The foremost american tattoo artist who helped to develop the tattoo designs that are now considered “old school” is norman “sailor jerry” collins (1911-1973). At age 19, sailor jerry enlisted in the us navy. Sailor jerry remained a sailor his entire life. Story goes, sailor jerry began his career traveling around the country on freight trains and tattooing the drifters.
When talking about old school tattoos, the name sailor jerry is always being mentioned. Sailor jerry’s images have bold deep outlines, bold blocks of color, and large, oversized images. Sailor jerry’s work was designed to last, with existing sailor jerry tattoos on living individuals still looking great after years of wear.
Originally there were few colors available to tattoo artists– sailor jerry expanded the array by developing his own safe pigments. His work was so widely copied, he had to print “the original sailor jerry” on his business cards. Just look at sailor jerry’s tattoos or a little more contemporary ed hardy and you will see anchors, nautical stars and swallow throughout their designs. Believe it or not, sailor jerry only tattooed for approximately 12 years.
During his lifetime, sailor jerry developed a number of innovations in tattooing which continue to be used to this day, and several prominent american tattoo artists can trace the lineage of their training back to sailor jerry. Sailor jerry mentored such modern day tattoo masters as ed hardy, cliff 4 Raven and mike malone. Don ed hardy says: “I believe, the real breakthrough of tattooing came in the late sixties and early seventies with sailor jerry. With a shop in honolulu at the dawn of world war ii, sailor jerry worked in extraordinary conditions, where lines for his shop were around the block, right next to a whorehouse’s line around the block, and a bar’s. Permanently etched on the bodies of the hundreds of men who passed through his honolulu parlor, his work tells of war and heartache with a dedication to style, craft, and detail that would make ‘sailor jerry’ one of the most influential, if little recognized, american folk artists of the 20th century. ‘sailor jerrys last studio was in honolulu’s chinatown, then the only place on the island where tattoo studios were located.
When sailor jerry died, he left instructions that one of his students, ed hardy or mike malone, could buy his tattoo shop in hawaii. Mike malone took the offer and with the purchase of the shop, he also got all of sailor jerry’s artwork. After reaching agreement with jerry’s wife, money changed hands, and mike purchased jerry’s artwork, flash collection and smith street shop, keeping the legacy of sailor jerry alive for a whole new generation of roughnecks and adventurers who roamed the wild streets of honolulu’s chinatown.
After his death, friends found the recipe to a spiced rum in norman collin’s belongings, which later became the base that created sailor jerry rum. The label of the rum features a sailor jerry hula girl.
American tattoo icon – Sailor jerry collins legacy lives on through his timeless Tattoo Flash.