Sailor Jerry; father of the traditional tattoo

Ever wondered why traditional, or “Old School” tattoos all look the same? Where did this style come from? And why is it still so popular today?

Well, it may surprise you to learn that this wildly popular style of tattooing came from one man; Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins.

Did he invent tattoos?

No, of course he didn’t. Tattoos go back thousands of years, but Sailor Jerry made them cool.

See, before the start of the 20th Century, tattoos in the West were almost exclusively found on sailors. When the shit hit the fan and the Second World War broke out, thousands of young men signed up to go fight in the Pacific against the Japanese. The base for operations in the Pacific was Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, and guess who happened to live there?

Sailor Jerry saw hundreds of young men come into his tattoo studio looking for some ink, no longer caring about society’s view on tattoos. There was a good chance they’d never make it home again, so why worry?

How he started

Norman Keith Collins grew up in California, and started tattooing people from a young age as he hopped the freight trains and crossed the country long before Kerouac ever did.

At age 19 he enlisted in the Navy, and travelled to the South Pacific, where he was exposed to the art and imagery of Southeast Asian and Polynesian cultures. This would influence his style dramatically, along with traditional sailors tattoos, and give him the distinctive look he would become famous for.

After his service he settled in Hawaii, where he tattooed people for the rest of his life.

Sailor Jerry’s legacy

His influence on the art of modern tattooing is undeniable (check out a documentary called Hori Smoku).

Sailor Jerry was the first Westerner to correspond with and learn directly from the great Japanese tattoo masters, combining their techniques with his own gusty American sensibility to come up with a new style of tattooing.

This new style combined vivid colours, bold iconography and sheer artistic ambition to create a new kind of tattooing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes bawdy, sometimes both.

Beyond this, he was also innovative on a more technical level, pioneering modern tattoo machine configurations, sterilization techniques and purple ink. One of his students was Don Ed Hardy, who went on to become a legend in the industry in his own right.