when other people trip on what someone else wants or thinks. Your momma should have raised you better! And to everyone wanting a sparrow or swallow tattooed on them, DO IT! Who cares what anyone else thinks, if it means something to you or maybe you just thought it was cool, GO FOR IT! You are your own person and no one can tell you what you can and cant do! Much love to all of you out there!

Ariel5151 on January 21, 2009:

Im 18 and my husband is in the army, weve been together over 2 years and with him leaving I wanted to remember that no matter what he will always come back to me much like the swallow. For two years I have known that I wanted a bluebird until I saw and read the meaning of the swallows, this week I am getting the swallow bird flying with a cross necklace hanging from its beek. Everyday I look at it I will remember that God will bring my husband Curtis home to me.

bman on January 17, 2009:

im 16 and i just got a tattoo around my bellybutton... i hope that's not gay but besides the piont... wheres a place i can put a swallow tattoo?

Sami on January 06, 2009:

they are beautiful tattoos with lots of meaning people are silly to get them for incorrect reasons, i got my first tattoo at 15 and have not stoped yet i have two swallows myself and they may be my fav?


Krystina on December 29, 2008:

I wanted to get a swallow to symbolise that no matter how far i travel i will always find hope and my way home. i wanted something to remind me of my family when i move away for uni and in later life who knows. is this a bad idea and does anyone know of anything else that could symbolise? i don't want to offend anyone or look trashy as i know it will stay with me into my old lady days :)

[e] on December 28, 2008:

Okay. I really don't understand people who would get a tattoo for no meaning at all. I'm 16 and getting my first swallow tattoo tomorrow--it's ridiculously important to me. I've moved and travelled all over the world, and getting a swallow is like the tattoo sailors got after 5,000 miles at sea. Despite all my travelling, my wish is always to travel more and never forget to keep chasing the horizon.

I'm also getting it because I have a long-term obsession with freedom, and, to me, swallows symbolise freedom just like the sea horizon does.

Krissy on December 18, 2008:

Just wanted to put a comment in on the "being to young to tattoo argument".

Who gives a fuck, what is it that makes other people care about what someone else will get on their body..get over yourselfs. I am 19 and have 15 already..i started when I was 15. I don't belive that any tattoo can be a bad choice, i know I don't regret none of mine. They all represent how I was feeling or what I was thinking or maybe just as simple as what I liked in that period of my life...and no matter what it symbolizes me and my life. I have one that me and a friend chose to get when we were younger and we're still friends but if we aren't in a couple of years that's okay because she was there..she exsisted in big part of my life and that's something that I can never erase or pretend didn't happen so why cover it up.

I think some people just care way too much about what ther people think..screw only live what you want...i have tattoos that don't really symbolize much other than I liked them but that's okay. Sparrows are such a beautiful andf meaningful thing that's why so many people get them...shit when your 60 you'll probably just look at them and giggle and say man i was wild...i know I'll always cherish mine..just the fact that I can be a unique individual is tatt it up girls...fuck what them haterz say!lol

Sarah on December 14, 2008:

I've got a pair of 1950 on each foot. they are the meaning for enduring love. and that sailors would always find their way home. home is where the heart is and family is forever. you'll always love them for eternity. that's my reasons for getting them done. had them for 2 years now. i have an ancor too aswell as a 1950 pinup girl. traditional is the way to go..!

swallowtats on December 12, 2008:

sorry i ment to say i have NO connections with the ideas behind the swallow bird, not 'to connects' lol.

swallowtats on December 12, 2008:

i'm not 18 yet, and i've wanted two swallow tattoos on my hips or just under my collerbone for about a year or more now. I know about all the symbols behind the swallow, i also love anchor tatoos. but if im honest i have to connects with the navy or any family members connected to it either. Alot of people think its wrong for me to get these tattos, and i can see why but i love them so much, what's your opinion? I read on this that someone said we should earn it by going into the navy, i'ts a shame that's not the career for me. Please give me your views on getting these tattoos.

samii on November 17, 2008:

Im nearly 20 and im getting my first tattoo on Saturday (Carpe Diem-latin for 'seize the day') and im scared shitless, im getting it on the top part of my back in the middle and im scared of flinching when it hits my shoulder blade. And fucking up the tattoo.

The tattooist said i can use numbing cream. But will it really help ?

Anyones input would really help.


Sandraa on November 17, 2008:

I am just finishing school and i have been living in Australia for 2 years. My whole family is Australian but I was born and raised in America until I was 15. America is my home, but Australia is too. By birth and by hertitage i feel connected to both. I have been wanting a tattoo for quite a while but i never could figure out something that meant something that i wouldn't get sick of.

My uncle was a sailor but had to leave due to sea sickness and has swallow tattoos on his chest and i have always loved looking at them. I read up on them and found out the meaning that it had to sailors and decided in tribute to both my homes i would get a swallow on each of my sides near my rib cage. One filled with the american flag and the other filled with the australian flag.

What do you guys think??

