A Sailor’s Life
The legend of tattooer Sailor Jerry Collins
Long Before Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins arrived on Honolulu Hotel Street and revolutionized tattooing, the man himself was forged in the blood and sweat of America at the turn of the century. A world-worn roughneck with a fascination for Eastern philosophy and art, he chased adventure from the California foothills to the gangster-run streets of Chicago and across the wide open China sea to Asia before settling in the remote Hawai’ian Islands. Then, from his tiny tattoo shop in Honolulu’s gritty Chinatown, he shaped and cussed it all into a pure, American folk art that redefined tattooing forever.
Taking on the doggedly traditional world of tattooing took guts and Jerry came built for the job. He was a naturally gifted draftsman capable of delivering a straight shot to the gut with a few bold lines and a self-taught tinkerer who obsessed over tweaking his tattoo machines to pour in black ink like velvet. He attacked tattooing with a blue collar mentality where an incessant work ethic and iron clad integrity always trumped showmanship. Unoriginality was unforgivable. Copycats, rip off artists and “scratch bums” were the sworn enemy. If you disagreed, you were wrong. And good luck changing the old man’s mind. Stubbornness was the core of the Sailor Jerry legend: Although born Norman Keith Collins on January 14, 1911, his father nicknamed him “Jerry” after the family’s unruly mule. The nickname and the stubbornness stuck.
He was raised in Ukiah, a northern California farming and logging town, but his introduction to tattooing came on the road. Jerry first tried tattooing as a teenage by hand-poking designs on willing customers with whatever supplies he came across while hitchhiking and hopping freight trains across America. He landed in Chicago in the 1920s and connected with his first formal teacher, the legendary Gib “Tatts” Thomas, who taught Jerry how to use a tattoo machine. The lesson itself became part of the great Sailor Jerry mythology: Thomas took Jerry to the city morgue where a friend of the tattooer who worked the night shift and would allow the young apprentice to practice tattooing on a corpse. They led Jerry to a dark room where a cadaver lay covered by a sheet on a table and left him alone with his tattoo machine and inks. Determined not to be spooked, Jerry set up his gear and lifted the corpse’s arm when suddenly the body sat upright and screamed, terrifying Jerry, Thomas and his friends laughed hysterically at the joke they had played on the young, severely shaken apprentice.
Tattoo artists in Chicago at the time worked mostly out of mafia-run arcades on State Street, paying their gangster bosses for the space they rented. Artists operated out of small cubicles, often competing for business with other tattooers in the same arcade. Jerry spent some time working with Thomas while learning the intricacies of tattooing. Many of his clients arrived from the Great Lakes Naval Training Academy forty miles north of Chicago, and in 1928, influenced by his sailor clientele and the lure of adventure on the open seas, Jerry enlisted in the Navy.
Jerry’s time at sea became the overwhelming influence on his life. He relished the camaraderie of the Navy, and the old sea-faring traditions of sailors became subjects he celebrated in his work until his death. More importantly, the Navy took Jerry across the Pacific to China and Japan, a journey that spread his lifelong interest in Asian art and culture and then deposited him in Hawai’i in the early 1930s. The tropical islands felt custom-made for Jerry. The constant flow of sailors through Hawai’ian ports kept Jerry connected to his beloved Navy while the Honolulu’s bustling Chinatown fed his fascination with Asian culture. Jerry decided to call Hawai’i his home.
With the Navy stint over, Jerry refused to tattooing, this time in the arcades on Hotel Street in Honolulu’s Galang, a local Filipino tattoo entrepreneur, and spent his tattooing the sailors and locals who poured in through the docks at Aloha Tower to explore Hotel Street’s burlesque clubs, brothels and tattoo shops. Sometimes Jerry would travel to the sugar cane plantations or the Schofield Barracks in Oahu where he would set up his machine on the porch, string up flash over the railing and tattoo soldiers and field workers.
The idyllic days of tattooing at sugar plantations wouldn’t last. The Japanese bombed Hawai’i’s Pearl Harbor in 1941 and forced and U.S. to enter World War II. The Pearl Harbor bombing deeply affected Jerry as a Hawai’ian resident, fierce patriot and former Navy member. He immediately attempted to reenlist in the Navy but was denied by the medical board because of a heart condition. Determined to contribute to the war effort, Jerry signed up for the merchant marines and according to lore, spent WWII navigating supply ships through treacherous Japanese waters where he survived having three ships shot out from beneath him.
Between stints at sea, Jerry worked the arcades and eventually opened Tom & Jerry’s tattoo shop on Hotel Street with Tom, a Chinese tattoo artist. To make extra money, the duo operated a photo booth where sailors could have their photo taken with a hula girl, played by Tom’s wife. According to local lore, when Jerry arrived home at the end of WWII he found the shop abandoned and the front door unlocked. Tom was gone.
The island that Jerry left behind was also disappearing. Once a fringe colony, Hawai’i was now on its way to becoming a full-fledged state and the remote, tropical paradise was awash with soldiers and tourists. Jerry reopened the shop but it wouldn’t last. His political beliefs were a mix of love-it-or-leave-it patriotism and a desire for small government that today would classify him as a right-wing libertarian. So when the Internal Revenue Service fined Jerry in the early 1950s he closed up his shops and refused to work as part of a protest against what he viewed as unjust government involvement. Fueled by his unwavering stubbornness, he wouldn’t return to tattooing for nearly a decade. To provide for his family- Jerry was married many times- he spent the following years working the shipyards, including skippering tour boats through Pearl Harbor. Secretly though, Jerry tattooed sporadically during this time. Customers would linger outside the shipyard with hopes of convincing him to tattoo them. Jerry, after arriving home exhausted from a day’s work, would often sneak up the back stairs to avoid them.
