Born Norman Keith Collins on January 14th 1911, the Sailor Jerry legend is 106 years old this year. The name and the brand will be familiar to many, but who was Sailor Jerry?
Sailor Jerry - The Man
You might have quaffed Sailor Jerry rum. You might even have worn the Sailor Jerry tee shirt. If so, now is the perfect time for you to know a little about the man, about his work and about his place in the history of tattooing. Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins was born 100 years ago this year and although he is no longer with us, his legacy lives on as large as ever. “Modern tattooing has a lot to thank him for” says Lal Hardy from New Wave Tattoo. “He was an innovator who introduced new methods, new pigments, new machines and eye catching designs and he established links with the world of Japanese tattooing too. Tattooing would be very different today without Sailor Jerry.”
Collins was nicknamed Jerry by his father after the headstrong and cantankerous family mule, but his tattoo career began during his travelling teens which he spent hopping long distance freight trains around the USA. He would adorn his fellow drifters and vagrants with hand-pricked inkwork before being schooled in the use of tattoo equipment by the legendary Gib ‘Tatts’ Thomas.
Aged 19 Collins joined the US Navy where his travels would introduce him to the Asian arts and culture that would so influence his trademark tattoo style. His bold and headstrong personality was perfectly suited navy life and Collins never lost his love for the sea, but the end of his navy career saw the birth of one of the most seminal and revolutionary tattoo careers in history. Settling in what was then the remote Hawaiian island of Oahu, Collins set up shop as a tattoo artist. By stroke of luck or genius, Oahu soon found fame as a stopover shore-leave destination for millions of military service men. Collins’s shop and its reputation grew quickly, with each boat bringing a new batch of customers. The Sailor Jerry tattoo legend was born.
Larger than life and standing well over six feet tall, Collins was seemingly afraid of no man and he stood no crap from his sailor clientele. He dealt with egos and aggression harshly and kept a spray bottle filled with an ammonia concoction of his own invention to be used like Mace when trouble flared. A flag waving patriot, Collins also had a foul mouth and would eject from the shop anyone with liberal or left-wing views, including what he called ‘peace-pots’. He was also a devious and accomplished prankster and there are several stories of him specifically victimising rival tattooists. In one memorable example, spurred on by phony advice from Sailor Jerry, one tattooist added three drops of urine to brighten his red ink.
Sailor Jerry Tattoos
Collins’s tattoo art was a perfect fusion between the Asian art and imagery that so impressed him during his navy travels, and the iconic American symbolism that was close to the hearts of both Collins and his customers. “Sailor Jerry tattooed the American men of war with images of hope and memories of their loved ones.” says Lal Hardy “He was one of the first to turn out big back pieces and he popularised the pin-up girl too.” These bold, no nonsense designs were an instant hit and this success sparked the launch of many new studios and tattoo artists; all hoping to emulate the success of Sailor Jerry.
But it was his innovations with inks, machines and techniques that would take Collins to the top of his game. Sailor Jerry tattoos were made famous the world over by Collins’s work developing new ink colours and advanced needle formations, and he was one of the first tattooists to employ single-use needles and to adopt hospital standard hygiene protocols. These were major advancements for the tattoo industry at the time, and Collins was keen for these processes to gain favour to subsequently legitimise the trade.
Collins’s was a prolific writer with many pen-pals around the world and he was one of the few American tattoo artists to correspond with the secretive Japanese tattoo masters known as ‘Horis’. His obsession with Japanese art and culture, rolled together with a passion for tattooing and a determination to be the best found Collins swapping inks, designs and techniques with his Japanese counterparts, always signing his letters ‘Hori Smoku’. Like many Americans at the time, Collins had a deep seated dislike and distrust for the Japanese after World War II. This self-appointed title ‘Hori Smoku’ was a subversive dig at the Japanese inability to pronounce ‘Holy Smoke!”
Japanese techniques such as water shading, background perspective and story telling fused with All American symbolism and philosophy made Collins a seminal and revolutionary figure in the history of tattooing.