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Who Was Sailor Jerry: A Tattoo Pioneer

Posted on September 20 2014


Who was Sailor Jerry?

Sailor Jerry, the name given to Norman Collins, the father of old school tattooing and a legend in tattooing history. He acquired the name ‘Jerry’ after his father noticed his trouble making son had similar characteristics to the family’s crabby mule, and after spending almost a decade at sea in the navy the full moniker was born. Aside from sailing Norman spent the rest of his life tattooing navy men, showing a real passion for the ocean, Asian culture, art and imagery.

Early life:

Norman Collins was born in 1911 on the West Coast, Reno Nevada. From a young age he showed a great deal of interest in tattooing and began learning as a teen by a man known as ‘Big Mike’. Hand poking Pelikan ink tattoos on anybody willing with whatever tools he could find. With a basic skill under his wings Norman began hopping freight trains whilst continuing to hand poke anybody he could. By the 1920’s he found himself in Chicago where he became acquainted with his first formal teacher, Gib “Tatts” Thomas, a man who taught Jerry how to use a tattoo machine. He often practiced on corpses through a friend of Thomas’s that worked in the city morgue.

Navy Life:

Sailor Jerry Classic Tattoo Designs


At 19 Sailor Jerry enlisted in the Great Lakes Naval Academy and then spent the next 10 years travelling the globe on schooner ships. As tattooing goes hand in hand with sailing, Jerry furthered his love for the art whilst gaining a great passion for Asian culture, philosophy and storytelling. He studied the tattoo masters he encountered and would occasionally tattoo navy men during ports of call around the China seas. It was such encounters that heavily influenced Jerry’s work aiding him to stick with tradition whilst incorporating Asian styles and colours into his tattoos. This is something he would eventually use daily in his tattoo shop in China Town, Honolulu.


After finishing his time in the navy during the late ’20s, Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins settled down in Oahu, a then remote island in Hawaii. His timing however couldn’t have been better as Honolulu became a resting place for sailors and soldiers on 48-hour shore leave. It was in Honolulu’s China Town that Jerry opened up his very own tattoo studio where he remained for 40 years perfecting his work. Jerry’s tattoos became highly recognised and talked about and even made their way into the very secretive Japanese tattooing world, known as Horis. With time Jerry became one of the first American tattooists to associate with the Horis masters, trading ink colours, designs and techniques. This was a fantastic achievement to have made.


In today’s day and age tattoo hygiene and sterilisation is taken very seriously and an artist that doesn’t follow such measures is typically known as a scratcher; someone to avoid because you want to evade shady work and the risk of infection. It is in fact very much because of Jerry that these procedures are followed and it is thanks to his example that safe tattooing is practiced. Jerry worked hard to ensure that his needles and equipment were clean and sterile and that his shop was tidy. He’d even make sure to use Hand Sanitizer before and after completing the tattoo (this was back when gloves were rarely used) to really minimise the risk of contamination within the ink or blood of the customer. At the time this was a rare occurrence and as a result, diseases were spread, tarnishing the tattoo trade and ruining its reputation. To help save the reputation of tattooing Jerry ensured that his shop was kept to the same cleanliness standards held in medical environments. He encouraged others to do the same and was an advocate for making sure that these standards were enforced in the law.

Sailor Jerry Original Tattoo Designs



The success of Jerry reached the ears of many and naturally up and coming artists all wanted a piece of him. Jerry had three protégés Mike Malone, Don Ed Hardy and Zeke Owen whom he was very fond of and whom he tutored and called his friends. After Jerry’s death in 1973 he left simple instructions with regards to his shop, one of them was to take it over, or it was to be burned to the ground along with his desired flash prints. Thankfully Mike Malone took over the shop and kept the name alive for another generation of tattoo lovers.

By the 1980s, mike partnered with fellow protégé Don Ed Hardy to release books that contained Jerry’s flash. The books were a huge success and his work was loved and adored by millions and still is today. Sometime after the two men got together Sailor Jerry Limited was founded, a company filled with Sailor Jerry fans who wanted to keep his name alive not only through tattoos but through clothing. The company was a huge success and then went on to team up with William Grant & Sons to produce the much-loved beverage Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum developed in the Caribbean for a unique and sailor worthy taste.

About the Author Emma Clark: Emma is a keen writer interested in tattoos and piercings. She often writes about up and coming tattoos, tattoo needles (tattoonaalden) and aftercare.

Photo Credits:
“”Sailor Jerry” Norman Keith Collins” – Wikipedia Photo
“Sailor Jerry Classic Tattoo Designs” – carbonated via photopin cc
“Sailor Jerry Original Tattoo Designs” – TATOODO.COM