Considered by many the foremost tattoo artist of all time, Norman Keith Collins is the father of modern day tattooing and he is famous for his tattooing of sailors. Collins was born on January 14, 1911 in Reno, Nevada, but grew up in Northern California.

Better known as “Sailor Jerry“, he left home as a teenager to travel the country hitchhiking and train hopping. He started learning his craft, working primitively with only a needle and black ink, creating designs freehand, one poke at a time. He eventually landed in Chicago and two things happened that changed his life: one, he hooked up with local tattoo legend, Gib “Tatts” Thomas, who taught him to use a tattoo machine; the second was joining the Navy. It was during this time, Collins developed a lifelong love of ships. When Collins mustered out of the Navy, he settled in Honolulu. He worked at a few locations in Honolulu, including 13 South Hotel Street, before he settled into his 1033 Smith Street location.

Sailor Jerry
Sailor Jerry

Jerry was influenced by the Japanese culture and the most proficient tattoo artists of the times: the Japanese masters known as “Horis“. He became the first Westerner to enter in correspondence with these masters, sharing techniques and tattoo tracings. By mixing American and Asian cultures, Jer- ry created his own style of tattooing. He was continually frustrated by other artists (who he called “brain pickers“) copying his work. He refused to do big chest or back pieces on customers who had tattoos by artists he didn’t respect.

His letters to fellow tattoo artists are a testament to his devotion to the craft of tattooing.

Yet tattooing was just one dimension of Jerry’s life. He continued to pursue his maritime interests as captain of a three-masted schooner that toured the islands. He had his own radio show called “Old Ironsides” on KRTG during which he alternated between political rants and reading his own poetry. He taught himself to be an electrician, which helped him innovate his tattoo machines. He also played in a jazz band.

Sailor Jerry watercolor by Pepe
Sailor Jerry watercolor by Pepe

Sailor Jerry died June 12, 1973. He is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, in Honolulu, Hawaii. The day before he died, he wrote a letter to friend and fellow tattoo artist, Paul Rogers, joking that he was going to “down some ground seahorse meat, pulverized rat shit, snake skin, lizard eggs, dried snails and dried bat skin and by go we will see who is the best doctor in the end“. He asked that upon his death, his shop be passed on to his protégés, Don Ed Hardy and Mike Malone (aka “Rollo Banks“). If neither took the place over, Jerry left instructions to burn it to the ground. Fortunately Malone took possession of the shop and ran it for almost 25 years.

Sailor Jerry
Sailor Jerry