Norman Keith Collins, better known by his nickname, Sailor Jerry, defined the style of American traditional tattoos.
As a new artist, it’s important to understand Sailor Jerry’s legacy because his work is still impacting popular tattoo designs and practices today.
In this article, we’ll talk about how Sailor Jerry used his life experiences and artistic talent to create the foundation of American Traditional tattooing.
In this article, we’ll cover Sailor Jerry’s:
Who Was Sailor Jerry?
Norman Keith Collins - Early Life
Norman Collins was born in Reno, Nevada in 1911 and grew up mostly in Northern California.
As a teenager, Norman train-hopped across the country and learned how to do tattoos using the traditional hand-tattooing method from a man named Big Mike. Despite his young age, Norman had a natural talent and deep love for tattoos.
In the 1920s, Norman Collins met a man named Tatts Thomas, who taught him how to use a tattoo machine so that he could continue practicing his tattoos on himself and anyone he could get to volunteer.
Service in the Navy
A lot of Sailor Jerry’s early tattoo work was on Naval cadets about to ship out. Sailor Jerry himself later served in the Navy for eight years and was stationed on the USS Yorktown.
He practiced his craft in the Navy’s makeshift tattoo parlors. This is where he earned his nickname and became famous for his tattoos.
His time in the Navy supplied plenty of clients to practice on and built his artistic vision. He spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia while he was in the Navy, and many of his famous designs come from the art and imagery of Japanese and Pacific culture.
Setting Up Shop in Honolulu
In 1936, Sailor Jerry decided to leave the Navy and move to Honolulu, Hawaii.
He had heard of the city’s thriving tattoo scene and quickly became known in the area as a skilled tattoo artist. By 1940 he had opened his own tattoo studio called “Sailor Jerry’s Tattoo Shop.”
In the 1940s, tattoos had become more popular, especially among sailors and other members of the military, which led him to specialize in traditional Americana designs, such as pin-up girls, eagles, anchors, and other nautical-themed designs.To create these tattoos, he used the bold lines and bright color palette the American Traditional style is known for today.
Sailor Jerry’s Tattoo Style
Sailor Jerry was in contact with Japanese tattoo masters during and after World War II, and he dedicated himself to learning everything about their art.
As he pursued understanding the Japanese style, he combined his knowledge of American traditional tattooing and Japanese art to create a bold style that people still want tattooed on them today.
Sailor Jerry is responsible for the popularity of tattoos with nautical symbolism including swallows, anchors, nautical stars, ships, snakes, and bottles of rum, as well as pin-up girls and his Lucky 13 series, which turns the number 13 from a symbol of bad luck to a good luck charm.
Sailor Jerry is particularly well-known for his hand-drawn flash sheets featuring a collection of dozens of designs that people could choose for their tattoos. These designs are still being used around the world today.
Here is a look at some of Sailor Jerry’s more common flash designs:
Sailor Jerry was known for his iconic bird tattoos, often including crows, swallows, and sparrows. His bird tattoos were often combined with bright colors and intricate patterns, creating unique designs that remain popular today.
Sailor Jerry's iconic anchor tattoos are a symbol of strength and stability, and are often seen as a reminder of a sailor's connection to the sea. They often featured intricate details like rope and other nautical imagery to make them even more recognizable.
Sailor Jerry brought depictions of classic pinup girls to the tattooing art form. They were often seen as a rebellion against the status quo.
Sailor Jerry's tattoos depicted the ocean and its sailors. His bold designs were often done in bright colors with heavy black outlines and were made to last a lifetime.
Inventing Ink Colors
In addition to his tattoo style, Sailor Jerry was also innovative with ink and created his unique purple pigment in the 1940s. He combined red and blue pigments to create a shade of purple that was unlike any other.
This was Sailor Jerry’s signature color, and it quickly became a popular choice among many of his customers.
Sailor Jerry was instrumental in improving the safety of tattoos. He was one of the first to use single-use, disposable tattoo needles as well as sterilization techniques, which reduced the risk of infection.
He also introduced the use of a natural sea salt solution to further reduce the risk of infection.
Sailor Jerry’s Impact on the Tattoo Industry
Sailor Jerry changed the tattoo industry in many ways. He was a pioneer of the American Traditional tattoo style, and his use of bold lines and bright colors was a departure from the more delicate style of traditional Japanese tattoos, making his brand of tattooing rise in popularity.
His style has become a popular choice for many tattoo enthusiasts, and his legacy will continue to shape the tattoo industry for years to come. Sailor Jerry’s legendary career has reached even further than tattoos. You can see his art in designs for rum bottles, clothing lines, shoes, and even cars.
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