In general, tattoos are either associated with cultural tradition or an outlaw lifestyle. For the man behind Sailor Jerry, Norman Collins, the latter would come to define his pioneering tattoo style and ethos.
As a child growing up in the wilderness of Ukiah, California, he was given the nickname Jerry by his parents, who had a donkey of the same name. His parents would refer to Collins as “Jerry” whenever he was being a bit of an ass.
In his teens, Collins led a freewheeling lifestyle determined to make it on his own terms. Hopping on trains and hitchhiking his way around the country in search of the elusive America Dream, Collins was soon introduced to the art of tattooing.
Working with whatever he could find, Collins practiced on anyone who would be willing to let him, even paying bums to let him experiment his art. Armed with only a needle and black ink, he hand poked designs into skin the traditional way (not by using a tattoo gun).
In the 1920s, Collins moved to Chicago and met his mentor – Gib “Tatts” Thomas, who taught him how to use a tattoo gun on corpses at a morgue.
Then in the 1930s, after years of honing his craft on Navy cadets, Collins himself enlisted and was assigned to various ports in Asia before landing in Hawai’i.
During WWII, Collins tattooed countless servicemen who were on shore leave. His tattoos came to define the tribulations faced by these men who courageously gave their lives for their country. (See the iconic, “Death Before Dishonor” knife-through-heart design as an example).
Ironically, although the Americans fought the Japanese, Collins (who quickly became known as Sailor Jerry after the war), began communicating with Japanese tattoo masters known as Horis. He was the first Westerner to do so, tapping into their sophisticated techniques.
Fusing East and West, Jerry create his own irreverent pieces that have become classics and been copied throughout the world. He even invented new colours for tattoos and introduced sterilisation via the autoclave (saving everyone from infections).
Jerry was continually frustrated by other artists (who he called “brain pickers”) copying his work. He refused to do big chest or back pieces on customers who had tattoos by artists he didn’t respect. Jerry was in a constant quest to deepen his own skills. “My slogan is,” he states, “I haven’t done my best yet, only my best so far.”
Jerry kept tattooing in Hawai’i at his shop until 1972, when he suffered a heart attack while riding his motorcycle, dying three days after the incident.
Before he died, he made his wife promise him: if Ed Hardy, Mike “Rollo” Malone, and Zeke Owen did not buy his shop, she would burned it to the ground.
Thankfully, Malone stepped up to purchase the shop. And in 1999, together with Hardy, as Sailor Jerry Ltd, they introduced a 92-proof spiced Navy rum featuring a quintessential Sailor Jerry hula girl on the label.
As the bottle is emptied, additional pin-up girls designed by Sailor Jerry are visible on the inner side of the label. The rum is distilled in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It takes its influence from Caribbean rum, which sailors would spice with flavours from the Far East and Asia. In 2010, the 40% ABV formula being sold in the United Kingdom was changed to include a less sweet taste in a move that was described as more ‘vanilla and caramel flavours’.
Jerry was always battling something, whether it was conventional thinking, the mediocrity of copycat tattoo artists or the government meddling into his affairs. He never knuckled under to anyone or anything. To quote from a letter Jerry wrote to protégé, Ed Hardy, commenting on a yin yang dragon design, “keep them fighting, it’s the way that Yin Yang functions — if there is no opposition of forces there is no evolution of life!”
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