Norm ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins: King of the Old School
Written by Samuel J. Cox
At a glance, Norm ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins’ life personified the culture of tattoo in the early twentieth century; his life progressing from drifter, to sailor and navy man but his art was truly transformative.
The name Sailor Jerry is today ubiquitous as the brand of spiced rum, which features his signature hula girl on the label. That hula girl is likely the sum of the average person’s exposure to the real Sailor Jerry. The story of Sailor Jerry, the man and the artist, is as unique and remarkable as the modern brand is widespread and unassuming. The man lived a life of freedom, fighting his battles and emerging from the flames as arguably the greatest traditional tattooist; the king of the old school.
American tattooing in the early to mid-twentieth century remained limited to specific subcultures. The iconic and distinctive American style had emerged, but it was often limited technically and stylistically. Don Ed Hardy, a man who would one day become a protégé of Sailor Jerry, describes tattooing of his youth as this wonderful “undocumented American folk art” that was all raw power. This underground American folk art held a funny, proud and at times twisted mirror up to life.
Representative of, but not yet a part of the ‘outsider’ tattoo culture, a young Norm Collins would leave home as a teenager to travel the country by hitch hiking and train hopping. Collins left home with little except the first half of what would become his iconic moniker; his father had given him the nick name ‘Jerry’ after the family’s particularly troublesome mule. It was while enjoying the free-spirited lifestyle of a drifter that Collins began first learning the craft of tattoo, initially with just a basic hand-held needle and ink. Jerry (not yet a sailor) would eventually reach mob run Chicago and find himself learning his craft under the colourful Gib ‘Tatts’ Thomas. While developing his skills in Chicago, with a level of dedication and passion he would apply to all interests he pursued, sailors became his main clientele. In a rare case of tattoo culture working in reverse, Norm Collins became enamoured with the adventurous tales of life on the high seas and joined the Navy aged nineteen. In what would remain a lifelong interest, Jerry became a sailor; trading train hopping for ship jumping.
The Navy would lead Jerry across Asia-Pacific and these were experiences that shaped the rest of his life. This oceanic odyssey as a young man imbued him with a love of sailing and a fascination with Asian aesthetics and culture. Sailor Jerry’s journey would end on the volcanic shores of Hawaii. Like a stubborn barnacle Jerry had thus far clung onto passing ships, but in Hawaii he would start leaving others in his wake. The Hawaii of the 1920’s and 30’s was very much a far flung back-water out of sight and mind for most Americans. The island group was naturally beautiful but was supremely isolated, just as much a part of Asia-Pacific as it was America and it had a dark and dangerous underbelly. Simply put, Sailor Jerry had found home.
There was a definitive traditional style that had developed in the first half of the twentieth century; known today as traditional tattooing. The American style used heavy black outlines and a limited colour range of red, green, black and yellow. Traditional tattooing distilled aspects of life and traits people identified with, representing them in small iconographic designs. This world of tattooing was subterranean and secretive (not unlike Sailor Jerry) which led to tattoos being instilled with a deeply underground and rebellious spirit. In those days tattoo artists would occasionally trade the outlines of designs and Jerry enjoyed subtly sabotaging his designs, reasoning that if the other artist couldn’t perceive the flaw they didn’t deserve the true outline.
Sailor Jerry became a master of the traditional style over the following decade, bringing his own creative flair and rigorous talent to the fore. While Jerry began establishing correspondence with other artists he respected across the country it is unlikely he would ever have become widely known had a tumultuous and fateful event not occurred on his doorstep; the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. In a mere matter of months Hawaii went from being a curious exotic backwater to the heart of the war, with up to one million servicemen stationed on the islands at any one time. Sailor Jerry naturally attempted to re-join the navy at the outbreak of war but a heart condition relegated him to the merchant marines. What would have seemed a dull posting simply added to the legend of the man as he proceeded to survive three vessels being shot out from under him by the Japanese.
Hawaii’s Hotel Street was a haven of sex and sin like your average American had never seen, full of bars, brothels and seedy tattoo parlours. At over six feet tall, with a wicked sense of humour and a no-nonsense attitude, the rough talking, pipe smoking Sailor Jerry was an institution on Hotel Street. The war meant men from all backgrounds found themselves slipping down Hotel Street to get, in the words of a famous Sailor Jerry piece “stewed, screwed and tattooed.” Getting a tattoo was an expression of freedom for men who might die any day now; it might be an exotic souvenir, a simple f@#! you, and sometimes…it was just something to do. World War Two led to an explosion of tattoo that Sailor Jerry was at the heart of, even if few sailors who stumbled through his parlour doors realised they were visiting a future icon.
By the conclusion of World War Two Sailor Jerry was a true master of traditional American tattoo, or as Ed Hardy would call him, the “big guru”. His attention to detail and precision was largely unparalleled. Jerry would employ a level of artistic rigour most tattoo artists did not approach, using real live models and research to improve his designs. Although establishing correspondences with many other artists the ever-troublesome Jerry also (rather gladly) maintained a number of ongoing feuds and vendettas. One local rival’s (Lou Norman) assertion that purple tattooing was not possible was enough to drive Jerry to scour the country for purple pigment and tattoo a magnificent purple dragon. Sailor Jerry’s style would prove to be as wrapped in contradictions as the man, stylised yet meticulously real, at a glance simple yet with an underlying complexity, employing a limited colour palette, yet vibrantly colourful.
Sailor Jerry was king of the old school; he had mastered and innovated the traditional American tattooing, producing a vast body of iconic designs in that style, but in truth that is only half the story……