Then, like the sea calling a sailor, tattooing lured Jerry back. In 1960, he was persuaded to open 1033 Smith Street with Bob Palm, a California tattooer who had recently relocated to Hawai’i. Bob eventually left Hawai’i at the behest of the U.S. military due to several “immoral allegations.” Jerry took over the shop, at first partnering with legendary tattoo artist Johnnie Walker, and continued laying down tattoos and the law. At well over six feet tall and cantankerous as hell, Jerry took very little guff from rowdy sailors and mouthy customers who wandered into his shop. Lefties, liberals, “peace pots” and other un-American riff-raff were bounced. Attitude was quickly squashed. Jerry created his own mace from a mixture of ammonia and kept it in a spray bottle capable of sending a stream across the room. On one occasion, a customer took a swipe at Jerry and was introduced to the large buck knife jutting from his pocket. Months later, the same customer brought in a knife victim for Jerry to stitch up.
Jerry also loved antagonizing the local competition by feeding them bogus tips about tattoo machines or providing them with sabotaged drawings. One local tattooer, operating on phony advice from Jerry, placed three drops of urine in his ink pots to brighten the red. Competition fueled Jerry. To spite his local nemesis Lou Normand, Jerry worked with chemists to develop the first purple ink. He also took an electronics course to help him further fine-tune his tattoo machines. The old man always stayed one step ahead.
Somehow through the punch-ups and pranks this became Jerry’s most prolific period. He credited his renewed focus to “Gray Beard,” a hokey painting of an old Asian man he picked up in Chinatown and hung over his desk, claiming the bearded sage gave him guidance. Armed with his trusty advisor, Jerry built a body of work more influential than any in tattoo history. His clean designs featured bold lines and balanced colors and he paired them with sharp slogans and unmistakable symbolism. It was Jerry’s subversive way of furthering his philosophical beliefs. As a vehement conservative, he hated the wild radicalism of the Sixties that was reshaping America and poured his frustration into his work, using American flags, bald eagles, battleships and phrases such as “Born Free, Live Free, Die Free” to get his point across. It was love-it-or-leave-it in blood and ink.
More importantly, Jerry unlocked his Asian influences. The Japanese tattoo masters- called “Horis” -remained virtually closed off to the rest of the world, but Jerry had begun swapping letters and designs with them, a correspondence facilitated by a Tokyo businessman, Mr. Kida, who frequently visited Hawai’i as well as Hong Kong tattoo artist, Pinky Yun. Soon Jerry was trading priceless tattoo secrets with esteemed tattoo masters Horiyoshi II and Kazuo Oguri. Jerry incorporated these advanced Japanese techniques such as water-shading and background perspective into his work. The results stunned the tattoo world.
The Japanese masters weren’t the only tattooers Jerry corresponded with during this period. In Jerry’s opinion, it was important who you aligned yourself with, as he felt tattooing was something that needed to be secret, protected, “close to your chest.” He rallied against “scab artists” or those tattooers that sought media attention- which is one of the reasons why he hated famous Pike artist Bert Grimm, as well as the generations that followed him, such as Lyle Tuttle. He regularly exchanged letters with artists he respected from around the world; men like Brooklyn Joe Lieber, Owen Jensen, Paul Rogers, Australian tattooer Long Andy Libarry, and his old mentor Tatts Thomas. “Next” generation tattooers like Mike Malone and Zeke Owen corresponded with Jerry as well. At the top of that list was a young California artist named Don “Ed” Hardy. At one point, the two artists wrote each other almost daily discussing everything from Eastern philosophy to politics, and Jerry poured out his hard-fought secrets about tattooing. The two men eventually planned to open a tattoo shop in Hawai’i, calling it The Mid Pacific Tattoo Institute.
In 1972, Jerry invited a small circle of tattoo artists to Hawai’i. Hardy, Malone, Malone’s girlfriend, and Des Connely from Australia all flew in. Japanese tattooer Oguri was the last to arrive, and when he landed at the airport, the other artists picked up in Jerry’s bright yellow Thunderbird. True to the old man’s grit, he immediately drove his Japanese visitor across the island to pay respect to Pearl Harbor, much to the horror of the other visitors. It was during this mini-convention that Oguri invited Hardy to move to Japan, effectively killing Jerry’s idea of opening a tattoo shop with his protege.
Jerry returned to 1033 Smith Street alone. He continued working until 1973 when he suffered a heart attack at the local motorcycle dealership. He awoke on the pavement alongside his Harley, kick-started the motorcycle and drove home. He died three days later. His instructions to his wife: Sell the shop to Hardy, Malone or Owen, and if they don’t want it, burn it to the ground. Zeke owned a shop in San Diego and decided to stay put, and Hardy was in Japan studying under Oguri. So Malone went and purchased the shop at 1033 Smith Street. He renamed the shop China Sea in homage to the old man and tattooed there for nearly 25 years.
Decades later, Jerry still looms over tattooing like a giant, protective shadow. His omnipresent flash designs on the walls of shops around the world serve as a reminder of tattooing’s hard-fought history and the traditions that Jerry fought to defend. The old salt was surely and vindictive, opinionated and difficult, but he loved tattooing and used his two-fisted approach to guard it while cunning mind pushed the art as far as it could go. Today his legacy continues to spread in the blood and ink of people who connect with the straightforward punch of Jerry’s timeless designs. He knew it would happen. As his business card famously stated, “My work speaks for itself.”