THE LEGEND OF SAILOR JERRY | TATTOO MASTER NORMAN COLLINS

 

sailor jerry tattoos

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 tattoo than most any other single person.

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sailor jerry tattoos anchor

At age 19, Sailor Jerry 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. He maintained a close correspondence with Japanese tattoo masters during his career.

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sailor jerry tattoos cards

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.

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sailor jerry tattoos eagle

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.

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sailor jerry tattoo

Sailor Jerry remained a sailor his entire life. Even during his career as a tattoo artist, he worked as licensed skipper of a large three-masted schooner, on which he conducted tours of the Hawaiian islands. Sailing and tattooing were his only two professional endeavors.

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sailor jerry tattoos bottle

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.

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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.

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In 1999, Ed Hardy and Mike Malone partnered with an independent Philadelphia company to establish Sailor Jerry Ltd., which produces rum, clothing and other goods. Some say that Ed Hardy sold his old mentor, Sailor Jerry, up the river– taking much credit for Jerry’s style and pocketing the dough. Sailor Jerry (and Von Dutch alike)  may be rolling in his grave.

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sailor jerry tattoos care

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.

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norman collins sailor jerry tattoos

Tattooing legend Norman Collins AKA Sailor Jerry

sailor jerry tattoos norman collins photo

Tattooing legend Norman Collins AKA Sailor Jerry

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ROGUES, SAILORS & ANCIENT MARINERS | HISTORY OF NAUTICAL TATTOOS

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16 thoughts on “THE LEGEND OF SAILOR JERRY | TATTOO MASTER NORMAN COLLINS

  1. Great story JP, you have an amazing ability to melt dozens of different stories into one pool of groovyness.

    Is there a crusty old guy out there who rode an old BMW motorcycle accross the continent with $186 bucks, one spare spark plug, a screwdriver, pack of hot dogs and a zippo?

    Speaking of Zippo….another icon.

    EJ

  2. One of my arms is covered with Sailor Jerry tattoos. He’s the real deal. I love his glasses. The classic plastic top and metal bottom. Works just as well on Jerry as on Malcolm X.

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  4. Hey JP,

    Not to be contrary and waaay after the fact (seeing how this was posted so long ago) but I was catching up on your site and noticed this post.

    Kudos to you!

    One minor thing though, the other Sailor Jerry you mentioned is equally important in tattoo history.

    I recently read your Cap Coleman and Paul Rogers post and figure you know your tattoo history, so here’s a bit you might not know. Sailor Jerry Swallows (formerly of Halifax, Nova Scotia and now tattooing out of Victoria BC, Canada) was one of the guys who brought Japanese tattooing Stateside, if not THE guy as far as establishing an exchange of art, techniques and information in an otherwise closed community and industry before tattooing got mainstreamed. It is almost unconditionally accepted among tattooists that Jerry Swallows was the man who began the EAST/WEST dialogue that brought Japanese motifs to Westerners on a greater scale.

    I believe that he was the one who introduced Don ‘Ed’ Hardy to Japanese tattooing through his long correspondence with Kazu0 Oguri (Horihide) – the first traditional Japanese tattooist willing to speak to western tattoo artists – and MAY have brokered The Don’s first trip to Japan. As I understand it, The Don’s stay yielded mixed feelings and learning, but it broke down a major wall at the time.

    Just thought you might like to know.

  5. Im currently enlisted in the US Navy, and am veritably covered in strictly Sailor Jerry Collin’s flash designs. All I wanted to say is that for thier great influence to originally introducing tattooing to the Western World at large; the Sailor today is largely ignorant of any of the tattooing traditions of our forefathers. Talismans against age old mariners superstitions etched into my flesh are all but lost in meaning to my shipmates. How quickly the world can change. I see people at the mall who have never set foot on a ship parading tattoos of fouled anchors (as if they could ever guess what “fouled” means) Thanks for adding to the rich chronicle of an American sailing icon.

  6. awesome writing and subjects. love it. I read this and felt a rush from the insight in the tattoo world – is it worth anything. I am from Copenhagen, Denmark and pretty proud of our sailor tattoo history.

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