A Sailor Jerry Salute
Stars and spiced rum forever
Norman Collins made his own very particular contribution to military history, lore and culture. Namely tattooing mainly scantily clad ladies on the biceps, forearms, backs and chests of countless navy servicemen. Collins, who became better known as “Sailor Jerry,” as the blinking, neon-lit sign above his tattoo parlor proclaimed, inked drunken sailors on shore leave for more than 40 years.
Collins himself served in the Navy, enlisting in the Great Lakes Navy Academy after learning how to handle ink and a “tattoo machine” on Chicago’s rough State Street at a tender age. Collins, born on the West Coast in 1911, had a few lost years, traveling the country by freight train before arriving in Chicago at 19 and acquainting himself with some of State Street’s seedier elements. As ghastly legend has it, his guide in the world of ink and flesh, Gib “Tatts” Thomas would take Collins to the Chicago morgue at night when Thomas’s friend worked, and let the aspiring tattoo artist practice on the corpses. This is where he may have learned his technique, but his style was seemingly straight from the sea. For nearly a decade, in the Navy he travelled to the China Seas, throughout the South Pacific and across what must have seemed liked an exotic southeast Asia. These experiences shaped Collins life and art, and he worked far eastern themes, iconography and colors into much of his work.
When he got back stateside in the early ’30s he settled in what was then the very remote outpost of Oahu, Hawaii, and began to make a name for himself. The atmosphere along Hotel Street where he set up shop was ribald, literal drunken sailers creating the cartoonish archetype we associate with those words today. Throughout World War II the fighting men of the South Pacific arrived by way of a two-day pass that had deposited them in Honolulu hours before, at his door, wild from exhilaration of surviving battle, loose from booze, and likely randy from isolation.
He covered them in winking deck-hand minxes, coquettish mermaids, showgirls in champagne glasses, damsels wrapped in Old Glory and topless hula girls.
You may associate Sailer Jerry now more with an avalanche of crappy flash art imitations of the styles he pioneered, or with the spiced rum. If it’s the former, we couldn’t allow that on Memorial Day. And if it’s the latter, well, here’s are a couple of cocktail ideas, friend. Now you know what to cheers with over the long weekend.