When you hear the name “Sailor Jerry”, you probably think of tattoos of anchors, ships, dice and pin-up girls, and you’ve likely heard of Sailor Jerry rum. But who was Sailor Jerry, and what is it about his life that has made him such a legend?
Born in January 1911, Norman Collins was never going to lead an ordinary life; he lived by his own rules. He was so wilful and independent even as a young child that his father started calling him “Jerry”, after the family’s stubborn mule. By his mid-teens, Jerry had left home in search of freedom and adventure. He hitchhiked and caught freight trains all across America, taking odd jobs, breaking hearts and making friends along the way. One such friend was a well-known Alaskan tattoo artist called “Big Mike”, who introduced him to the craft of stick ‘n poke tattooing.
In his late teens he met another famous tattooist - “Tatts” Thomas - who showed him how to use an actual tattoo machine. Back then, it was a big deal for any tattoo artist, let alone a well-known master, to agree to apprentice you, but Tatts liked Jerry and let him practise on skid row drunks and wayward navy cadets. Jerry even offered the local homeless men cheap wine in exchange for the blank canvas of their skin. Many of the clients that Tatts saw in his Chicago shop were sailors from the nearby Naval training academy, who shared stories of their time on the high sea. The tales fascinated Jerry so much that at 19, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which is where the “Sailor” part of his name was added. This was also how he became interested in the art and imagery of Southeast Asia.
After a decade at sea, Sailor Jerry ended up in Hawaii, where he opened up shop in Honolulu’s infamous Chinatown, made up mainly of brothels, bars and tattoo parlours. He stayed in touch with many of the Japanese tattoo masters he had come across during his time at sea, and fused his expertise in American traditional and Japanese art to create some of the boldest tattoos the world had ever seen. He was obsessed with perfection, and was a true pioneer for the craft. He is credited with inventing purple ink and created custom needle formations that embedded pigment with much less trauma to the skin. He was the first person to use single-use needles and the first to sterilise his needles in a conclave. His most sought-after designs included snakes, wildcats, eagles, falcons and swallows, motor heads and pistons, nautical stars, pin-up girls, Hawaiian hula girls and the infamous “aloha” monkey.
But tattooing isn’t all Sailor Jerry did. He was also the captain of a three-masted schooner that offered tours, he was a certified electrician and he played saxophone in his own jazz band. As if that wasn’t enough, he also hosted a radio show on Hawaii’s KRTG called Old Ironsides, where he played jazz, shared his political and philosophical views, and read his own poetry. When he wasn’t working, he was riding his beloved Harley Davidson.
Sailor Jerry died in true legend style. At the age of 62, in June 1973, he suffered a heart attack while riding his Harley. Apparently, he woke up on the side of the road, got back onto his hog and rode home, where he died three days later. Before his death, Sailor Jerry made it clear that he wanted his shop to go to one of three of his protegees - Ed Hardy, Mike Malone or Zeke Owen. He made his wife promise that if none of the three wanted to take over the shop, it was to be burnt to the ground. Luckily, Mike Malone was keen to continue the legend of Sailor Jerry and continued operating at the tiny tattoo parlour in Honolulu for almost 30 years.