Sailor Jerry’s Legacy Part I

Sailor Jerry’s Legacy Part I

The man responsible for popularising the Old School Sailor Style tattoo is a man known by his nickname Sailor Jerry. His real name was Norman Keith Collins, and he was born on the 14th of January, 1911, in Reno. Nevada. He spent most of his childhood in a small town called Ukiah in California. In his teens, he did what so many other young men in America did at the time and took off hitchhiking across the country. So how did Norman Collins come to be called the ‘Godfather of American Tattooing’? 

Sailor Jerry

Named after the family donkey

Jerry came from his parents, who for some reason, felt that the name of their donkey was also a suitable nickname for their son. The ‘sailor’ came from his time in the navy, but he had already begun practising his art before he enlisted. Legend has it he would practice first on himself, and then on bums whom he would bribe with a cheap bottle of wine. When he arrived in Chicago, he came across Gib ‘Tatts’ Thomas. Tatts became Jerry’s mentor, which was a huge deal at the time. And it was he who taught Jerry how to wield an actual tattooing machine, rather than just stick-and-poke. Legend has it they would visit morgues at night so that Jerry could practice tattooing on real skin. 

Falling for the Pacific

However, having applied his skills to cadets from the Great Lakes Naval Academy for some time, Jerry himself enlisted in the Navy at the age of 19. While serving, he crossed the Pacific and visited China (remember what symbol a sailor would get inked for that?) and Japan. When he was discharged from the navy in the 1930s, he settled in Hawaii. 

There he worked as a tattoo artist, adorning sailors from far and wide while developing his signature style. Until 1941, and the bombing of Pearl Harbour. When Collins, who wanted to join the fight in WWII, was denied reenlisting, he became a part of the Merchant Marines instead. During peacetimes, they transport cargo and passengers, but during war they function as a support to the navy, delivering military equipment and staff. Thus it came to be that Jerry once more traversed the seas of the Pacific. 

Sailor Jerry Tattoo flash

From Chinatown to the Shipyards

During his trips back to Hawaii, he set up a new tattoo shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown, along with a Chinese tattoo artist called Tom. The shop was to be known as ‘Tom & Jerry’s’. Along with their tattoos, sailors could pose for photos in front of a straw hut background and Tom’s wife dressed as a hula girl. 

Supposedly, when he returned after the end of WWII, he found the shop locked up, and Tom and his wife gone. Jerry reopened the shop but was harassed by the IRS for not paying his taxes. He gave up tattooing for a while to work in the shipyards, although some say he was still practising his art in secret. 

1033 Street to Icon Status

However, in the 1950s Collins was convinced to come back into the limelight by another artist called Bob Palm. The pair set up a shop on 1033 Smith Street in Honolulu. And this is where the name of Sailor Jerry was to truly make a mark on the world of tattooing to this day. Come back for when we list all the ways you have to thank the man for your own pieces of body art. 


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