Traditional Sailor Jerry Tattoos – The Foundation of American Traditional Tattooing

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:

  • History and how it led to his tattooing career
  • Artistic style and popular designs
  • Impact on tattoos and tattooing

Who Was Sailor Jerry?

sailor jerry tattoos a client
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

sailor jerry tattoos of sailing the Atlantic ocean
sailor jerry tattoo mermaids

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

picture of sailor jerry

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

dan roberts japanese sailing tattoos
old school tattoos

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.

Notable Tattoos

sailor jerry tattoos
flash designs for tattoo artists

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 Tattoo Flash Designs

flash designs of ships, skulls, pin ups, mermaids, and a dragon

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:

Roses

rose tattoos
rose tattoo on wrist

Sailor Jerry's rose tattoos are a classic tattoo design, often used to represent love and beauty. They often feature a banner or lettering underneath the flower.

Swallows

swallow tattoos
swallow tattoo on a person

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.

Anchors

sailor jerry anchor tattoo
sailor jerry anchor tattoos

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.

Pinup Girls

sailor jerry tattoos
sailor jerry woman tattoos

Sailor Jerry brought depictions of classic pinup girls to the tattooing art form. They were often seen as a rebellion against the status quo.

Sailing Tattoos

sailor jerry flash with marks of the sea

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

sailor jerry tattoo designs of women

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.

Tattoo Safety

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 animal tattoos
sailor jerry dragon tattoos

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.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning the differences between tattoo styles is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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