Please feed back to me either here or email.

meeeeee on November 10, 2008:

I had no idea so many people wanted sparrows or swallows...

i'm planning on getting two sparrows on my chest with them holding a banner that says in latin "He Provides". it is based on the bible where it says not even the sparrows are forgotten... i've been going through a lot of a hard stuff and i need to rely on God to get me through... even though i feel i've been forgotten...

temptresstattoo on November 07, 2008:

For coolperson, the native americans had tattoos long before english settlers stepped on Plymouth.They took a sharp rock to cut the design into the persons flesh usually on the face and upper body then rubbed with charcoal to set the picture> They were used as badges to display your clan, status in tibe, victories in battleand so on. To say that their would be no tattoos America if it were not for sailors is ignorant. Maybe if the US government didin't try to exterminate the indians that may have been in your history books in school.

temptresstattoo on November 07, 2008:

Hey Freckles that's a horrible idea. If you get caught doing that not only will you and your friend be in trouble but the artist who does the work could be arrested for marking a minor which is a felony.Minimum of 1 year in prison. Grow up dishonesty affects everyone around you.Remember sparrows are representive of freedom and safe return to loved ones.

sally. on October 27, 2008:

Ok i just want to say something...

isn't this a site for you to view the pictures and then share your thoughts on the pictures! not your thoughts on the other people that have commented.

im 17 and have wanted a swallow tattoo for a couple of years now. just because im still young and not 18 doesn't mean i shouldn't be thinking of a tattoo.

that's like when young people dream of their wedding or something like that is there people going off at them of calling them idiots.

plus its their decision, their body and its not like you know ANY of these people on here anyway, you don't have to look at it every morning so get over it.

GEEEZ! i come on here to look at pictures and this site has turned into a war.

RBS on October 23, 2008:

i like the idea, going to get a sparrow on my left shoulderblade. was a sailor, racing though... not a pirate or in the navy lol. this 'discussion' is funny. oh well. i like the idea about always coming home and one love too. i travel allot for work and its something nice to know that there is always a loving hoe to come back to. i actually had a dream last night i had the tatoo and i just did some research on the symbolism of it. its kinda creepy how it relates so well. i might convince my girl to get one with me.

Yasmin on October 17, 2008:

I'm getting two swallows on my chest in November. I'm eventually going to turn it into a chest piece including a line of a poem I'm particularly fond of that has meaning to me.

This is something that I've thought about for a long time, since I don't get tattoos on a whim and their always something that has meaning.

I get very annoyed when people in the Navy feel that their the only ones entitled to certain tattoos. It's utter crap. Tattoos are a form of self expression, and if I choose to express myself using one of 'your' symbols, deal with it. I refuse to feel bad about that. Instead of bitching about it, perhaps you should feel proud that you live in a country that allows women and men alike to express themselves, that this is what your contributing towards, instead of feeling a sense of entitlment towards something that was chosen for what it represents which, realistically at some point or another everybody will be able to identify with.

And you know what, my first tattoo was an anchor. I was already set on the idea as it was of very important significance to me. However; when I did more research as of course I do with every one of my tattoos, I came across the same small minded attitude, which was probably what sealed the deal, and since the deals already sealed on the swallows and I've already made the appointment, I'm just going to have to settle with feeling a tiny bit smug.

If swallows represent freedom, why do you get so het up about others wanting them? Your basically attempting to limit their freedom by imposing some sort of ridiculous restriction.

Oh, you make me cross.

lola on October 12, 2008:

i think people should stop judging others for getting a tattoo, it doesn't matter what age you are, i mean for fucks sake your getting a tattoo yourself doesn't that make you a bad influence to all the younger people who want one? i am 18 and i have finally decided i want a swallow tattoo however i am not to sure on the placement, i was thinking on my right side high on my ribs??

Denise on October 06, 2008:

I'm eighteen, and I'm considering a swallow tattoo on the nape of my neck. My father was in the Navy for eight years, and that's where he met my mother. Even though he went around the world, he always came back home to us, and that's one thing the tattoo would symbolize to me. Another is that traveling is a big part of my plan for the future, but I always want to come home safely, and I like that part of the swallow's symbolism as well. Also, to me, swallows symbolize reaching for something, whether it be for home or for your dreams or goals. I'm in college and at the moment I have no idea what I want to do with my life, but I think a swallow might inspire me to gain some direction, or even just to be satisfied in knowing that I'm reaching for something, and for happiness, and that's all that matters.

Another thing; I didn't realize this issue was debated so enthusiastically. . . I think a tattoo should definitely mean something to the person getting it, and shouldn't be done on a whim, but I'm not going to pound people over the head and demand that their tattoos fit into what I believe to be sensible. It's their body . . . they can do whatever they want to with it, as far as I'm concerned.


Anne on October 05, 2008:

This is too funny, I've got 2 small matching sparrows on the sides of a nautical star on my chest. I got this tattoo about 4 years ago (after a year of consideration) because I had never seen it done before and loved the way it looked. To me, the sparrows are luck and the nautical star to lead my heart. So seeing a lot of younger kids these days with the same damn thing really stinks, it's becoming a trend and it's so sad. Why the hell would you get something on your body that will never come off because it's a stupid trend. I hope more people seriously consider what they inked on, it's just so sad and pathetic to see this.

briana on September 30, 2008:

hey bry well im sry u have a problem but i will continue to get nautical tatts bcz it is part of my life too just bcz im not active doesn't mean shit my whole life revolves around the military, everyone i hang out with are active and they don't have a problem with my tatoo or think that it is disrespectful you need to get a life.

Blah on September 28, 2008: