“My Work Speaks For Itself” – Sailor Jerry
Tattoo legend Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins would have hated this article. The lifelong sailor and roughneck who revolutionized tattooing during the ’60s from his tiny shop in Honolulu’s gritty Chinatown developed a strict policy on dealing with the press: Don’t do it. He refused newspaper interviews. He threw a Hawaii Five-O film crew out of his shop. If you got pushy, he could always grab the spray bottle of homemade mace he kept at his workstation.
The rule didn’t just apply to him. Jerry frowned on anyone talking about tattooing outside of tattoo circles. When tattooer Lyle Tuttle appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, Jerry taped the photo to the inside of his toilet seat. After local rival Lou Norman claimed during an interview that there was no purple ink in tattooing (a fact up to that point), Jerry used purple ink he had secretly developed to tattoo a large dragon on a client’s arm. He covered the tattoo and sent the kid to Norman’s shop to request one like it. As the tattooer launched into his explanation of why it wasn’t possible, the kid yanked up his sleeve to reveal the tattoo Jerry had given him. Norman suffered a heart attack. While Norman was recovering in the hospital, Jerry sent him a gift: a bouquet of purple orchids.
These are just a few of the stories revealed in Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry: The Life and Times of Norman Keith Collins, a new documentary that explores Jerry’s immeasurable impact on tattooing and tattoo art, from his work developing inks and needle groupings to his technique of adding Japanese-style shading to bold American designs. More than that, Hori Smoku looks at a character too big for what was then the tiny world of tattooing. It’s a portrait of an artist, a sailor, a fierce patriot, a radio show host, a poet, an innovator, and a man so passionate about tattooing that artists from New York to Tokyo sought him out in his Hawaiian hideaway. The few he let in, including Ed Hardy, Mike Malone, and Zeke Owen, went on to become tattoo legends in their own right.Decades later, Jerry’s designs now appear on everything from Converse shoes to a line of Sailor Jerry rum, and books have been released of his illustrations and letters. But until now, no one has pieced together his legacy on film. After all, how do you make a movie about a man who hated publicity and whose motto, printed on his business cards, simply warned, “My work speaks for itself”?
The sun is setting over Waikiki Beach, creating sparkling purples and oranges across the Pacific Ocean, but Hori Smoku director Erich Weiss doesn’t care. Seated on the roof of Honolulu’s Marriot Hotel, the 35-year-old filmmaker is sucking on his third beer and worrying. He’s changed out of the bright red “Baywatch Crew” T-shirt he bought earlier at a beachside thrift store and into a button-down shirt. Later this evening his movie Hori Smoku will be screened at a club on the city’s historic Hotel Street, just a block from where Jerry’s shop once operated. But before that, Weiss will be meeting with David Collins, one of Jerry’s nine kids. Weiss created the movie without the involvement of Jerry’s family, choosing instead to focus on Jerry’s influence on tattooing, and tonight David will be the first sibling to see the movie that Weiss has made about his imposing father.
“I did what any normal person would do,” Weiss says before breaking into the self-deprecating laugh that punctuates a lot of his conversation. “I called him and said, ‘I just made a movie about your dad and I’d like to talk to you.'”
Weiss wasn’t supposed to make a movie at all. The Philadelphia filmmaker, who got his start creating music videos for artists such as Eagles of Death Metal and Spank Rock, was originally hired to pull together a short reel about the tattooist’s legacy for the licensing company that creates merchandise based on Jerry’s art. “I had no fucking money to do this,” Weiss explains. “I had to find these guys, then travel around the country to interview them and say to them, ‘Hey, I’m not an asshole. Will you be on film?'”
He started by contacting Hardy and Malone, two of Jerry’s protégés, and requesting interviews. Just like the old master, Jerry’s students were wary of outsiders. “It wouldn’t have been worth it if they weren’t,” Weiss says of the skepticism he received. “I would have been let down. I’m just some punk-ass kid, and some of these guys have worked 40 to 50 years when this shit wasn’t selling fucking T-shirts and sneakers. Even in this secular world, I had to go through these channels and prove I was legitimate and not some guy just trying to make a quick buck.”
After an encouraging phone conversation with Hardy, Weiss flew to San Francisco to visit the artist at his shop, Tattoo City. Hardy, a college graduate who spurned an offer to attend Yale’s printmaking program in order to tattoo, is the art form’s elder statesman and the tattooer most consider Jerry’s prodigal son. The plan was to convince Hardy that Weiss was legit and not just a suit looking to cash in on Jerry’s legacy—the type the old man would have run out of his shop.
“We kind of really hit it off right in the beginning. He understood what I wanted to do,” Weiss explains. “Ed really respects that kind of lineage and that idea that you give back to the people that taught you. He’s an articulate man. He’s brilliant. ”
Weiss filmed several hours with Hardy, then headed back to Philadelphia to find Malone. When Jerry passed away in 1973, he left his wife strict instructions on how to handle his shop: If Hardy, Malone, or Owen doesn’t buy it, burn it down. With Hardy studying tattooing in Japan, Malone took over the Honolulu shop and ran it for several years before relocating to Austin and then on to Chicago, where Weiss found him running his new shop, Taylor Street Tattoo. After some initial gruffness (“He took a lot of long pauses on the phone and said, ‘What the fuck do you want to do this for?'”), Weiss filmed two interviews with Malone. The last happened just months before the tattooer took his own life (Hori Smoku is dedicated to him).”I was only supposed to shoot for a month,” Weiss explains. “Just talk to Ed and Mike, compile it, and hand it over. Instead, I came back and explained that this stuff is really important. There’s history here, and it’s not just about tattooing. This guy is so influential, and we need to get this down.”
With no money and nowhere to live, Weiss crashed on a friend’s couch while he tracked down and interviewed more old-school icons, often relying on Hardy’s help to find them and his blessing to help open the door. The list of appearances in Hori Smoku reads like a roll call of American tattooing, including Bob Roberts, Eddie Funk, Joe Boyle, and Philadelphia Eddie (“We killed two bottles of booze and he just told me stories—it was like an after-school special on peer pressure.”). It took Weiss another five months of phone calls to find Zeke Owen in Maryland. “Zeke is everything you wanted to be when you were a kid,” Weiss recalls. “He’s Lee Majors combined with a stuntman, a biker, and a tattoo-artist secret agent. He’s so cool.”
Weiss also sat down with Lyle Tuttle, Jerry’s nemesis from the cover of Rolling Stone. “Lyle was more savvy with the media,” Weiss explains. “He was a real forebearer of what was to happen with tattooing. Jerry was more about keeping it up a dark, dirty alley and not letting people know about it.”
These days, Jerry’s legacy is more red carpet than dirty alley. Hori Smoku has already screened at South by Southwest, the New Orleans Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award), and the Philadelphia Film Festival, where a prescreening party outside the Sailor Jerry store featuring punk band Paint It Black attracted more than 2,000 fans. Now the movie is being prepped for a DVD release. How would Jerry have felt about all of the attention? Weiss doesn’t worry. As he sees it, Hori Smoku is more about Jerry’s influence on tattooing and less about the man himself, something Jerry understood.
“Malone met Jerry because he was doing an art show on tattooing at the American Folk Museum in New York. He had to call Jerry and he was petrified because Jerry hated the media. But Jerry knew that this was important, that it was something people were viewing as legitimate artwork. He liked that,” Weiss says, sighing and finishing his beer. “There’s history here and it’s not just about tattooing. This is an American folk art.”
It’s now two hours before the screening of Hori Smoku, and inside Bar 35 the event’s promoters are making an emergency decision. The line outside the Honolulu club already stretches down the block with local tattoo artists and fans who are clamoring to get into the screening. After a brief discussion, the decision is made to screen the movie in two locations to accommodate the swelling crowd. The outdoor patio with its benches and towering palm trees will be cordoned off as a VIP area, while a second screening will be set up inside for everyone else.
A bald man with an easy smile and a black Hawaiian-print shirt works his way through the rowdy crowd and presents his identification to the bouncer perched at the door. The weathered ID card shows a cracked black-and-white photo of a grinning man with thick glasses and crew cut hair. The name reads, Norman Keith Collins. The ancient Merchant Marine ID card once belonged to Sailor Jerry, but the man holding it tonight is his son cordoned David Collins.
The 46-year-old commercial diver grew up in Honolulu and was 11 when his father passed away. He has only one tattoo (a cow on his hip) and remembers his father as an artist who drew flyers for Boy Scout functions and a babysitter who let him spend afternoons in the tattoo shop. “He would be babysitting me and he would be working on someone and look up and I would be over by the door looking out at Chinatown,” David recalls. “Sometimes when I was 6 or 7, I would walk down to the corner of Smith and Hotel Street just to watch the people go by. I knew most of these places were places I wasn’t supposed to go into.”
The Hori Smoku screening starts and the crowd, aided by Sailor Jerry rum, hoots and yells. Scenes of Philadelphia Eddie’s foulmouthed rants bring drunken howls of laughter, while Hardy’s segments elicit a churchlike silence from eager listeners. Like a college professor, Hardy speaks about everything from the effect of WWII on Jerry’s art and the sailors who arrived in Honolulu on their way to battles in the Pacific to the old master’s insistence for accuracy in every tattoo, down to the rotation of a rudder. Malone is the character, grinning as he relives the wild personalities that modernized tattooing. And the scenes that feature a voice actor reading from Jerry’s letters about rivals, STDs, and technique draw big laughs and a smile from David.
“I was really glad that Ed Hardy mentioned that Dad was kind of a chameleon, in that the face he showed in tattooing was different from what he did on the radio or at home,” David says after the movie ends. “When my dad came home, he was Dad. He was a practical joker and a raconteur. He had great stories about the adventures and the things that he’d done. That has been really influential in my life.”
But that doesn’t mean David discounts his father’s influence on tattooing.
“I’ve popped into tattoo shops all around the world just to look around. I don’t say who I am—it’s not about me. But I go in and look and see Dad’s flash with his name on the corner. … There was a shop that actually had a photo of my Dad in his dress uniform with the hat. It’s a nice photo. They had it hanging right there in this guy’s tattoo shop. I thought, Geez, he’s kind of everywhere.”