Norman Keith Collins aka “Sailor Jerry”

There are many reasons that tattooers look to Sailor Jerry as the godfather of tattooing.  I thought I would show in these next couple of posts some reading that I’ve been doing on the tattoo archive compliments of C.W Eldridge.  I have chosen a few artists and will write a brief summary of their contributions and history within tattooing. It should be noted that all of these tattoo artists would be considered traditional or classic tattooers. Their works are the historical foundation for what I strive for today. Sailor Jerry being the first and foremost in my mind.  One of the things that few people know about Sailor Jerry is that he was the first to create the tattoo pigment purple.  He was an innovator within the tattoo community because of his beautiful flash, his ink, his bold work…and he was a die hard American who was on the forefront of the tattoo world not only because of his work but also because of his location in HI during WWII.  Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen from all over the world experienced his work and it played a huge role in establishing the American traditional style tattoo.

Norman Keith Collins (1911-1973)

Collins, better known as “Sailor Jerry” in the tattoo business, was born in 1911. By the 1920s he was sailing the Great Lakes, traveling the United States and tattooing on the side. For a short time Jerry operated a shop on South State Street in Chicago when he moved to Hawaii, he rubber stamped his new address of 150 North Hotel Street in Honolulu on the South State Street card!
Tom and Jerry business card

Sailor Jerry worked at a few locations in Honolulu, including 13 South Hotel Street, as seen above, before he settled into his 1033 Smith Street location.
Diamond Head, Hawaii
Although Jerry was world famous for his tattooing, he had other interests. The sea was always a part of his life and while holding Captain’s papers in the 1950s; he skippered a tour ship that covered the Pearl Harbor memorial. His study of electronics led to a first class FCC license, and for several years he hosted a late night talk show on a local radio station. On that show he was known as “Old Ironsides”, another reflection on his interest in the sea.
Sailor Jerry stencil
For a workingman’s tattoo shop in an era where acetate stencils were king, Jerry would make rubs from his new designs and mail them out to his friends. This was a popular way for an artist to exchange designs. A Sailor Jerry stencil rub is shown on the left.

Sailor Jerry died June 12, 1973 and is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, (commonly known as the “Punchbowl”) in Honolulu, Hawaii. This cemetery is located in the crater of an extinct volcano. The site of Jerry’s grave is 124/Section T. If you happen to find yourself in Honolulu, stop by to say hello.

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