To fully appreciate the art of tattooing and what it has become, it’s important to go back to the beginning. Sailor Jerry, known as the godfather of American traditional tattooing, laid the groundwork for how we tattoo today. From Sailor Jerry flash to pigments and current tattooing practices, Sailor Jerry’s life and influence played a key role in shaping modern tattooing. Today, we celebrate his life and everything he taught us about boldness, simplicity, and following your own creative path.
Let's look at how Sailor Jerry's life and legacy has influenced tattoo artists.
First, A Brief History of Sailor Jerry
"Sometimes, I wonder how I ever got mixed up in all this in the first place." — Sailor Jerry
Born as Norman Collins on January 14th, 1911, in Reno, Nevada, the future Sailor Jerry was known for his stubborn attitude. He was often called "Jerry" by his parents, after the family mule, who was equally hard-headed. As Norman Collins (Sailor Jerry) carved his own path to creativity and innovation, this stubbornness served him well.
His adventure began when he was a teenager, hopping from freight train to freight train across America's railway system. During his travels, he began practicing hand-poke tattooing. His travels across the country eventually brought him to Chicago, where he learned how to use a tattoo machine from Gib "Tatts" Thomas. After learning how to professionally tattoo under Thomas, Collins wanted to return to his nomadic lifestyle; he enlisted in the Navy, earning him the "Sailor" part of his name. During his time in the service, he traveled abroad, spending most of his time in Asia. His final duty station was Hawaii, where he remained to take up tattooing again. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, he enlisted in the Merchant Marines.
After World War II, Sailor Jerry officially set up shop in Honolulu, where he began building his legacy.
How Sailor Jerry Changed Tattooing
Sailor Jerry was an innovative and stubborn individual who pioneered new and original tattooing practices throughout his career and built one of the most impressive portfolios to date. His tattoo designs are available in shops around the country and all over the internet.
Here are a few ways Sailor Jerry has impacted the tattooing industry.
Sailor Jerry Art Defined American Traditional Tattooing
"There are millions of skins, but only one Hori Smoku." — Sailor Jerry
Tattoo artists can trace the solid line work, bold colors, and iconic designs they love back to Sailor Jerry. As the godfather of American Traditional tattooing, Sailor Jerry's portfolio influenced and changed the old-school American Traditional styles offered in shops worldwide.
Sailor Jerry's experience in the military laid the groundwork for his signature style. During his time overseas, Sailor Jerry developed friendships with some of the Horis — honorary masters of tattooing — in Japan. Sailor Jerry learned many of their coveted trade secrets through these friendships, which he later employed in his own style.
The sophisticated and masterful tattooing techniques learned from these Japanese masters is one reason Sailor Jerry's tattoos are some of the best American Traditional tattoos in history. Boasting a good sense of humor along with his skills, Sailor Jerry jokingly gave himself the title Hori Smoku (which translates to Holy Smoke) as he grew as a tattooer.
The influence of the Horis blended with the lifestyle themes that Sailor Jerry picked up while tattooing military men on shore leave in Hawaii. In places like Hotel Street, Honolulu, soldiers drank heavily and visited brothels frequently; they bonded over sailing experiences, patriotism, and their lust for adventure. These influences can be seen in Sailor Jerry flash and many of his American Traditional designs, including lady heads, rum bottles, ships, Sailor Jerry pin-up girl tattoos, and banner designs with phrases like "Death before Dishonor," which represent military values. With its military and Asiatic influences, this signature Sailor Jerry art helped upgrade American tattooing into a richer art form. It led to some of the best work in the history of American traditional tattoos.
How does this iconic imagery affect the industry today?
Well, not only are American Traditional tattoos favorites among tattoo collectors and artists internationally; they are also some of the first tattoos many artists perform as apprentices. Learning how to do American Traditional tattoos in Sailor Jerry tattoo style, which involves pulling clean lines and packing in solid color, is often the groundwork a tattoo artist uses to start developing their own style. After mastering old-school American Traditional tattoos and classic bangers, artists then have the skill sets needed to start cultivating their own style and or learning new styles, like neo-traditional tattoos, illustrative work, micro tattooing, and beyond.
While this is not the route of every tattoo artist, it's safe to say Sailor Jerry, a key figure in the history of American Traditional tattoos, influenced how many apprentices are trained today. Plus, many tattoo collectors still line up for a classic Sailor Jerry flash piece even all these years later.
He Popularized Purple Tattoo Ink
"I was the first one to start using purple, white, yellow, and blue-now they are all trying to do it. Color is here to stay. Good color that is!" — Sailor Jerry
It's not just familiar Sailor Jerry flash designs that we can thank Norman Collins for — we can also thank him for popularizing one of the most popular tattoo inks: purple. Sailor Jerry’s purple ink came about as a result of competition with another tattoo artist. Wanting to show this other artist who’s boss, Sailor Jerry worked alongside a manufacturer to produce Carbazole Violet, the first purple tattoo ink.
The addition of bold colors to his work is another reason Sailor Jerry's designs are considered some of the best American Traditional tattoos. Today, you can tattoo with purples and violets in all varieties and shades thanks to Sailor Jerry's innovative thinking.
He Promoted the Autoclave and Single-Use Tattoo Needles
“Good work ain’t cheap; cheap work ain’t good.” — Sailor Jerry
Before Sailor Jerry entered the business, getting tattooed was a risk. As a counter-culture trade, tattooing did not have any of the same hygiene and sterilization regulations we have today. Artists didn't wear gloves, nor did they use single-use needles or other disposable materials. Moreover, equipment wasn't even appropriately sterilized in between clients — not until Sailor Jerry advocated using the autoclave and single-use tattoo needles.
Today, sterilization and single-use materials are legally required in tattoo shops, along with the use of PPE. Without tattooists like Sailor Jerry setting the bar for sterilization practices, tattooing may not have evolved as safely as it has today.
He Encouraged Learning from Others – but Not Copying!
"I'm always willing to listen to somebody else's ideas…because we can always learn more." — Sailor Jerry
Sailor Jerry hated copycats.
Sailor Jerry resented artists who tried to copy what he or other talented artists were doing, saying instead that artists should find their own signature style. In fact, Sailor Jerry refused to tattoo clients who had work done by artists (or copycats) he didn't respect.
But this isn't to say Sailor Jerry was a loner and didn't ally with others in the industry. His close relationships with legendary tattooists Gib Thomas, Paul Rogers, and the Japanese Horis demonstrate his openness to learning from masters of the art. Sailor Jerry even had two protégés, Ed Hardy and Mike Malone, who carried on the torch for individualism and proper, safe tattooing techniques. Malone even took over Sailor Jerry's shop for 25 years after his death.
So, Celebrate Sailor Jerry Today!
"I'm not a bit conceited, though I have every right to be!" — Sailor Jerry
Celebrate Sailor Jerry today by checking out his body of work. Maybe even get a Sailor Jerry tattoo if you’re an avid collector! You can also read more about the history of tattooing in America for a deeper understanding of tattooing in US culture and where Sailor Jerry falls on the timeline of tattooing evolution.
We challenge you to follow Sailor Jerry's footsteps by staying open-minded, learning from experienced artists in the industry, and then using that knowledge to cultivate your own unique and personal style.