A single feather makes for a tattoo that’s both deeply meaningful and striking in its simplicity.
In this article, we’re going to look at the different meanings that a feather tattoo can express and the significance of the feather as a symbol in different cultures.
We’ll also consider some of the best feather tattoo designs, all of which can be found in our awesome feather tattoo gallery below.
Cultural meaning of feathers
Native American culture
Feathers were of particular importance in Native American culture. They appeared in many tribes’ creation myths and were generally considered to have a connection to the divine. The hollow shafts of feathers were believed to act as a way to send prayers to the creator and to receive blessings and messages.
Feathers appeared as adornments, status symbols, and tokens of gratitude and admiration, among other things. They were used in clothing, weapons, tools, jewelry, and dreamcatchers.
Being presented with an eagle feather was one of the most important ways to reward good or courageous deeds. A received eagle feather had to be handled with care, never dropped on the ground, and displayed in the home or on the person (for instance worn as a body adornment) – it was often considered disrespectful to hide the feather away.
The feathers in Native American warrior headdresses also had to be earned – they weren’t just a form of decoration, but a display of the individual’s strength, bravery, and series of heroic deeds.
The feather was the symbol of the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice, Ma’at. According to Ancient Egyptian belief, after death the heart of each person would be weighted against the weight of the feather of Ma’at.
This was a way to determine the way the person lived their life. If the heart was the same weight as the feather, the person would be allowed to enter the afterlife.
If, however, the heart was heavy with sin and so weighed more than the feather, the heart would be devoured by the monster Ammit and the person would cease to exist completely.
Birds appear often in Greek mythology and therefore so do feathers. One example of a legend involving feathers is that of Hera, the goddess of marriage, and the peacock.
According to one version of the myth, Hera rewarded the thousand-eyed giant Argus for his services by turning him into a beautiful peacock – with a many-eyed tail.
Interestingly, another – entirely contradictory – version of the myth states that this was Hera’s punishment for Argus – she took all of this eyes and placed them in the peacock’s tail.
Feather tattoo meaning
The meanings of feather tattoos stem partly from cultural associations, and partly from the attributes of birds and feathers themselves.
In most of the world’s cultures, birds are associated with freedom, in one way or another. The most straightforward explanation is also the most obvious one – the birds’ ability to fly.
In some traditions and cultures, for instance that of contemporary America, certain birds are seen as symbolic of freedom as a political concept, as well as a physical one.
What kind of freedom your feather tattoo stands for is, of course, entirely up to you. Some people opt for feather tattoos to highlight their free-spirited nature, some focus on the value of never being tied down by norms and conventions, others still intend the feather to symbolize their wanderlust – the longing for travel and new places.
Birds are often seen as courageous and decisive – mostly because to wingless creatures such as ourselves, the idea of diving fearlessly into the sky is virtually impossible to imagine. Feathers, by way of representing a bird, can therefore give a tattoo the meaning of not being afraid to go after what you want, despite obstacles and doubts.
Belief and hope
Just as it takes courage to take to the skies, it takes self-assurance and confidence. Feather tattoos can emphasize a person’s belief in themselves, their instincts, and their abilities.
Very often this meaning exists in the broader context of destiny and fate – the idea that if something is meant to happen to us, it will.
As a feather is carried by the wind, so we are carried through life by a combination of our own drive and forces we don’t have control over. As such, a feather tattoo can symbolize the belief that things will work out well in the end if we trust both ourselves and our path in life.
Thanks to their quality of being exceptionally light and easily carried by the wind, and their connection to the element of air, feathers have a strong association with all things spiritual and metaphysical.
A feather tattoo can therefore mean a strong belief in a particular form of spirituality, be it of a religious or more nature-driven kind.
If you’re looking to get a feather tattoo that expresses a highly specific meaning, consider combining the feather with other complimentary elements within a larger design.
Writing is a good choice for direct expression, while more subtle emphasis can be achieved with the use of other symbols such as birds and other animals, the infinity sign, a heart, or flowers.
Meanings of different kinds of feathers
A feather tattoo can gain another layer of meaning though the use of the feather of a specific bird.
Birds have always fascinated humans, and as such have earned an astonishing amount of symbolic and cultural associations, different for every major species. In particular, many Native American tribes held the belief that specific birds – and their feathers by extension – held different meanings.
- Peacock feather tattoos are very distinctive and highly colorful. They usually carry meanings of pride and beauty. A peacock tail feather has a circular shape at the broad end, which is sometimes referred to as an eye – hence a peacock feather tattoo can also mean insight and the ability to see more.
- Eagle feathers are usually represented as white with black or dark brown tips, though they can also be dark brown with regularly spaced strips of lighter color. They represent strength, courage, prestige, and leadership. Eagles – particularly the bald eagle and the golden eagle – were considered sacred in Native American culture.
