The legend of Sailor Jerry

Norman Keith Collins (1911-1973) better known as Sailor Jerry is the father of old-school tattooing, whose uncompromising lifestyle and larger than life persona made him an American legend. A tough old sea dog with a shrewd intellect, Jerry stood up for himself and stood by his work earning him a legacy that is still felt today.

Born January 14th in Reno, Nevada. Given the nickname ‘Jerry’ after his father notices a similar disposition between the young troublemaker & the family’s cantankerous mule. The ‘Sailor’ was added later when he joined the Navy

Ironically, Jerry was deeply influenced by the culture that started the war in the first place – the Japanese. The most proficient and sophisticated tattoo artists of the times were the Japanese masters known as Horis. He became the first Westerner to enter in regular correspondence with these masters, sharing techniques and tattoo tracings. By fusing American and Asian sensibilities, Jerry created his own style of tattooing – iconic and artistic, irreverent and soulful, radical and beautiful.

“You must understand the feeling of originating as opposed to imitating.”

From “Man’s Ruin,” an image of a vixen in a cocktail glass surrounded by a dice, cards and dollar signs – to a picture of a bloody knife sticking though a heart with the words “Death Before Dishonor” – Sailor Jerry’s tattoos dealt with issues that were at once practical and elemental.

“Bold simplicity is the keynote to good design”

In a sense, Jerry was always battling something, whether it was conventional thinking, the mediocrity of copycat tattoo artists or the government meddling into his affairs. He never knuckled under to anyone or anything. To quote from a letter Jerry wrote to protégé, Don Ed Hardy, commenting on a yin yang dragon design, “keep them fighting, it’s the way that Yin Yang functions — if there is no opposition of forces there is no evolution of life!”

“In this business, the minute you get to thinking you’re top dog, you quit trying and are on the way out fast.”

At the shop, he was constantly innovating. He found better power sources, manufactured new machine frame configurations, invented needle set ups. He sought out and found colour pigments that were non toxic and safe. To ensure their safety he would tattoo these discoveries into his lower legs. If the colours reacted, he’d dig them out and try the next batch.

“Good work ain’t cheap, cheap work ain’t good.”

He set standards of execution and quality that remain the hallmark of the industry. He refused to do big chest or back pieces on customers who had tattoos by artists he didn’t respect.

His classic, yet ground breaking, skin art portrays a legacy that’s as true today as it was generations ago on those wild, devil-may-care streets of Chinatown. As Jerry’s business cards famously said “My Work Speaks For Itself,” and no truer words have been spoken.