Birds have always been a popular element of tattoos – they never go out of style. Meaningful and elegant, suiting any aesthetic from traditional to contemporary, bird designs remain one of the top choices for tattoos.
Whether you’re considering having a specific bird tattooed, like a hummingbird or a raven, or just considering a bird tattoo in general, check out the gallery below for some gorgeous designs. In the meantime, keep reading for some detailed info on the symbolic and cultural meaning of birds in tattoo art.
The cultural significance of birds is complex and varies wildly depending on the culture and specific type of bird in question. One thing is for sure: birds have been an important mythological and sometimes spiritual element in most, if not all, cultures across the world.
The winged creatures have been considered everything from messengers of the gods to harbingers of death. If you have a specific bird in mind for your tattoo design and identify strongly with a particular culture or religion, be sure to look further into the relevant symbolism and meanings. In general, though, birds tend to be seen as a positive symbol, most often representing freedom, peace, and liberation.
Bird tattoo meanings
Though the symbolism of birds is complicated, there are some values that are universally associated with at least certain species of birds. For instance:
- Freedom – You’re bound to have heard the phrase ‘free as a bird’. The bird’s ability to fly has always fascinated humanity, and carries obvious associations to freedom of body and spirit. For Americans, the eagle is one of the most prominent symbols of freedom.
- Wisdom – Owls, in particular, are often used as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. Perhaps this notion of birds as wise stems from the fact that they literally have a bird’s-eye view of the world, which makes us think they see and therefore know everything. Interestingly, though, not all cultures view owls as related to wisdom – for most Native American tribes, for instance, owls are feared and associated with death.
- Goodness – In some cultures and religions, birds symbolize goodness – righteousness, empathy, virtue, and morality. In Christianity, for example, thanks to their possession of wings, birds are seen as akin to angels.
- Beauty – This one is fairly obvious – many people consider birds to be beautiful and graceful creatures. The elusiveness of birds adds further appeal – birds are flighty creatures, and being able to observe one up-close makes for a special moment.
- Love – Some species of birds are widely associated with love – just think of the word ‘lovebirds’, or ‘love-nest’. White doves in particular are seen as a symbol of love and purity – so much so that wedding ceremonies sometimes involve the releasing of doves. Swans, too, are related to the notion of love – particularly faithfulness. This is because they are meant to mate for life, meaning that once they’ve found a partner, they stay together until death.
- Peace – In addition to representing love, doves are also seen as symbolic of peace and pacifism in general. This is true both of political contexts and religious symbolism.
Bird tattoo design ideas
The possibilities for including a bird in a tattoo design are endless, and depend on both personal preference and the meaning you want your tattoo to convey. If you’re stuck for ideas, consider these:
- Birds on the wrist – A charming and highly popular option is a small bird tattoo on the inside of the wrist. Since bird tattoos can be scaled down to a truly minute size, you could even have several birds within one very small design. A flock of birds in flight is a popular choice, as are several birds perched on a wire or tree branch.
- Dove – As we’ve already discovered, doves are symbolic of peace and love. They are also associated with innocence and purity of spirit. If these values are something you identify with, a dove tattoo design could be perfect for you.
- Tweety bird – The popular Looney Tunes character graces the skin of millions around the world in tattoo form. For a playful, colorful design that shows off the less serious side of you, Tweety could be an option.
- Phoenix – The phoenix is a mythical bird which, according to legends of many cultures across the world, would burst into flame and be born again from its own ashes. A symbol of perseverance and overcoming obstacles, the fire bird makes for a gorgeous and meaningful tattoo design.
- Swallow – Swallows have extensive symbolic meaning, generally seen as associated with love and happiness. It’s no surprise, then, that matching swallow tattoos for couples are quite popular. Historically, though, swallow tattoos were the design of choice for sailors, indicative of their sailing experience. Legend has it that for a sailor, each swallow tattoo signified 5,000 nautical miles sailed.
- Hummingbird – there are so many different meanings associated with this particular species of bird, that hummingbirds basically have their very own mythology. In general, it’s universally viewed as a positive symbol, often related to healing, good luck, and good news. Have a read through this article to find out more about specific hummingbird symbolism and meanings.
- Peacock – Peacock tattoos can be nothing short of spectacular – thanks to the coloring of the bird’s feathers and its unique looks. Symbolic of integrity, rejuvenation, and even immortality, the peacock is a great choice for a larger design in particular.
- Crow or Raven – Mysterious and enigmatic, crow and raven imagery has always been popular in tattoo art. Ravens commonly appear both in traditional styles and contemporary ones, and the finished tattoos often have a dark, gothic feel.
Of all the common tattoo elements and images, birds are one of the most scalable – you can have a bird tattoo any size, from a few millimeters across to covering your entire back. Popular placements include:
- Back – The back is the obvious choice for the largest and most complex designs, such as a bold phoenix tattoo or an image with several birds in flight, for example. Of course, you don’t have to use the whole area – a smaller tattoo on the upper or lower back can also look awesome.
- Calves – Calves are perfect for vertically elongated designs, such one large bird in a perching position or several birds in flight. Relatively easy to cover up with clothing when necessary.
- Chest – Bird tattoos on the chest are also highly popular, and this area can work perfectly for both small and large tattoos. Consider a small design below your collarbone or a larger one on your lower chest area.
- Wrist – Tiny, all-black bird-themed tattoos on the wrist are the height of fashion these days and you’ll see lots of examples of this type of design. Subtle and elegant, they are also the perfect choice for your first tattoo.
Birds have fascinated humanity since times immemorial – with both their beauty and their incredible ability to take flight. It’s no surprise that they feature so heavily in tattoo art, especially considering all the other advantages of bird designs – wide variety of aesthetic options and symbolic meanings, scalability, and universal appeal.
If you’re still unsure on what kind of idea to go for, check out the gallery below. For more information and pictures of specific kinds of bird tattoos, take a look at our other posts. And rest assured that whatever type of bird tattoo you end up choosing, it’ll be great-looking, meaningful, and timeless.