Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins

Norman Keith Collins, known popularly as Sailor Jerry, was a prominent American tattoo artist in Hawaii who was well known for his sailor tattoos. Collins was well know for smoking his pipe while tattooing. He often used a pipe because it allowed him to customize his tobacco blend. No information was found on the type of tobacco he smoked but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a Navy Flake.

Collins was born on January 14, 1911 in Reno but grew up in Northern California. As a child he hopped freight trains across the country and learned tattooing from a man named "Big Mike" from Palmer, Alaska. Originally using the stick and poke method and working with whatever tools he could find, he would practice on anyone who would be willing to let him.

In the 1920s in Chicago Collins learned to use the tattoo gun from his mentor Gibbs "Tatts" Thomas and practiced his craft on real skin in the evenings at the morgue (so it is told). As Collins took hold of the cadavers arm, getting ready to tattoo, the corpse (not actually a corpse) sat up and scared the hell out of Collins and much to the delight of the others present.

At age 19, Collins enlisted in the United States Navy. During his travels at sea, he was exposed to the art and imagery of Southeast Asia. His Navy travels brought him to Hawaii where he separated from the Navy and worked as a tattoo artist. He tried to reenlist after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor but he enlistment was denied so he joined the Merchant Marines.

When he returned to Hawaii he continued his tatooing and during his time as a tattoo artist, he worked as a licensed skipper of a large three-masted schooner, on which he conducted tours of the Hawaiian islands. Collins kept tattooing in Hawaii at his shop, located on Smith Street in the Chinatown section of Honolulu until 1972

Collins not only created iconic tattoo art that artists across the world reproduce today, but he also helped grow the art and craft of tattooing as a whole. He made significant contributions to the art of tattooing. He expanded the array of colors available by developing his own pigments. He created custom needle formations that embedded pigment with much less trauma to the skin. He became one of the first artists to utilize single-use needles. His tattoo studio was one of the first to use an autoclave to sterilize equipment.

In the late 90s, Hardy and Malone partnered with Steven Grasse of Philadelphia’s Quaker City Mercantile to create Sailor Jerry Ltd, a company that would produce art, clothing and, eventually the rum that would come to bear Collins’ nickname.
Sailor Jerry Ltd. produces a 92 proof spiced Navy rum featuring a quintessential Sailor Jerry hula girl on the label. As the bottle is emptied, additional pin-up girls designed by Sailor Jerry are visible on the inner side of the label.
And in keeping with Collins own perfection when it came to creating his art, Hardy, Malone, and Grasse created the rum with that in mind—they wanted a product that Collins would be proud of.

Since 2015, an annual independently produced event now takes place in Hawaii every June called the "Sailor Jerry Festival" to honor Collins's legacy and Chinatown roots on Oahu. The multi-venue event includes live music, DJ's, cabaret performances, an art show - featured artists have included Sailor Jerry's great-grand niece Madison Thomas, local artists, and Masami Teraoka, movie screenings, a pin-up fashion show – where models wear outfits designed from Sailor Jerry flash, neighborhood tours, and tattoos available at three area shops, including Sailor Jerry's last location.

In June of 1973 Sailor Jerry suffered a heart attack while riding his motorcycle, dying three days after the incident. His body rests in the military cemetery, The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, in the Punchbowl Crater.

More on Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins:

Watch the full story: Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry The Life of Norman Collins-Tattooer


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Keeping the smoking lamp lit since 1989