Who is Sailor Jerry?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2019
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Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins was a prominent American tattoo artist, whom many people regard as the father of modern tattooing. During his lifetime, he developed a number of innovations in tattooing which continue to be used to this day, and several prominent American tattoo artists can trace the lineage of their training back to Sailor Jerry. His also lives on in the form of Sailor Jerry Limited, a company which owns the licenses to Collins' original artwork.

Norman Collins first went to sea in 1930, when he was 19 years old. Like many sailors, Collins was introduced to the art of tattoo in Asia, where sailors traditionally got tattoos to celebrate their journeys and adventures on the high seas. Sailor Jerry took particular interest in tattooing, learning the fundamentals and eventually opening his own shop in Honolulu, although he continued to correspond with prominent Asian tattoo artists throughout his life. He did business in Chinatown, like every other tattoo artist on Oahu, because this was the only region where tattooing was permitted.


Once Sailor Jerry opened his own shop, he began refining the art of tattoo, creating a wide variety of his own pigments and improving the safety and quality of tattoo work. He is widely recognized as one of the first tattoo artist to have a sanitation protocol for his shop which included fresh needles and cleaned tools, and he developed a range of safer pigments. Sailor Jerry's work was designed to last, with existing tattoos on living individuals still looking great after years of wear.

The walls of his shop were covered in his own tattoo flash, designs developed for rapid and easy tattooing. He was known for having a sense of humor, and his work often featured amusing figures and humorous themes, often captioned in his distinctive all-capitals handwriting. His work often featured themes of interest to sailors such as buxom women, symbols associated with military service, historic ships, and so forth, and it was renowned for its detail and quality.

Sailor Jerry never fully swallowed the anchor, often taking time off to travel, and his tattoo work became so well known that he started adding “The Original” to his business cards and advertising materials, so that people knew who they were dealing with. At his death in 1973, control of his estate passed to Ed Hardy and Mike Malone, two former students who are both known for their skill at “old school” tattooing like that practiced by Sailor Jerry.


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Post 1

Wow, I knew he basically created the whole tattoo flash idea, but I didn't know he is pretty much THE reason for strict sanitary rules now.

I also must give credit to Ed Hardy...I always thought he was just a rip-off clothing designer. I had no idea he actually trained with Sailor Jerry.

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