Sea of Dreams - Eric Weiss

Published: 15 September, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 189, August, 2010


Having just had its premier screening in the UK, Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry is a feature length documentary exploring the roots of American Tattooing through the life of Norma ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins. Sailor Jerry is considered by many to be the founding father of American tattooing, with many of his designs still worn today by young and old alike. We caught up with Erich Weiss, the writer, director and producer of this wonderfully nostalgic film upon his return to the States to find out a little behind the making of Hori Smoku...

So you were over here to promote to film, how did it go down?

It was fun! We showed it last Wednesday (21st July). We had a good time. It was the first time we’ve ever shown it officially in London. And we’ve done so many in the States since we premiered it in 2008.

So I take it the old-time tattoo guys where quite positive about the information portrayed in the film?

Yes, obviously when I made the film, I wanted the public to like it but I also wanted tattoo artists to like it and not think it was bullshit. I wanted it to be something I could be proud of.

So is tattooing an interest of yours?

Well I grew up in pretty much a tattooing town (Philadelphia) and I got tattooed when I was fourteen and I’m thirty-seven now so you can imagine. And a lot of my friends all grew up to be tattoo artists. Guys like Jason Goldberg, Dave Fox, all those guys. So I was always around tattooing and interested in it. 

So what made you decide that there was enough interest out there to talk about an old time tattooist?

First I was asked by a guy called Steve Graff, who did the licensing deal for the movie. He asked me to interview Ed Hardy and Mike Malone, just to get the story on Sailor Jerry. And I said sure, I’ll go down. And when I came back, after just talking to Ed, I said if you’ll give me some cash [laughs] I’d love to make a documentary. I mean, I would’ve done it for free anyway. 

Obviously you’ve travelled around, finding some of the old guys and stuff. Were they quite forthcoming or were some…

They all told me to fuck off, really! [laughs]. No it just took, like, three years to get all the interviews and stuff together. You know, I had a lot of people vouch for me. The first time I called Mike Malone he told me to fuck off and hung up the phone!

Who was the hardest person to get in touch with?

Probably Zeke Owen, it took, like, a year and a half just to track him down. The first time I tracked him down he’d just had a heart attack and I couldn’t find him anywhere. And then finally I found him working in a shop.  This thing was just so organic, sometimes if people were comfortable enough with me, they’d call ahead for me and say, you know, “this guy’s not an asshole, you can talk to him”.

So we’ve only seen a brief snippet of the documentary itself, but what we’ve seen is fantastic, it got our interest straight away. Where did you get all the film clips from?

It took forever! I went to the national archives; I went to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. I was just scouring 1940’s newsreels, and going into a lot of university archives, going through old newspapers. Yeah, it was a shit load of research to be done. And then a lot of the tattoo pictures, Lyle Tuttle helped me out a lot; he’s got a museum.  Ed Hardy helped me out as well. I don’t know if you saw it but I ran into Sailor Jerry’s son David, in Honolulu. After I pulled my first cut he ended up giving me all these old photos nobody’s ever seen before and gave me a bit from Sailor Jerry’s radio show. The only time you’ll ever hear Sailor Jerry’s voice is in the film.

So are we looking at a Hori Smoku part two?

I think what I’m gonna do is try and release a special edition and put up a tribute to people like Mike Malone and  everyone who has helped out on the film. You got huge storytellers in the film and I’ve only got like, 73 minutes to tell a story. I mean all these guys lived crazy awesome lives and they’re just filled with stories, real natural storytellers.  

I don’t think I wanna’ exploit this thing too much. I mean I like it, I’m proud if it, I like what it has to say. I don’t want to, you know, flog a dead horse. 

You were saying about the exploitation, you’ve obviously seen the Ed Hardy clothing and all that merchandising. How do you feel about the mass merchandise and mass phenomena of tattoo imagery?

I was talking to Ed about that and he has such a great case. He said he’s been working in a tattoo shop for nearly 40 years. You know, I’m just some knucklehead who walks into a tattooing shop and that’s how they make money. And if some fool wants to buy some bejewelled clothing I mean, be my guest. 

True, as long as he wins out in the end, that’s the main thing. 

Definitely. Ed, he’s the artist so that’s great. Some people do things that others don’t. It’s an artistic trade; they make money doing it. Have you ever walked into a tattoo shop and asked the guy to do it for free? I haven’t.

It makes a lot of sense, as you say. Some people would say the mystique has been watered down slightly. 

Any kind of rebel culture, especially in the western world it gets commercialised. It sucks. But, it still happens.

It’s true, as you say, someone with a tattoo was seen as a rebel. Now everyone has them.

There’s a part of the film, at the end where Lyle (Tuttle) talks about that. He says a little baby sees a tattoo on his mom’s butt, and then he sees a tattoo on his teachers arm, and then the cop who arrests him has a tattoo, by the end the tattoo is gonna look like a symbol of authority and by the end he’s not gonna wanna touch it.

That’s quite a good analogy actually. It makes a lot of sense. Do you think this film is quite important in preserving the history of tradition of tattoos for the younger audiences as well?

I definitely think so. The film’s a loose,  loose biography on Sailor Jerry, it’s more about the culture of American tattooing especially. And what happened in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s in Hawaii and the World War two generation. I think about 40 minutes of the film reflects on Hotel Street alone. That’s the stuff I find fascinating.The superstitions and the stories are great but the actual roots and historical aspect are really, really cool and interesting.

Are there any stories that stood out to you that didn’t make it into the final film?

There are a whole bunch of stories. Some that aren’t really fit for print! But when I did the first cut of the film it was over two hours long. So I think a lot of that footage will go on the special edition because I go into the symbolism and the significance of tribal tattoos. Then there’s a load of colourful stories from the guys. Shit I could do a whole DVD just on the guys from Philadelphia alone. 

Is there anything you want the UK tattoo community to know about the film and yourself?

Well I’m hoping to get that released as soon as possible in the UK. I’d love to get that out in the holidays, I’m working on it right now. There’ll always be updates on the website ( and I’m gonna be throwing a book together about the movie. Just because there’s so much stuff I collected, especially the stuff about Hotel Street. What was going on about that time was so kind of dirty and amazing. You gotta love it!

I see in some of your pictures that you wear a full sleeve, who’s done your tattoos for you?

Martin Lacasse from Philly’, Old City Tattoos and Jason Goldberg, he’s actually one of the producers on the film.

So what’s next for Erich Weiss, anything else on the horizon?

Erm, I’m working on another documentary about modern historians of ‘fontography’ and they work with a lot of old legends like Ed Roth and I just like that. It’s kind of a dying trade and I want to document it.

It’s nice to have guys like yourself document stuff because, like you say once it’s gone, it’s gone and that’s it.

I’m so happy we could get a Mike Malone on film just because it’s really dedicated him.

Thanks very much and good luck with the release of the film in the UK and your future projects Erich.


Interview Neil & Alex


Skin Deep 189 24 August 2010 189