Long Before Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins arrived on Honolulu Hotel Street and revolutionized tattooing, the man himself was forged in the blood and sweat of America at the turn of the century. A world-worn roughneck with a fascination for Eastern philosophy and art, he chased adventure from the California foothills to the gangster-run streets of Chicago and across the wide open China sea to Asia before settling in the remote Hawai’ian Islands. Then, from his tiny tattoo shop in Honolulu’s gritty Chinatown, he shaped and cussed it all into a pure, American folk art that redefined tattooing forever.Taking on the doggedly traditional world of tattooing took guts and Jerry came built for the job. He was a naturally gifted draftsman capable of delivering a straight shot to the gut with a few bold lines and a self-taught tinkerer who obsessed over tweaking his tattoo machines to pour in black ink like velvet. He attacked tattooing with a blue collar mentality where an incessant work ethic and iron clad integrity always trumped showmanship. Unoriginality was unforgivable. Copycats, rip off artists and “scratch bums” were the sworn enemy. If you disagreed, you were wrong. And good luck changing the old man’s mind. Stubbornness was the core of the Sailor Jerry legend: Although born Norman Keith Collins on January 14, 1911, his father nicknamed him “Jerry” after the family’s unruly mule. The nickname and the stubbornness stuck.
He was raised in Ukiah, a northern California farming and logging town, but his introduction to tattooing came on the road. Jerry first tried tattooing as a teenage by hand-poking designs on willing customers with whatever supplies he came across while hitchhiking and hopping freight trains across America. He landed in Chicago in the 1920s and connected with his first formal teacher, the legendary Gib “Tatts” Thomas, who taught Jerry how to use a tattoo machine. The lesson itself became part of the great Sailor Jerry mythology: Thomas took Jerry to the city morgue where a friend of the tattooer who worked the night shift and would allow the young apprentice to practice tattooing on a corpse. They led Jerry to a dark room where a cadaver lay covered by a sheet on a table and left him alone with his tattoo machine and inks. Determined not to be spooked, Jerry set up his gear and lifted the corpse’s arm when suddenly the body sat upright and screamed, terrifying Jerry, Thomas and his friends laughed hysterically at the joke they had played on the young, severely shaken apprentice.
Tattoo artists in Chicago at the time worked mostly out of mafia-run arcades on State Street, paying their gangster bosses for the space they rented. Artists operated out of small cubicles, often competing for business with other tattooers in the same arcade. Jerry spent some time working with Thomas while learning the intricacies of tattooing. Many of his clients arrived from the Great Lakes Naval Training Academy forty miles north of Chicago, and in 1928, influenced by his sailor clientele and the lure of adventure on the open seas, Jerry enlisted in the Navy.
Jerry’s time at sea became the overwhelming influence on his life. He relished the camaraderie of the Navy, and the old sea-faring traditions of sailors became subjects he celebrated in his work until his death. More importantly, the Navy took Jerry across the Pacific to China and Japan, a journey that spread his lifelong interest in Asian art and culture and then deposited him in Hawai’i in the early 1930s. The tropical islands felt custom-made for Jerry. The constant flow of sailors through Hawai’ian ports kept Jerry connected to his beloved Navy while the Honolulu’s bustling Chinatown fed his fascination with Asian culture. Jerry decided to call Hawai’i his home.