The Birdist's Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #75: Get a Bird Tattoo, and Make It a Good One

What makes a good bird tattoo you ask? Well, read on!

Tattooing has been around for centuries, and for most of that time, it often served as a way to signal people belonged to a particular clan or tribe. Tattoos don’t quite carry the same symbolic weight these days—heck, the public perception of tattooing has even softened in my lifetime, from an act of rebelliousness to something for mom and dads. However, many members of a certain clan still frequently use body ink to mark their inclusion: birders.

Lots of us have tattoos of birds, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientists to understand why: People get tattoos of things they love, and, well, we really love birds. (At least we’re not parasitologists or something, right? My goodness.) I wholeheartedly endorse bird tattoos. The hardest part is: Which species do you pick?

With more than 10,000 species of birds on the planet to choose from, picking your first bird tattoo can be a daunting challenge. You’re stuck forever with whatever you select, so in hopes of helping you avoid regret, let’s talk through what makes a good bird tattoo.

I’ll start with my own experience. I knew for years that I wanted to get a bird tattoo, but I couldn’t settle on a species or an image. I did know that I wanted something black and white—colored tattoos just aren’t my thing—and I wanted something that looked more realistic than artistic. That narrowed things down quite a bit, leaving options like gulls, alcids, the Black-and-white Warbler, and a few other species. I didn’t want to force it, so I sat back and waited years for something to catch my eye.

Then, in 2015, I was looking at the website of the famous field guide author David Sibley, and I found my tattoo. Sibley sells the original pen-and-ink drawings he created to illustrate his old newspaper column, and a simple drawing of a pair of Black-legged Kittiwakes jumped out at me. Black and white? Yes. Simple? Yes. Realistic? I mean, it’s a sketch, but yes.

I don’t have any extreme connection with Black-legged Kittiwakes. I do associate them with the rugged waters off my home state of Maine, and I have an amazing memory of seeing thousands of them from a whale-watch boat in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. So those worked. Plus, I really liked the idea of owning the piece of artwork my tattoo was based on. I bought the original drawing and made an appointment at the tattoo parlor.

Two years later and I’ve got no regrets. But that’s me. What about you?

It’s difficult to offer advice about such a personal choice, but I will say this: Most birders I know would never get any of the first search results that pop up when you Google “bird tattoo.” Elaborate fake swallow-type things. Weird little doves. Inspirational quotes with a flock of . . .whatever those are.

The vast majority of birder tattoos that I know of represent an actual species—some more realistically than others—rather than some generalized bird standing in as a symbol of freedom or something. Birds aren’t symbolic to birders. They’re literal, and as such, most bird tattoos are also pretty literal. So I’d recommend going that route.

Tattoo that won first place from the 2014 Biggest Week Bird Tattoo Contest. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

For a while there I almost got an actual image from a field guide. I strongly considered getting a tattoo of something off the gull or tern page (remember, black and white) from my Peterson Field Guide, the first guide I ever owned. It would have been complete with the species names and identification arrows. I still think it’s a good idea, but it was going to end up being bigger than I wanted at the time. 

That kind of decision, about size and placement, depends on what you’re looking for, but it's something you should absolutely work out well in advance. Both of my tattoos are on my arms (I have the outline of Maine on my right and the kittiwakes on my left) and are in places that didn’t hurt very much, can easily be covered up if needed, and are in places that I don’t see myself all the time. For me, that last one was really important; I didn’t want to have to stare at my own ink all day long for fear of getting bored or regretting it. Please give a lot of thought to where you want your tattoo to go. You can even do a trial run by drawing it on with a marker and walking around for a few days.

Audubon associate web editor Hannah Waters had a similar experience to my own with her tattoo: She picked a black-and-white bird, a Black-capped Chickadee (“Color cost more,” she said), used an image from a field guide, and tested out different locations for hide-ability and pain avoidance before getting the ink. Her tattoo artist was able to turn her drawing into little temporary tattoos, which let her see in advance where on her body worked best. That’s nice. 

For more advice about what makes a good bird tattoo, I had to call in a heavy hitter. Kenn Kaufman is not only a famous author and conservationist, but he’s also a three-time judge at the Biggest Week in American Birding’s Bird Tattoo Contest. I asked Kenn, in his official capacity as a judge, how he separates bad bird tattoos from great ones. Here’s his sage advice:

"The main thing I can tell you is that winning the contest is not just about the visual appearance of the tattoo. The contestants get really serious discussion from the judges, and all the winners and runners-up have been people who told a compelling story about why they got that particular ink. The tattoo might be to commemorate someone who's deceased, or to honor a loved one, or to celebrate a triumph over some life-threatening condition, or something else, but it's always something with deep personal meaning to the person wearing it. If someone just explained a tattoo by saying, "Well, I think the Sandhill Crane is a cool bird," they wouldn't be as likely to be in the running, no matter how attractive the design. The best tattoo always has a backstory that we can't discern just by looking at it. A good reminder that we shouldn't judge tattoos, or people, simply by appearance."

Tattoo from the Biggest Week Bird Tattoo Contest. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

He’s absolutely right. The best bird tattoos—or, just, the best tattoos in general—are the ones with meaning for the owner. Was there a bird that inspired you to become a birder? Is there a species that you always longed to see? Those will make tattoos that represent your true self.  For inspiration, consider the amazing backstories Audubon uncovered by interviewing people at last year’s Biggest Week in American Birding tattoo contest. And make sure to also check out all the people in the comments who posted photos of their own ink.

Another Audubon editor, Martha Harbison, has personal stories for each of her four bird-related tattoos. Martha says she spends “a lot of time on each one researching the right reference art, the cultural history, interrogating my own thoughts on things.” She also incorporates other meaningful items into her art, like flowers and oak leaves and, uh, a human skull. For that last one, she balances the idea of death, as represented by the skull and a Common Raven, with a burst of life represented by a Black-capped Chickadee, a bird that she says “is one of the great survivors — first to the feeders and generally bringing life and energy everywhere they go.”

That kind of intensity can make for some fantastic and incredibly personal tattoos, but don't get intimidated by Martha. That level of dedication isn't mandatory: Think of a bird that means something to you, and you’ve got a good tattoo candidate.

Of course, as I was considering Kenn's advice and Martha's backstories, it dawned on me that I don’t really have much meaning behind my own Black-legged Kittiwake tattoo. It’s from an artist I admire, sure, and it's cool that I own the original drawing. But other than the fact that kittiwakes can be found in Maine, there isn’t really much there. It's enough for me, though, and that just goes to show that a tattoo can take on different meanings and roles depending on the person. In the end, there's no right answer for everyone. 

And besides, who stops at just one, anyway? I thought I was done after I got my Maine outline tattoo, but I wasn’t even a birder then. Since my kittiwake tattoo, my wife gifted me another Sibley pen-and-ink drawing, this time of a Cory’s and a Great Shearwater banking dramatically over the open ocean. It’d look great covering my entire back or something. Or maybe it’s time to bring back that idea of the Peterson gulls or terns. Perhaps I should just open a Kickstarter now to try and cover the costs. 

That’s one good thing about both birds and tattoos: There’s always another one to get. In the same way that birders get an itch to start spending all their free time chasing birds, the newly tattooed are known to start craving additional ink. Memorable experiences or connections to specific birds can happen at any time, and so can tattoos. Before you know it, your first bird tattoo might turn into an entire flock.

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