Swallow Tattoos and Sailors

It’s time to share the details of the swallows I had inked up my left leg almost exactly a year ago.
Getting tattoos outlined
Sharing a humorous moment with artist Julia, during a session to outline my swallows. Courtesy Behan Gifford

Aside from the few sneak peeks I’ve shared on Sailing Totem’s social media, I’ve largely kept my new ink all to myself. For an entire year. Why? Because it’s personal! The flock of swallows marks, for me, the journey our family shared of sailing around the world together. A special time, an uncommon achievement, a journey we shared.

What is it about sailors and swallow tattoos, anyway?

Gifford family photo
Here’s the family reunion photo I didn’t share last summer. I just wasn’t ready to out the swallows yet. Courtesy Behan Gifford

There’s a mix of symbolism, superstition and tradition in the ink sailors choose. Tattoos have a history longer than we can imagine, with archeological evidence stretching back to the Stone Age and in disparate corners of the planet. By the time Cook voyaged in the 1700s, body art was an established ritual among sailors.

Why swallows in particular? Imagine the men in the age of sail (which was pretty much all men at that time) embarking on difficult and dangerous voyages from which many would not return. The superstitions associated with this era of sailing were one way for a sailor to feel a tiny bit of control over something which mostly was not in their control, and swallow tattoos are intertwined with these superstitions.

Sneaky peek of the swallows I shared, after taking in this beautiful sunrise glow on the mountains of Baja. Courtesy Behan Gifford

A swallow tattoo marked the achievement of a sailor’s first 5,000 nautical miles, which represented a literal survival at their profession. A second swallow, often placed on opposite shoulders, was a symbol of homecoming. Barn swallows return home from distant migratory grounds, something that probably resonated with sailors wondering whether they’d ever see the shores of their home again. And if they didn’t, well, other superstitions say the swallow would help carry the sailor’s soul to heaven.

Contemporary versions have a range of freestyle options, since color and fine detail weren’t easy for sailors using a needle and gunpowder to do. The “modern classic” is the mid-century Sailor Jerry style, popularized by the famous Honolulu-based tattoo artist (not named Jerry).

Niki's swallows
Niki’s range of styles, reflecting her inspiration and the artists she’s met. Courtesy Behan Gifford

My friend Niki, aboard Grateful, has also added swallow tattoos along the way, with different designs reflecting destinations, artists or her own inspiration. Her most recent swallow is a traditional Marquesan style, inked by the artist Kaha not long after arrival in French Polynesia. 

“We researched the ways to be sensitive about having these new tattoos,” she posted. “The key is to speak to the artist and allow for something unique to be designed in conversation about what’s important in your life.”

Niki jokes that “it’s a family thing,” as she shares pictures of her husband Jamie’s swallows, and his sister Mindy’s, both done in Palma de Mallorca.

Jamie's tattoos
Niki’s husband, Jamie, sports a traditional pair of swallows. And I love the added meaning behind Jamie’s sister Mindy’s. Courtesy Niki Elenbass and Mindy Maciey

The rope on Mindy’s representing the knot she tied delivering their other brother’s catamaran both ways across the Atlantic.

I’m neither an artist nor a very creative person. It was a long process—and sometimes painful—to settle on a design direction that felt right and ready to take to an artist to refine. Like my Marquesan tattoo, I sat with the idea for months until the right concept gelled.

A design aspect that resonated with me was to add a bird for each 5,000 nautical-mile increment of our family’s circumnavigation. At the time we closed the loop, it tallied eleven swallows. My self-imposed deadline was to have the piece completed before we left Mexico, symbolizing the beginning of a new chapter in my cruising life.

fresh ink
I’m in love with my fresh ink! Courtesy Behan Gifford

Once landing on an idea, it still needed the right artist to bring to life. This took much longer than expected. I studied the styles of artists I could access to make sure they aligned with my own, and I seeked personal recommendations. After several false starts, test-driving some temporary designs and a few visits to Tucson, I landed on the right artist and an approach: fine detail, organic movement and a design that allows for expansion with more birds at some future inflection point.

road trip
I love that you cannot see the entire piece from any one angle. Courtesy Behan Gifford

This week, our daughter Mairen, who is an artist, shared her latest work. I swooned—our journey in swallows, interpreted again. (And no, I’m not getting this as another tattoo.) But I just couldn’t wait to proudly post a print she’s made. There are some bulkheads around here that feel like blank canvases, and I sense a new Totem crew tee shirt in the works.

swallow art for tattoo ideas
Mairen’s swallow artwork. Mairen Gifford

On that note, the family printing business we’ve worked with for years is no more. If you know of an outfit we can support for printing and shipping a small range of Totem gear, please send us a recommendation.