Who was Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins?

On 14th Jan 1911 a bouncing baby boy by the name Norman Collins was born in the bustling city of Reno, Nevada. Norman Collins, better known as 'Sailor Jerry' is a name that has, for time immemorial, not only taken the tattoo world by storm but one that has influenced the culture and left an unforgettable imprint for decades upon decades. He is actually one of the main characters that inspired the majority of designs we showcase on our tattoo clothing shop

As he grew older, he decided to lead a more liberal way of life. This as opposed to the strict and predictable way of life other young men his age lived. Instead of going through all levels of school, and college through white-collar jobs and a family, he preferred the liberal and unpredictable way of life. He sailed across the United States from lake to lake during which he developed a passion for tattooing. In this era, tattoos and tattooing wasn't as developed and as accepted as it is now. Back then, it was a reserve of the rebellious or recalcitrant part of the population that would be associated with different vices. 

At 19 Sailor Jerry spontaneously enlisted in the US Navy. During his time at sea, he was exposed to different cultures, but one in particular did stand out. He was intrigued by the artistry and imagery of Southeast Asia culture. The colors, the shapes, their way of life all seemed so exciting to him. He made friends and developed a close relationship with some of the best Japanese tattoo artists at that time. He soon adopted their way of tattooing. He blended his already mind-blowing and unique way of American sailor tattoos with a bit of influence from the far east. 

At first, Sailor Jerry only worked with black ink and a needle. All his tattoos were pretty much done free-hand. But as he travelled and got exposed to other ways of tattooing. He crossed paths with another master tattooist called Gib 'Tatts' Thomas who introduced him to electric tattooing. Funny enough, young Sailor Jerry would 'bribe' people with a couple of cents or wine just so they would let him practise his new skills on some of them. It may have been a risky way to test his prowess, but in hindsight, it all paid off. 

He eventually left the Navy and settled in Honolulu, Hawaii. Here, there was a string of bars, tattoo parlors and brothels where soldiers in the military and the locals loved to hangout. At times Sailor Jerry would have long lines spiralling through the streets of people waiting for their turn to get tattooed. It is here where he perfected his skill and grew to become the legend that is still revered among artists today.

As he grew older, Sailor Jerry adopted other passions close to his heart. He traversed the Hawaiian Islands as the captain of a three mastered schooner, he played in a jazz band and owned a Harley which he rode to and from home on the mainland. Sailor Jerry also hosted his own radio show called Ironsides which played on KRTG where he had intensive political debates, wrote and read his poetry. He also trained and worked as an electrician, skills he used to finesse his tattooing machines. 

What do Sailor Jerry Tattoos mean?

Sailor Jerry did old school tattoos whose techniques, traditions and interpretations are drawn from thousands of years before his existence and yet are still embedded in today's culture. Some of his most profound tattoo works include the 'Man's Ruin' which showed a pretty curvy girl inside a cocktail glass surrounded by dice, cards and dollar signs. He is also as the one behind the 'Death Before Dishonor' tattoo, words which were carefully woven around a flying eagle and a sharp knife made to look like it was piercing through a heart. Sailor Jerry's tattoos represented most of what was happening during that era. They were both symbolic and elemental. 

Some tattoos like the 'Man's Ruin' tattoo represented one's love for girls, gambling and fun. On the other hand, the 'Death Before Dishonor' tattoo represented what the soldiers stood for during the ongoing war at that time. 

Sailor Jerry is known for numerous other unique art pieces all which have a hidden yet unique meaning. Truth be told, we get a lot of inspiration from his designs when making our own tattoo clothing

Old tattoos

Photo by https://sailorjerry.com/

What Style of Tattoo is Sailor Jerry?

In this day and age, there are so many styles of tattooing, you can barely put your finger on just one. During Sailor Jerry's time, however, artists were just getting their feet wet, trying to explore what was then a new form of art. In fact, when he started, they could only use black ink and a needle to tattoo. 

Tattoo styles are influenced both by history and personal creativity. If you are interested in exploring or learning about different forms of tattooing, you've probably wondered what Sailor Jerry's style of tattooing was. Some would say that sailor Jerry's tattooing style was a blend of Classic Americana, Japanese and portraiture. Other tattooing styles popular today include Blackwork, New School, Stick and Poke, Biomechanical, and Black and Grey, to mention but a few.

It's inarguable that Mr Norman was a genuinely gifted artist. It's still intriguing how much he was able to pick from his frequent voyages across America and South East Asia, all which is incredibly vivid on each one of the tattoos he did. 

When Did Sailor Jerry Die?

Sailor Jerry lived a blissful life while still tattooing in his convivial Honolulu shop in Chinatown until 1972 when he was involved in a severe motorcycle accident. He had a sudden heart attack while riding his Harley back home from work which saw him crash. He was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Three days after the incident, he passed on. 

Before breathing his last, Sailor Jerry left orders for his shop to be burnt down to the ground if his close friends Malone, Owens or Hardy were unwilling to buy it. Malone was honoured to take the shop and renamed it 'China Sea'. He grew and managed the shop for another 25 years. Surprisingly, at the same exact spot, there now exists a tattoo shop named Old Ironside Tattoo, dubbed after Sailor Jerry's late-night radio show.

Tattoos have become part and parcel of who we are as people. While some like to see art pieces hung on the wall or in the form of tattoo apparel, others want it embedded on their skin. It's a form of expression that may not have begun with but came to light with the influence of noble tattoo master veterans like Norman' Sailor Jerry' Collins.

Sailor Jerry's tattoos were depictive of the life of a sailor, their experiences and desires. A life which he not only dreamed of or drew about but a life that he lived frivolously to the last minute.