Hailed as the father of the old-school tattoo style, Sailor Jerry lived a life defined by his art and his strong personal beliefs. His iconic designs have become famous worldwide and continue to inspire and influence the tattoo culture to this day.
A Mulish Teen?
Born January 14th, 1911 as Norman Keith Collins, he was given the nickname “Jerry” at 10 years old after his father noticed that he and the family mule shared a similar cantankerous disposition. Jerry would maintain that stubborn nature throughout his life, and it would become a cornerstone in his success.
Growing up in rural California wasn’t what Jerry was looking for, so as a teenager he set off on the rails in search of freedom and a new way of life. Jerry lived by his wits, taking small day jobs in whatever town he happened to be passing through, and slept in temporary camp sites with other riders of the rails. This is when he began to learn his craft, creating designs freehand on other camp members with a needle and basic black ink.
Learning the Ropes with Gib ‘Tatts’ Thomas
Jerry eventually ended up in Chicago, where he met the great tattoo artist Gib “Tatts” Thomas. Tatts took Jerry under his wing and began to teach Jerry the techniques and beauty of the tattoo machine. For practice, Jerry worked out an arrangement with local homeless men – offering them cheap wine in exchange for the blank canvas of their skin. Tatts made Jerry his apprentice and welcomed the young artist into the world of professional tattooing.
Many of the clients that Tatts saw in his Chicago shop were sailors from the nearby Naval training academy. These men shared tales of their time and travels on the high sea, which so fascinated Jerry that he chose to enlist with the Navy himself at the age of 19. Looking at it as a way to see even more of the world than the view from a train car would allow, Jerry took to the Navy like a fish to water. He also picked up a new addition to his nickname, and so “Sailor Jerry” was born.
Life at Sea
Jerry’s time with the Navy had a major influence on his life. He developed a love affair with ships of all kinds, embraced the camaraderie that Naval service inspired amongst his fellow sailors, and loved the old seafaring traditions that the older men on-board instilled upon their younger ship mates.
His travels also created a life-long obsession with the culture and art of Southeast Asia. During his time in the Navy, Jerry crossed the Pacific and visited China and Japan, where he came to greatly appreciate the tropical island way of life. When his time in the Navy was over, Jerry chose to relocate to Honolulu, as its island flavour and close proximity to a large Naval base seemed custom made for his great two loves: The Navy and all things with a Pacific island feel.
Hawaii and World War II
Once settled into his new home in Hawaii, Jerry looked to begin tattooing once more. He found that the local Chinatown area was a perfect place to set up shop, as sailors that were coming and going from the local port were deposited right at the entrance to the area’s bars and burlesque clubs. Jerry would practice his craft in the Chinatown arcades or travel to the local sugar cane plantations or military barracks where he would set up his tattoo machine on the large front porches and string his flash over the railings, attracting the soldiers and field hands with his increasingly detailed and varied designs.
The peaceful days of travelling tattoos wouldn’t last. In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and incited World War II. Deeply troubled and angered by the vicious attack on his beloved Navy and new island home, Jerry attempted to show his fierce patriotism by re-enlisting in the Navy to fight the Japanese, but he failed the medical exam due to a poor heart. Not to be deterred, Jerry joined up with the Merchant Marines and spent World War II navigating hostile waters to deliver supplies to a variety of Navy and Army bases.
Setting Up Shop in Honolulu
Between supply ship journeys, Jerry set up a new tattoo shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown with a local Chinese tattoo artist called Tom. They named their shop “Tom and Jerry’s” and catered to the many sailors and soldiers that now temporarily called Pearl Harbour home. The men not only offered tattoos to their eager military clientèle, they also set up a photo booth with a straw hut background and a hula girl (played by Tom’s Chinese wife) where the enlisted men could get a souvenir photo of their time in Hawaii.
After Jerry returned from his time in the Merchant Marines, he found that Tom and his wife had locked up the shop and left in his absence, and that his beloved island was no longer the quiet, tropical paradise that it once was. Hawaii was quickly on its way to becoming a full-fledged state and was covered with sailors, soldiers, and tourists.
He reopened the shop, but it wouldn’t last. A highly patriotic man with passionate beliefs, Jerry also struggled with his feelings regarding the government. Today, he most likely would have been known as a right-wing libertarian. He saw the IRS as an intrusive enemy and refused to pay taxes for the art that he created.
Moving Out of the Limelight
In stubborn protest, he gave up tattooing for nearly a decade and instead took to working in the local shipyards, as well as skippering tour boats through Pearl Harbour. Secretly, Jerry continued to tattoo those that knew to look for him, and would often have to sneak up the back staircase to his apartment after a long day of work to avoid tattoo seekers looking to get some Sailor Jerry ink.
But Jerry could never stay away from tattoos. They were his siren call. In 1960, he was lured back to tattooing full-time and opened a shop at 1033 Smith Street in Honolulu with a California tattoo artist named Bob Palm. Unfortunately, the partnership wouldn’t last. Hawaii was a very different place in that time and Bob, a homosexual, was escorted off of the island by the military for “immoral allegations.”
Don’t Mess with Jerry
Jerry kept the business going and was the master of his small shop. He took no crap and had no respect for customers with attitude, especially those that came in high on marijuana and spouting their liberal, un-American beliefs. Jerry would quickly give those “peace pots” the boot, and soon developed the reputation of being one tough shop owner.
