By Kelly Duffy, National Museum of the American Sailor Curator
Norman Collins, known better as Sailor Jerry, was perhaps the most influential tattoo artist of the twentieth century. His style of tattooing is still copied and is a classic example of the Golden Age of Tattoos, especially Naval tattoos.
Sailor Jerry was born in 1911 in Reno, Nevada. By the time he was in his early teens, Jerry was traveling the country by freight train. During this period of his life he learned how to draw and tattoo, eventually becoming an amateur tattoo artist. He started by practicing on himself and anyone who would volunteer.
By the 1920s Jerry was living in Chicago. Chicago was an important city in tattooing history, due to Naval Station Great Lakes being only thirty miles north of the city.
The Navy and tattoos have a rich history that dates back to the Revolutionary War, so it is no surprise that Sailors from Great Lakes were making the short trip to Chicago to get tattooed before they were shipped out to sea.
At this time, Jerry was mentored by Gib “Tatts” Thomas. Gib was already an established tattoo artist and taught Jerry to use the tattoo gun, instead of stick-n-poke. Tattoo guns are still used today. Using a gun made tattooing easier, faster, and less painful for the recipient; revolutionizing the tattooing industry.
In 1928 at the age of seventeen Jerry enlisted in the Navy, and in November he graduated from Great Lakes and shipped off to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and then to Southeast Asia. It was during his time in the Navy where Jerry developed his famous style. He was heavily influenced by Asian art, imagery, and culture all of which could be seen in his tattoos.
After his Naval career, Jerry settled in Hawaii where he owned and ran a tattoo shop until his death in 1973. It was one of the most renowned shops in the world and people, especially sailors, traveled to it to get their tattoos. His tattoos became so iconic that even today people want their tattoos styled like Jerry’s. Some of the most common sailor tattoo symbolism; including swallows, nautical stars, ships with rigging, bottles of alcohol, snakes, and more, came from Jerry.
Jerry was not only influential in style, but he also invented new tattoo pigments, such as purple, and it was thanks to him that tattoo safety was implemented. He was a pioneer and activist for sterilizing equipment and using single-use needles. Due to his advocacy, tattoo safety is highly prioritized and regimented. It is difficult to list all of the impact Sailor Jerry had and continues to have on tattoo culture.
To learn more about tattoo culture and the Navy, join us on August 15, 2018 at 1:00pm at the National Museum of the American Sailor for a presentation by NMAS Curator Kelly Duffy. For more about the event go to https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/nmas/news-and-events/events/CC.html
For more information on Sailor Jerry visit https://sailorjerry.com/en/norman-collins/