Sailor Jerry and American Traditional Tattoos
American Traditional, or Old School, is a tattoo style that developed during the 1930s. It has a fascinating history that owes its success in great part to a man you've probably heard of already - Norman Collins, AKA Sailor Jerry.
Born in the suburbs of California in 1911, Collins knew he wasn't the 'American Dream' type. He yearned for a more meaningful existence and began his journey by train-hopping across the country with others who held the same philosophies.
On his way to eventually in Chicago, where he landed his first tattooing gig, Collins took up the hobby of stick and poke tattooing. He would practice his skills on other travelers and homeless people, paying the latter off with a few cents or some booze for their time. This is where his first designs came into being.
Upon arriving in the Windy City, Collins met up with a man named Gib "Tatts" Thomas, who owned a tattoo shop and taught him how to use a professional machine for the first time. (Never called a 'tattoo gun!')
This introduced him into a whole new world of tattooing and he took to the craft naturally. One of his major influences were the navy men from the Great Lakes Naval Training Academy. They would come to the shop often to get tattooed, inspiring Collins with their stories and lifestyle so much that he enlisted himself at age 19.
While voyaging in Southeast Asia, Collins was influenced greatly by the culture and art of the area, especially Japan. The dedication given to their craft, the beautiful designs they created, and its secretive nature fascinated him.
Yearning to bring the methods and subjects of Japanese tattooing to the Western world, he created his own unique style using a blend of technical knowledge and his own rebellious nature. This combination gave his designs a professional look while incorporating a sense of humor as well.
He was the only Western artist who corresponded with Japanese tattoo masters, the Horishi, proving his diligence and passion for the practice.
Collins found his way to Hawaiian shores in the 1930s, and in Honolulu's Chinatown opened up his first tattoo shop. There his pieces became very popular, especially with other navy men.
Sailors and officers from all over the world would land on the same beaches for shore leave before heading back out into the open seas. Entertainment of the area included drinking and dancing, socializing with the island women, and getting inked.
With his nautical themes and seafaring designs, Collins was never out of work. Subjects included pin up women, hearts, landscapes, sharks, mermaids, and ships, to name a few, all representations of the lives of the sailors who received them.
Let's take a look at some popular designs.
Usually worn on the pecs, over the heart, or on the shoulders, swallows represented 5000 nautical miles traveled by the sailor. This equals roughly 5750 regular miles.
This blatantly nautical symbol has different meanings depending on who wears it. A single anchor signifies that the sailor has crossed the Atlantic. It could also mean that the man served in the merchant marine, civilian vessels that hauled military supplies.
This term was often tattooed on the knuckles of sailors to bring good luck while working the rigging. You can imagine how difficult gripping and tying rope would be while being tossed around by an angry ocean.
During WWII, sailors in the Royal Navy wore palm trees after serving in Mediterranean seas. They were also worn if the sailor had served in Hawaii.
All were enraptured with Collins' distinct style, which many other artists tried to copy. Knowing this, he would deliberately create flawed designs that, if stolen, would be tattooed imperfectly and prove that the artist wasn't the real Sailor Jerry.
The colors of American Traditional were limited as varied palates of skin-safe inks were not in widespread production at the time, but reds, oranges, browns, and greens were utilized to great effect. Bold black outlines made the colors pop and minimal shading was used to keep the designs simple.
This was also done to keep the actual tattooing time short - Collins had so many clients he had difficulty keeping up with them all, and having readily available designs that were done quickly kept customers in his shop.
He was also responsible for the color purple in regards to tattoo ink. Another artist had started a feud with him about the color not being available, and Collins was never one to back down from anything. Purely to prove the artist wrong, he sought the help of some chemists and created the first purple ink. Therefore, the next time you get a tattoo with purple in it, you can thank Sailor Jerry!
He was also the first artist to start using single-use needles and sterilized equipment. This changed the face of tattooing forever, making it a much more safe, hygienic practice.
Collins continued tattooing in his Honolulu shop until 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He attempted to reenlist in the navy after this, but was unable due to a heart condition.
In the 1960s he took up the tattooing machine once again, reopening his shop on Smith Street. A true man of the sea, he also gave boat tours of the Hawaiian Islands.
Norman Collins continued tattooing until his death in 1973 from a heart attack, but his techniques, methods, and designs live on to be enjoyed by fans worldwide.
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