One would-be client was quickly shown what Jerry was capable of when he took a swing at Jerry and was cut with the buck knife that Jerry kept in his pocket. The man was quick to see the error of his ways, and Jerry even stitched the rowdy man’s wound closed for him. Apparently, Jerry made quite the impression on him, as he returned several months later with a friend that had also been injured in a knife fight and asked Jerry to stitch him up, as well.
Tricks and Innovations
Jerry was also highly competitive and loved to stir up trouble with other local tattoo artists that he didn’t feel were worthy of being in the industry. He would start phoney rumours of amazing new tattoo techniques or even send out tattoo designs that were purposely flawed, all in an attempt to flush out the lacklustre members of the professional tattoo community.
Jerry had a strong dislike for local tattoo artist, Lou Normand and caused him some minor trouble on several occasions, such as the time that Jerry told Lou that the secret to a vibrant red colour on flash was adding sugar to the paint and when Lou tried this trick, he woke up to find that the large Hawaiian cockroaches had eaten all of the sugar infused red ink from every bit of flash in his shop.
In one case, his pranks actually brought about an innovation. This time, Lou had been very vocal about his belief that it was impossible to incorporate the colour purple into tattoos. Just to prove the man that he disliked so strongly wrong, Jerry worked with chemists to develop the first purple ink and revolutionised the tattoo industry. He then placed a beautiful purple tattoo on a young man and paid him to visit Lou’s shop to rub his new purple-infused piece into the other artist’s face. Jerry loved to get the last laugh!
No-Nonsense Style… and Gray Beard
It was during this period of time that Jerry became the most prolific, and he credited his industriousness and creativity to “Gray Beard,” his tattoo sage. Gray Beard was a horribly done painting of an old Asian man that Jerry had picked up in Chinatown and hung over his desk. He swore that Gray Beard provided him with assistance and guidance. There must have been something to this, as Jerry built a body of work more influential than any other in history.
The clean and bold Sailor Jerry style was full of sharp lines, memorable slogans, and unmistakable symbolism. His patriotic spirit was clearly evident in his designs with American flags, bald eagles, and phrases such as “Born Free, Live Free, Die Free” peppered throughout his work. His style was love it or leave it – and people loved it.
East Meets West
On the other side of the coin, Jerry had also begun to incorporate his love of the East. He corresponded with several Japanese tattoo masters called “Horis” and began swapping designs with them. This correspondence resulted in Jerry including Japanese tattoo techniques such as water-shading and background perspective into his work, and the results stunned and greatly impressed the tattoo community, and the world.
Jerry became so impressed by the Horis, and was so confident of his own status as a tattoo master, that he chose to make himself an honorary Hori. In typical Sailor Jerry fashion, he also wanted to keep his own spin on things, so he dubbed himself “Hori Smoku,” a simultaneously respectful nod to the Japanese, and a poke at the reverence of the tradition – Hori Smoku was how he said “holy smoke” in a phoney Japanese accent.
Mixing with the Pros and Inspiring the Next Generation
Jerry also corresponded with other great artists of the day, as he believed that who you aligned yourself with (both personally and professionally) was of the utmost importance. He held his tattooing secrets close to his chest, and only shared thoughts and designs with those that he respected, and kept the “scab artists” at a distance. Jerry exchanged letters with artists that he admired from around the world, including Brooklyn Joe Lieber, Owen Jensen, Paul Rogers, Long Andy Libarry, and his former mentor Tatts Thomas.
The next generation of tattoo artists were highly respectful of Sailor Jerry and wanted to learn all that they could from him, and would reach out to him via mail. Mike Malone and Zeke Owen were especially interested in gleaning whatever bit of knowledge that they could from Jerry and wrote to him regularly. At the top of Jerry’s mentoring by mail list was a young California artist named Don “Ed” Hardy. At one point, Ed and Jerry were writing to each other daily to share their thoughts on tattoos, Eastern philosophy, and life in general. Jerry poured out his hard-won tattooing secrets to Ed, and they eventually planned to open a shop together in Hawaii and call it “The Mid-Pacific Tattoo Institute.”
The Later Years
In 1972, Jerry invited an exclusive group of tattoo artists from around the world to take place in a meeting of the minds. Ed Hardy, Mike Malone and Des Connely all flew into Hawaii to take part in Jerry’s “mini-convention.” The special guest of the event was Japanese master Hori Oguri, who was so impressed by Ed, he invited the artist back to Japan with him to study tattooing. It was in this way that Jerry lost his favourite young protégé and his dream to open a new shop with Ed Hardy.
Jerry returned to 1033 Smith Street alone, and continued to do what he did until one afternoon in 1973 when he suffered a heart attack while out visiting a local motorcycle dealership. Not realising what had happened but feeling poorly, Jerry drove his Harley home and went to bed. He died three days later.
The Legacy of Sailor Jerry
His instructions to his wife had been very clear: If anything happened to him, she was to sell the shop to Mike Malone, Zeke Owen, or Ed Hardy. If they don’t want it, she should burn it to the ground.
Ed was still in Japan studying under Hori Oguri, Zeke already owned a shop in San Diego and wanted to stay put, so it fell to Mike. He purchased the shop and renamed it “China Sea” as an homage to Sailor Jerry. Mike tattooed there for more than 25 years.
Decades later, the mark that Sailor Jerry left on the tattoo world has remained strong and clear. His timeless style and strong personality continues to inspire tattoo enthusiasts to this day and bears witness to the man, the sailor, and the legend – Sailor Jerry.
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