- Dove feathers are pure white and symbolizes peace, love, gentleness, and kindness.
- Crow feathers are all-black and hold meanings of balance, skill, and cunning. They look very similar to raven feathers, which are larger and mean knowledge and creation.
- Bluebird feathers, which are – unsurprisingly – blue, signify happiness and fulfillment. Their bright, vibrant color makes them a particularly interesting choice for a tattoo.
- Kingfisher feathers are also blue, but in a slightly more toned-down shade than those of a bluebird. They symbolize patience, luck, speed, and agility.
- Hummingbird feathers are tiny and can be just about any color. Just like tattoos of a hummingbird itself, this feather tattoo stands primarily for beauty, love, and intelligence. To Native Americans, the hummingbird was often seen as a spirit messenger.
- Swallow feathers are dark gray in color with a tinge of brown, and sometimes a white blot midway down the length. They most often represent peace and love.
- Owl feathers are usually striped – light beige and dark brown. Like they bird they come from, they symbolize wisdom, agility, insight, and clarity. The color contrast and the interesting appearance of an owl feather makes for a particularly striking tattoo.
- Wren feathers are somewhat similar to owl feathers, in that they are usually striped in shades of brown – though they are much smaller and with less contrast between the colors. They symbolize protection.
- Falcon feathers are also striped, though more often in shades of gray than brown. They mean movement and speed. Hawk feathers are very similar, and mean strength, far-sightedness, and guardianship.
- Woodpecker feathers are highly distinctive – black, with multiple white spots appearing along both edges. They’re believed to represent self-discovery.
Popular feather tattoo designs
Just because feathers are relatively simple elements, it doesn’t mean that a feather tattoo can’t be unique or original. There are plenty of ways to get creative when designing a feather tattoo.
3D feather tattoo
A hyper-realistic rendition of a feather, made to look as if it’s a real feather resting atop your skin. Great skill is required on the part of the tattoo artist to achieve a believable, aesthetically pleasing effect – it’s therefore particularly important to choose your artist carefully with this style.
The realism of a 3D feather tattoo lends itself to opting for a feather from a specific bird – the defining qualities of particular feathers will be more visible here than in styles less faithful to the original.
Feather tattoo with writing
Since feathers hold so many different symbolic meanings, many people opt for the addition of writing to the design. This helps to clarify the message that the tattoo intends to convey.
You could go for a single word that defines what the tattoo means to you, or a full quote – it all depends on how much space you’re willing to designate for the tattoo.
In general, handwritten, cursive fonts work best for feather tattoos. Feathers are associated with being light and delicate, and so a font with corresponding qualities will compliment the design best. Blocky, thick lettering – such as typewriter fonts or other heavy styles – will likely clash with the feather image and make for an unbalanced, contradictory design.
Feather tattoo with birds
Highly popular in the last couple of years or so, this design involves a large feather with disproportionately small birds appearing to fly out of the feather – as if they’re tiny parts of the feather, breaking off as they take flight.
The abstract imagery in this design makes for an eye-catching and original tattoo. Its significance is up to you – broadly speaking, the feather tattoo with birds meaning relates to the ideas of both unity and individuality. All birds have feathers – hence the feather is the unifying space for the birds in the tattoo – but they’re all flying in their own direction.
This seemingly contradictory set of ideas can represent the notion that although in some ways we are all the same – essentially equal and made of the same stuff – we’re unique individuals with our own paths.
Another meaning sometimes ascribed to this design is that of letting go of our past or our origins, accepting changes, and not allowing our past to dictate our present. The design carries connotations of breaking away from what confines us into who we are and forging our own way and our own identity.
Dreamcatcher with feathers
The feather in your tattoo doesn’t have to be an isolated element. One way to include a feather as part of a larger, meaningful design is to get a dreamcatcher tattoo.
Dreamcatchers are unique to Native American culture, where they were believed to protect a sleeping person from bad dreams – filtering the thoughts and dreams to only let the good ones ‘in’.
A dreamcatcher takes the form of a hoop – or several hoops arranged symmetrically – with a light woven pattern inside and feathers, beads, and other adornments hung from the bottom.
A quill is a writing instrument made out of a feather, often with a steel writing tip attached to hold ink better. If writing, either in a literal of metaphorical sense, is important to you, then this could be the perfect design idea.
The quill can be the sole element in the tattoo, or it can be combined with a book or an ink pot for a more complex design. If you’re considering adding lettering to your feather tattoo, the quill could be writing the quote.
Feathers carry deeply-rooted spiritual and symbolic meanings. They’re suitable for a range of interesting tattoo design choices that are capable of expressing a huge range of meanings and values.
Because feathers are so instantly recognizable as symbols and objects, they’re perfect for a tattoo design of any size and style. For more visual inspiration, browse our gallery of feather tattoos and let us know in the comments below which designs you like the most!