If you really want a true classic tattoo, you'll have to go back in time and cross the Pacific. When your tramp steamer hits the port of Honolulu, jump ashore and head straight to Chinatown. Soon, you'll hit Hotel Street. You'll know you're there by the sudden progression of wide-eyed sailors, foul-mouthed roughnecks, and general mayhem. And there, tucked away on a steamy side street, you'll see the bright red neon glow of "Sailor Jerry's"-the tattoo shop that put ink on the fighting men of the Pacific for nearly 40 years.
You see, there aren't many men like Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins around anymore. The father of old-school tattooing, Sailor Jerry was a true classic in every sense of the word. A tough old sea dog with a shrewd intellect, Jerry stood up for himself and stood by his work earning him a legacy that is still felt today.
It was clear from an early age that Norman was destined to leave his mark. Born on the west coast in 1911, Collins soon gained the moniker "Jerry" after his father noticed a similar disposition between the young troublemaker and the family's cantankerous mule. By his teens, "Jerry" was hand-poking Pelikan ink tattoos as he ventured around the country hopping freight trains. At 19, he arrived in Chicago, cutting his tattoo chops in the infamous arcades of State Street. It was there that he enlisted in The Great Lakes Naval Academy. Skipping the globe on schooner ships, Jerry passed through the China Seas and other remote ports of call. During his travels through the Far East, he began to develop a life-long obsession with Asian culture, art, and imagery.
Finishing his Naval stint in the late '20s, Collins decided to settle in the then "remote" island of Oahu, Hawaii. In some ways, his timing could not have been better (or worse, depending on who you ask!). This "last outpost" would soon become the stomping ground for over a million soldiers and sailors, all of whom were ready to live life to the fullest-usually contained within a 48-hour Honolulu shore leave! And so, for the next 40 years, Sailor Jerry had a constant canvas of carousing military men to obsessively perfect his deftly crafted, boldly lined, style that incorporated both American designs and traditions with Asiatic coloring and sensibilities. His one-of-a-kind tattoos and flash would eventually find their way into the highly secretive world of Japanese tattoo masters known as "Horis." Thus, Jerry became one of the first American tattoo artists to correspond directly with these masters, trading colors, designs and techniques. Yet Jerry, as high-minded and noble as this endeavor was, never lost his edge-or his sailor roots. A strongly opinionated libertarian and genius level prankster, Jerry was the definition of a social chameleon. Whether reciting poetry on his radio program "Old Ironsides" or tattooing, Jerry lived life to the fullest-with a bigger than life persona more akin to the sailors of yesteryear.
Boastful stories and folklore aside, it was Jerry's visionary innovations and unrivaled craftsmanship that led future tattoo artists and devoted protégés to marvel at his work. His classic, yet groundbreaking, skin art portrays a legacy that's as true today as it was generations ago on those wild, devil-may-care streets of Chinatown. As Jerry's business cards famously said "My Work Speaks For Itself," and no truer words have been spoken.