Sailor Jerry has become a modern household name over the last 15 years, though it’s entirely possible that this generation has associated the name to the brand, and not the legendary mark he’s left on the tattoo world. Sailor Jerry tattoos have become a staple in traditional tattooing and flash draped on the walls of countless tattoo shops across the world.
Born Norman Keith Collins in 1911, “Sailor Jerry” grew up in northern California and spent a good portion of his childhood train hopping. It was on his elaborate journeys across the country where he began picking up on the tattoo trade. In Chicago, he met a man named Tatts Thomas, who was his first guide in how to use a tattoo machine.
The “Sailor Jerry” moniker picked up after he joined the Navy at 19. Until then, Collins had practiced tattooing on drunks and lowlifes, but his clientele moved to his fellow sailors and he began to be influenced stylistically by the exotic lands he traveled to. His tenure as a sailor went on until the day he died.
Sailor Jerry tattoos helped popularize some of the most iconic imagery in traditional tattooing. His tattoos would often include birds like pin ups, swallows and eagles, weapons, nautical stars, tigers, snakes, anchors and of course, old fashioned bottles of alcohol. Aside from his signature style, Collins was one of the first tattooers to use the single needle method, to create his own pigment based inks, and implemented sterilization methods that are still used today.
Collins’ tattoo style was highly sought after by his fellow sailors because of his artistic mastery and old-school attitude, tobacco pipe and all. Throughout his life, he maintained important relationships that shaped his tattoo prowess with tattooers in the far east, specifically Japan. He went on to take on the also legendary Don “Ed” Hardy and Mike Malone; two instrumental tattoo artists that had an incalculable and profound influence on western tattoo culture.
1999 saw Hardy and Malone partner with a Philadelphia based clothing company to create the Sailor Jerry brand to ensure that his legacy remains intact for years to come. Probably the most known product they wound up creating was Sailor Jerry’s Spiced rum with a Jerry’s island hula girl on the label.
Though Sailor Jerry rum has no doubt kept the name of the legend in mainstream culture, it’s always good to sit back and remember what truly defined Collins legacy; Sailor Jerry Tattoos.