The Art of Sailor Jerry

Published: 01 March, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 169, February, 2009

On the evening of the 19th November 2008, we were invited to the opening of an exhibition at the prestigious bar, Cargo, situated in the heart of London’s trendy Shoreditch. The work displayed was that of Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, (1911-1973), who is undoubtedly one of the world’s most influential figures in the history of tattooing.

The exhibition aimed to explore the life and enduring legacy of this charismatic artist whose name is now associated with the legendary and decidedly delicious, Sailor Jerry Rum, which was handed out in profusion during the early part of this event.

Sailor Jerry was an uncompromising original, an icon, often considered to be the founding father of modern tattoo design. During the course of the evening, guests at the exhibition were given a brief tour and explanatory talk about his fascinating life and work by one of the curators. Lal Hardy was also luckily on hand and able to relate various amusing anecdotes from his personal knowledge of this legendary tattooist.

Since his early travels Sailor Jerry was apparently intrigued by Eastern art and culture, though this was tempered by a deep-rooted prejudice toward the people, as he had never forgiven the Japanese for what had happened at Pearl Harbour. Ultimately however, his admiration for the mysticism and technical style of the Far East allowed him to overcome his xenophobia. He maintained contact with some of the leading Asian tattoo artists of the time, such as Horiyoshi, and together they shared ideas and information on technique. Due to this close interaction, Sailor Jerry gained an insight into Japanese tattoo methodology which had previously been confined to the artists of the Far East.

It is important to remember that at the time, most tattoos in Asia were worked entirely by hand with pigments developed in the 19th century, so Sailor Jerry’s knowledge of machine tattooing and alternative pigments would probably have been of great interest to Asian tattooists, as was their use of backgrounds, composition and shading to him. This amalgam of technique and styles created a hybrid, often alleged to have helped initiate the revolution in Western tattooing.

Whilst Sailor Jerry came from a tattoo tradition, which had developed around World War 1, he was constantly experimenting. He initially used a single needle but was keen to explore new possibilities. Most importantly, he is said to have been the first tattooist to use sterile equipment and to introduce sterile, disposable needles.

As well as perfecting techniques of shading and outline, Sailor Jerry was inspired with the use of colour by which means he endeavoured to make his tattoos as realistic and symbolic as he possibly could. He is thought to have been responsible for discovering green, blue and purple pigments. In fact, it is stated that he won a bet with a rival artist who claimed that tattooing with purple pigment was impossible. When Sailor Jerry proved him wrong by inking a spectacular purple dragon on one of his customers, his rival was hospitalised due to his collapse from shock. In his usual indomitable style, Sailor Jerry sent a bouquet of purple flowers to the bedside, adding further insult to injury.

Throughout his work, his attention to detail was phenomenal, so precise in fact that the rigging seen in his numerous ship designs is said to have been totally accurate. It is in fact, possible, to chart the progression of the artist’s career by studying the increased detail in his ship tattoo designs. Sailor Jerry was a lover of nautical themes and they pervade much of his work. In fact one of his most iconic designs entitled, Rise and Shine, combines a nautical theme with that of an exotic buxom woman. The classic naval hammock, containing within it a beautiful woman, would undoubtedly be appealing to sailors working away from home for long periods of time. As such, this design became one of the most popular and enduring images from his canon of work.

Many of Sailor Jerry’s customers were servicemen, particularly sailors, who began to get tattoos in order to assert their individualism and identity. Wearing the same uniforms, performing identical duties, living the same lifestyle, it was often only their tattoos that set one sailor apart from another. Having said that, however, most of the tattoos chosen depicted traditional designs, featuring romance, travel, adventure, all of which were undoubtedly elements of a sailor’s life on the high seas. Prior to the time when they were adopted by the working classes, when parlours started to spring up, primarily in port cities and the subculture of mainstream tattooing was born, tattoos on Westerners had been limited to rich Europeans and Americans who could afford to visit Japan right after the time the country had been opened up to the West after many centuries of isolation.

The Art of Sailor Jerry exhibition ran from 19th –21st November 2008, and the private view attracted many well-known tattooists. Aside from Lal Hardy, there were representatives from several studios including Darryl and his team from Diamond Jack’s, Tota and her crew from Happy Sailor Tattoo as well as the guys from Skunx and Flamin’ 8. Aside from members of the tattoo fraternity the event was attended by many others, most of who were keen to sample the beverages, listen to the bands and enter the competition, where the prize on offer was one of the exclusive pieces from the show.


Text and Photography Ashley (


Skin Deep 169 1 February 2009 169