There is a ton of debate raging on the internet and in tattoo shops everywhere about the symbolism and meaning of these popular tattoos. There are tons of articles on this site explaining it and on many other sites on the internet you can find people debating and arguing about the exact symbolism behind things like the nautical star tattoo or the anchor tattoo. You see these are three of the most popular and famous of the old school tattoo designs. They are also pieces that can easily be combined to make a much larger design such as a chest tattoo that features two swallows flying between an anchor.
Well to make it really simple and so as to not mislead you there are no clear cut meanings nor symbolism for these tattoos. The problem is tattoos grow in popularity organically in multiple places at a time. The reason behind one person getting a tattoo is different then another person getting that same tattoo. The symbolism behind a certain tattoo may be agreed upon by a group of people for example sailors on the East Coast. That does not mean Sailors in England would agree. Couple that confusion fact with history and time and in the end you have multiple versions of what the tattoo may have symbolized in the past and no clear cut answer which is the right one. So stop the debate once and for all, enjoy your tattoo and feel confident that you won and it means whatever you want it to me for you.
With that said the bulk of evidence and conglomeration of facts, lies and fiction one can make out a shady idea of what the symbols probably mean back in time and are a good indicator of what they can symbolism today. That way you are not indicating a meaning to a certain design that is way different then it was meant to be.
All three of these tattoo designs are old school tattoo designs that were worn by sailors originally. Just look at Sailor Jerry's tattoos or a little more contemporary Ed Hardy and you will see anchors, nautical stars and swallow through their designs. In the past few years their has been a real rebirth and celebration of the art of tattooing and many of the designs from these greats have come back into fashion be it Ed Hardy Clothing or the website and possible movie dedicated to Sailor Jerry.
In the farthest back history that one can go the Anchor as a symbol was used by Christians. The Christians used the anchor as a hidden secret cross. While they were under the presidency by the Romans they lived in hiding and used the anchor to as a symbol for the cross for a signal to other Christians. The anchor much later showed up in tattoo designs worn by sailors. At that time it was a symbol for being grounded or even tied down to a significant other be it a girlfriend or a wife but in a relationship either way. This is the most common meaning of an anchor tattoo in the modern world of tattooing.
Nautical Star Tattoos
Nautical stars are a symbol of the North Star. Sailors would use the North Star to find their way home and the nautical star became a popular tattoo among sailors and was worn as a good luck symbol and one that would promise a safe return home from a long voyage at sea. There is also some debate the nautical stars of certain colors would be earned for making certain voyages or sailing a certain amount of miles. For example a blue nautical star on the left forearm might symbolize someone who has sailed across the Pacific Ocean for example. The exact meanings and colors have been lost in history for the most part.
Swallows are small birds that have small wings and therefore typically do not fly too far away from land. For the early sailors spotting a swallow would mean a group was close to land and there before it became a good luck symbol. Some sailors would also put swallows on their fists and it was believed to make them faster in a fight.
The exact meaning and symbolism behind these great tattoos such as the nautical star, anchor tattoo and swallow tattoo has been lost and obscured by history. It is probably accurate that the symbolism was also somewhat different between different groups of sailors. However, the fact remains that today these are very popular old school sailor tattoos that can make incredible tattoo designs. It is probably best to keep with the general meaning and symbolism behind these designs but of course it is always up to the person wearing the tattoo their interpretation of the symbol.