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 - Uncovered
As with all artists, his work is an insight into the mind of the man and Collins clearly used his tattoo career to stamp his own philosophical beliefs into the skin of his clientele. Sailor Jerry flash designs feature strong conservative values and Collins’s no nonsense persona comes off the page to stand right up in your face. He was fiercely protective of his tattoo techniques and secrets and it was a great honour for tattooists to be invited into Collins’s inner circle and be awarded a bottle of his prized and revolutionary purple ink. He kept a wary company and cherry picked tattoo friends that he could consider peers whilst ruthlessly berating low grade tattooists, calling them ‘scab-artists’.
But Norman Collins was not a one dimensional, boorish alpha male. He was a master seaman and despite only three years of formal education he held Merchant Marine Captain’s papers for many vessels, taking the required exams after hearing his sailor customers complain about how tough the tests were. He was an enthusiastic and accomplished saxophonist and also hosted a radio show where he would recite poetry and speak at length about politics and philosophy.
Collins was subversive and patriotic both, considering tattoos to be the ultimate rebellion against the ‘squares’ whilst also being an exponent of all things traditionally American. His late night radio show nickname was ‘Old Ironsides’. In one show he is quoted “This is Veterans Day, but this is also a day when we as Americans should take a look into the mirror of our consciousness. Take a good look at what you see. We, as a nation, are riding on the heavily burdened backs of our fighting men. They are not complaining. I am.”
Sailor Jerry - The Legacy
Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins died on 12th June 1973 leaving strict instructions in his will to his wife regarding the disposal of his tattoo shop. “Sell everything to Ed Hardy, Mike Malone aka “Rollo Banks” or Zeke Owen. If none of them want it, burn it to the ground.” Malone purchased the shop.
Hardy and Malone later licensed Sailor Jerry's artwork to a small Philadelphia company that set up Sailor Jerry Ltd to commemorate and promote Collins’s old-school values of independence, hard work, and unyielding standards of craftsmanship. The company produces a range of clothing, giftware and the famous ‘Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum’. “All of the products are inspired by Sailor Jerry’s inimitable character and spirit and all feature the flash art designs created by the man.” says Adam Freedman who works with the Sailor Jerry brand in the UK.
For tattoo owners Sailor Jerry lives on and his style influences can be seen in studios across the world. Everyone here at Vida Loca will enthusiastically raise our glass to celebrate 106 years of Sailor Jerry. And yes. We will be drinking rum.
Norman Collins is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. His grave site is 124/Section T.
The meanings behind the Sailor Jerry flash
Traditionally a sign of strength and luck, sailors adopted the dragon tattoo as a mark of crossing the International Date Line or various Asiatic crossings. Collins developed the first purple ink at a time when most tattooists said that purple would be toxic. Collins sent a newly tattooed sailor into a competitor’s shop to ask for a dragon design in purple. When told that it couldn’t be done the punter whipped out his purple dragon from Sailor Jerry.
For a trip around Cape Horn. Collins’s schooner designs featured perfect rigging, befitting his seafaring roots.
To remind of a sweetheart. Collins popularised the pin up flash which has become one of the most iconic tattoo designs in the world.
To remind of love and being reunited.
The North Star – for navigation, to guide and to keep you on course.
Pig and Rooster
These animals are not fond of water would get quickly to shore. These were also sometimes kept aboard in wooden crates and would float in case of a shipwreck. One of each animal tattooed on each foot would protect from drowning.
Usually tattooed on the chest the swallow was originally the sign of a mutineer but later a symbol of nautical miles travelled. One swallow = 5,000 miles travelled by sea. Also worn for the hope of a safe return for the wearer.