During the Vietnam War years, Honolulu's Hotel Street was the wildest red-light district in America, as sailors, soldiers and Marines en route to the jungles of Southeast Asia lined up outside brothels in the middle of the day and blew their wages at b-girl joints, live sex shows, taxi dance halls and tattoo parlors in that six-block strip in Chinatown as if they had only weeks to live.
In the midst of paradise's sewer there worked a master of innovation and craft. If the tattoo machine were a guitar, Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins would be Les Paul. By being the first Western tattooist to establish and maintain direct contact with master Asian tattooists, including Horiyoshi II of Tokyo and Pinky Yun of Hong Kong, Collins is the skinsmith most responsible for establishing American tattooing as an art form, not just permanent souvenirs for drunken sailors.
But Sailor Jerry could not have predicted that he would become famous worldwide after his death and that his name and artwork would be mass-produced on everything from clothing and cigarette lighters to bottles of Sailor Jerry spiced rum. Collins would have abhorred becoming a brand. He was one of those forbidden society guys who despised "prosta-tattoots," as he called spotlight seekers like Lyle Tuttle of San Francisco. The more you run your yap about tattooing, the more attention you draw from the government, whose interference actually made Sailor Jerry, who had been tattooing in Hawaii since the 1930s, temporarily quit the business in the 1950s.
He was a man of principle, as stubborn as the family mule named Jerry from which he got his nickname.
Saturday, June 12, marks the anniversary of Collins' death of a heart attack in 1973. The Sailor Jerry Ltd. company of New York, which purchased the Sailor Jerry name from Jerry protégés Ed Hardy and Mike Malone in 1999 and then was acquired by the William Grant & Sons distillery in 2008, is hosting Sailor Jerry Day festivities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Austin. There's a VIP party Saturday, June 12, at the Mohawk and free public screenings of "Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry" at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, June 13, and Monday, June 14, at the Alamo South at 1120 S. Lamar Blvd. RSVP at horismokumovie.com/austin_screening to see the movie, probably the best documentary ever made about tattooing.
The dean of American tattooing would hate the hoopla even more because his widow, Louise, and their kids have not seen any of the proceeds from his work since 1973. Following Collins' death, Malone agreed to pay $20,000 for the tattoo shop off Hotel Street and all its contents, including Collins' flash (tattoo designs), machines and other equipment. Malone also received a big box of letters from tattoo artists all over the world with whom Sailor Jerry corresponded regularly.
Louise Collins, who still lives on Oahu, didn't even know about Sailor Jerry rum until she saw a bottle at a restaurant bar a couple years ago, says her friend "Shanghai Kate" Hellenbrand. Louise Collins, Sailor Jerry's fifth wife, was unable to be reached. The use of her husband's "intellectual property" has not been challenged in court.
Collins had a history of heart problems, and after one heart attack he instructed his wife — in the event of his death — to sell the shop and all its contents to one of only three Jerry-approved buyers. Hardy had first dibs, according to the 1994 book "Sailor Jerry Collins: American Tattoo Master," but he'd just moved to Japan to work with and learn from the great Kazuo Oguri and had to decline. Zeke Owen, meanwhile, already had a thriving shop in San Diego. But Malone jumped at the chance to take over the legendary shop at 1033 Smith St.
Twenty thousand dollars was a princely sum back then, but it ended up being an incredible bargain. In the past few years, as tattooing has exploded and Sailor Jerry's pinups have come to define vintage skin art, sheets of old Sailor Jerry flash go for up to $5,000 each. (The shop came with a couple hundred). His tattoo machines fetch even more.
Hardy also owns some of the flash, and he championed Sailor Jerry's legacy in the '90s by curating art shows featuring his mentor's work at fancy galleries all over the country.
Sailor Jerry would like that part, the recognition of his work as genuine American folk art, valued by collectors.
Although he was a man of patriotic bluster and conservative opinions, the art always meant more. Jerry was outraged after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and tried to join the Navy — at age 30 — to fight the Japanese. Rejected because of his heart condition, he joined the Merchant Marines instead.
But Collins admired the Japanese as tattooists, who worked by hand, without machines, for doing the amazing conceptual work he aspired to. The "Hori Smoku" moniker that he'd often use to sign his letters to American tattooists was a mix of jest and respect ("Hori," a Japanese honorific, and "Smoku," a nod to his tobacco use).
When the Far East masters would visit Hawaii, gracious host Collins would pick them up from the airport. And the first place he'd take them was the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
In the last decade of his life, Collins wrote letters every day, often accompanied by photos of new work, to tattoo artists all over the world, profoundly influencing the scope of what tattoos could be.
Before the glut of tattoo magazines and conventions, Sailor Jerry created a network among tattoo professionals. The full-back pieces and intricate upper-arm "sleeve" designs so prevalent today grew out of Sailor Jerry's vision to incorporate epic Japanese backgrounds with Western motifs.
At the time of Sailor Jerry's death, there were just more than 500 working tattoo artists in the U.S. Today there are more than 50,000 and they all owe a debt to the master craftsman who operated under the slogan "Good work is not cheap and cheap work is not good."
‘Hori Smoku'When: 9:30 p.m. Sunday, June 13, and Monday, June 14 Where: Alamo Drafthouse: 1120 South Lamar Blvd. Cost: Free. RSVP required at horismokumovie.com/austin_screening