Sailor Jerry (1911-1973)

There Used To Be More Sailors In The World

While some men set up comfortable homes in the suburbs and saved for better washing machines and lawn mowers, others set out to see the world through the hopped-up, wild eyes of shore leave. When they got back on the ship they had some stories to tell and some permanent artwork to boot. Back then, the prime tattoo site wasn’t an ankle, it was a beefy forearm that informed all casual observers that you’d done things and been places that set you apart from the gray flannel world.

The Old School Master 

If you really want a true classic, you’ll have to go back in time and cross the ocean (unless yon live in Honolulu). That’s where you’d find a guy with a white tee shirt, an oily grey pompadour and heavily tattooed arms, once known to seamen and still known to tattoo aficionados as “Sailor Jerry.” He’s the man many see as the father of the deftly crafted, boldly lined, balls-forward Old School Tattoo. The kind fueled by the devil-may-care appetites of men far away from home.

Sailor Jerry was tagged with the name Norman Collins at birth, but he began to distance himself from so-called normalcy when he was 19 (that’s why he became a sailor). He traveled around the world, not only getting his first tattoos, but also gaining exposure to the art and imagery of Southeast Asia. This later became a crucial influence when he opened his first tattoo shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown.

Tattoos were not Born in Trendy Neighborhoods

The Honolulu Tattoo district was designed to accommodate a time in men’s lives when they drank heavily, paid for women, and imprinted their biceps with pictures solid and resonant enough to last a lifetime. Back then, Chinatown was the only place on the island where a man could get a tattoo, creating fierce competition among the many tattoo parlors.

Sailor Jerry Lives On

His art is man stuff—filled with the grit, romance and heartbreak that drives some men to do what most would not. There’s a tension about port cities filled with men who consider themselves on a mission to have a good time and return with evidence of such. And it’s drawn into all of Sailor Jerry’s tattoos. Keep your eyes out for his work, not in galleries, but in bars and on the street. If you find yourself strangely captivated by the girl on an old man’s arm, we suggest you go ahead and offer to buy the guy a drink of Sailor Jerry Navy Rum. Hopefully, he’ll be so impressed with your taste in rum, he won’t punch you out and maybe he’ll tell you some stories.