Norman Keith Collins (January 14, 1911 – June 12, 1973) was a prominent American tattoo artist, famous for his tattooing of sailors; he was also known as “Sailor Jerry”.
SAILOR JERRY WAS BORN NORMAN COLLINS, BUT CHOSE TO DEFINE HIMSELF ON HIS OWN TERMS. HE SIMPLY WASN’T ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE BORN TO LIVE A MIDDLE-OF-THE-ROAD LIFE AND HE KNEW IT. BACK IN THE 1920’S, WHEN COLLINS CAME OF AGE, TATTOOING WAS AN EXPRESSION THAT BELONGED TO AN EMERGING AMERICAN COUNTERCULTURE. IT WAS A MARK OF NOT BLINDLY FOLLOWING THE MAINSTREAM – OF CHOOSING TO LIVE OUTSIDE THE LINES.
Collins left home as a teenager to travel the country by hitchhiking and train hopping. He wasn’t alone. At that time, a substantial number of Americans, young and old, were bypassing the so-called American Dream for a different kind of existence. For some, this was prompted by hardship and necessity. But for Collins and others like him, it was about wanderlust and freedom. They traveled by freight train, took temporary work and camped along the way. This was when Collins started learning his craft, working primitively with only a needle and black ink, creating designs freehand, one poke at a time.
He eventually landed in Chicago and two things happened that changed his life. One, he hooked up with local tattoo legend, Gib ‘Tatts’ Thomas, who taught him to use a tattoo machine. (For practice, he paid bums with cheap wine or a few cents to let him tattoo them). The second was joining the Navy. The United States Navy was a place where a young man who’d been crossing the country on freight trains could up the ante on his adventure and cross oceans. It was during this time, Collins developed a lifelong love of ships. He would eventually earn master’s papers on every kind of vessel you could get tested for.
His influence on the art of modern tattooing is undeniable and a documentary movie called “Hori Smoku” sheds a lot of light on the details. He wanted at least one of three proteges/friends – Ed Hardy, Mike Malone, or Zeke Owens – to take over his shop (or else burn it) when he passed.
Collins expanded the array of colors available by developing his own pigments. He created needle formations that embedded pigment with much less trauma to the skin and was one of the first artists to utilize single-use needles and to use an autoclave for sterilization.
Sailor Jerry’s last studio was at 1033 Smith Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown, then the only place on the island where tattoo studios were located.
Old-school tattoos are rooted in the American serviceman’s interpretation of traditions and symbols that go back thousands of years. Obviously, every tattoo is a personal statement, but there are certain common meanings and associations. Here you can find a few of the most prevalent. http://sailorjerry.com/en/tattoos/flash-meanings
Popular symbols used by Sailor Jerry include:
Bottles of booze
The infamous “Aloha” monkey
Eagles, falcons and other birds of prey
Motor heads and pistons
Classically styled scroll banners
Knives, guns and other weapons