Sailor Jerry's Old-School Wisdom for Today's Tattoo Crew

Monday January 08, 2018 Written by Sam

saillor wide

Once synonymous with outlaws and misfits, servicemen and the occasional murderous preacher, tattoos are now so mainstream that every second supermodel has one. Makes you wonder what Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins would think of it all. A tough-talkin’ former itinerant and naval seaman, Sailor Jerry reimagined twentieth-century tattoo art from his shop in Honolulu’s rowdy red-light district during World War II.

The sign on his front door encapsulated his defiance in the face of square disapproval: "If you don't think you have [salty term for male anatomy] enough to wear a tattoo, don't get one. But don't try to make excuses for yourself by knocking the fellow who does!" Signed, "Thank you...Sailor Jerry." 

But while more people than ever are inked these days, there’s a flipside: the tattoo removal industry is booming. So, in the name of happy, regret-free tattooing for both artist and client, we’ve revisited some pearls of wisdom from the man who started it all. (Even the cleanskins among us could follow worse advice.)


“You must understand the feeling of originating as opposed to imitating.”

Sailor Jerry had no time for copycats (or ‘brain-pickers,’ as he called them). While his work was heavily influenced by traditional Japanese tattoo art, he used this as a springboard to develop his own signature style rather than replicating anyone else. So much for the sincerest form of flattery: beware pale imitations.

“I’m always willing to listen to someone else’s ideas… because we can always learn more.”

Just as he despised brain-pickers and ‘scratchers’, Jerry loathed complacent practitioners. He was the first American tattoo artist to correspond with Japanese masters, exchanging ideas and technical tips in a tireless quest to improve his work. “When we get to thinking we know it all, that’s when we fall real hard,” he said. Evolve or dissolve.

“If you like my style of work, fine, come to me, but if you want to make me over into your kind of stylist, forget it!"

Famously cantankerous, Jerry had no qualms about refusing to tattoo someone if he didn’t like what they were asking for. While some might call this inflexible, others would consider it staying true to your artistic vision. Flunky for hire or proud creative? It’s hardly Sophie’s choice.

“Good work ain’t cheap and cheap work ain’t good.”

Sure, we all love a bargain but maybe think twice before getting that cut-price tatt from that dodgy bloke you wouldn’t dream of hanging around with otherwise. Cheap and nasty can come at a steep price.

“Karma takes care of the jerks as well as the saints, you know.”

‘Nuff said.

Check out this documentary for more Sailor Jerry hi-jinx.