If you don't know who Sailor Jerry is- you don't know tattoos. Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins (1911-1973) is considered the foremost American tattoo artist of his time, and defined the craft in two eras-- BSJ and ASJ (before and after Sailor Jerry). Arguably, he did more for the ancient art of tattooing than most any other single person, and is largely responsible for the tattoo becoming part of living American folk art.
Norman Keith Collins was born in Reno, Nevada. As a child he'd hop freight trains across the country and learned tattooing from a man named Tatts Thomas of the Chicago tattoo scene, and one of the greats in the business.
At age 19, Norman Collins enlisted in the US Navy. It was during his travels at sea that he was exposed to the art and imagery of Southeast Asia. Artistically, his influence stems from his union of the roguish attitude of the American sailor with the mysticism and technical prowess of the Far East. Sailor Jerry maintained a close correspondence with Japanese tattoo masters during his career, and is largely credited with bringing the Asian influence to American tattooing.
Sailor Jerry regarded tattoos as "the ultimate rebellion against the Squares". His legendary sense of humor is oft reflected in his work-- but he was never one to compromise his professionalism or take his craft and responsibilities lightly. Originally there were few colors available to tattoo artists-- Sailor Jerry expanded the array by developing his own safe pigments. He also created needle formations that embedded pigment with much less trauma to the skin, and was one of the first to utilize single-use needles and hospital-quality sterilization.
Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins remained a sailor his entire life. Even during his career as a tattoo artist, he worked as the licensed skipper of a large three-masted schooner, on which he conducted tours of the Hawaiian islands. Sailing and tattooing were Jerry's only two professional endeavors. On the side, he played saxophone in his own dance band for years. Another outlet was hosting his own ultra conservative, and frequently controversial nighttime talk show on KTRG radio, where he was known as "Old Ironsides". He often lectured against the impending (as he saw it) downfall of the American political system by infiltration of liberals. Jerry was also a prolific writer and carried on in-depth communications with many pen-pals around the world.
Sailor Jerry went out of his way to mentor those tattoo artists whose talents and attitude he respected, among them tattoo legends Don Ed Hardy and Mike Malone, to whom he entrusted his legacy of flash designs. He also railed against flashy tattoo artists such as Lyle Tuttle, and what he called "hippie tattoo" culture. From his 20s to his late 50s, he stopped tattooing entirely as a part of a disagreement with the IRS. Believe it or not, Sailor Jerry only tattooed for approximately 12 years altogether.
Sailor Jerry’s first studio was in Honolulu's Chinatown, then the only place on the island where tattoo studios were located. His work was so widely copied, he had to print "The Original Sailor Jerry" on his business cards. There's a guy up in Canada that goes by the same name, but don't be fooled-- although he's good in his own right, he ain't the original Sailor Jerry.
When Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins passed away in 1973, he had left specific instructions with his wife about the fate of his tattoo shop- and in turn, his legacy. According to Mike Malone, Jerry said it was to be offered to each of his three protégés: Mike Malone, Don Ed Hardy, or Zeke Owen. If those men didn't heed the call, then the shop and all the master's artwork was to be burnt to ashes- no questions asked.
Fortunately, Mike Malone answered the call. 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.
Enjoy the sampling of Sailor Jerry's iconic tattoo flash below-