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SAILOR JERRY // 110 Years On: How Norman Collins Changed The Art Of Tattooing

As a child you get taught a lot of different lessons. Some are instilled into you early to ensure you never forget. For example; ‘don’t touch fire’, ‘smoking kills’ and of course every mum’s favourite reminder, ‘tattoos are permanent.’ Well, now being 110 years since his birth, so too is the legacy of Norman Collins.

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Deeply entrenched in the history of tattooing, Norman Collins or as he is commonly referred to ‘Sailor Jerry’, has had an incredible impact on what is now referred to as ‘Western Traditional’ or ‘One Point’ tattooing. 

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Setting up shop on Hotel Street, an infamous Honolulu street known for it’s red-light activities, Collins pioneered and mastered the production line technique. By simplifying his designs it ensured that it was achievable to tattoo as many sailors as he possibly could each day.

“What he basically did was strip back a lot of the bullshit,” says Rhys Gordon, a renowned tattoo artist from Sydney. Gordon has worked in over 20 individual studios both here and overseas throughout his three-decade career.

“When you’re making something simplistic, it has to be well thought out.” Rhys says. “It’s a lot easier to draw something ugly than it is beautiful. If you think of an ugly face like a demon or a monster it has a lot of lines and shadowing involved but to do a beautiful face there aren’t as many; there’s the nose, eyes, lips chin bone and some hair.

sailor jerry hysteria

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“He mastered that simplification.”

With simplistic designs that relied more on colour palettes and the intricate style of Collins, Sailor Jerry tattoos have stood up as some of the most prolific and sought after designs worldwide.

“The classics are always going to survive,” says Rhys. “Designs like a black panther, that ‘Mom’ love heart, a classic rose, an anchor, a swallow have all stood the test of time and it’s probably for a multitude of reasons.”

“For a period of time when the resurgence of what you’d call ‘Western Traditional’ came about pre-hipsterism, Sailor Jerry designs were the designs that most people had access to. Books were published on him because he’d become so prolific and well known. That was a springboard for the resurgence in that style.”

If you think of an ugly face like a demon or a monster it has a lot of lines and shadowing involved but to do a beautiful face there aren’t as many; there’s the nose, eyes, lips chin bone and some hair. [Sailor Jerry] mastered that simplification.
[Rhys Gordon]

As well as literature, Norman Collins managed to transcend culture even further with his designs making their way onto alcohol bottles (as Collins is regarded as the founding father of Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum), clothing lines and even the very first episode of ‘The Simpsons’ when Bart gets a Sailor Jerry inspired ‘Mother’ design.

“A lot of people back in those days in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s kids were getting tattooed underage, so a lot of them would get one of those classic tattoo designs that had ‘Mom’ or something in it. That way when they found out about it they wouldn’t go off as much.” 

“That’s just youth,” he laughs. “When you’re younger your thought processes are so much different to when you’ve matured and there is a lot more rebelliousness to it; ‘I’m never gonna cut my hair, I’m gonna listen to metal and wear black forever’ and life takes a toll and things change.”

sailor jerry hysteria

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Outside of designs that have proven to be incredibly influential, Collins also pioneered ‘the sterile chain of events’, by advocating for medical grade sterilisation and single use needles.

“It means there is no cross contamination of needles between one client and the next. A lot of his designs were done in a production line sense because it was mainly done for sailors. If you have a queue of 50 sailors out your door, you’re going to make a lot more money but it is also a lot easier to create infection. But he took tattooing very seriously and helped elevate it to a whole other level.”

Having started tattooing in 1989, Rhys Gordon has definitely been around the scene for a while now and in that time has seen a lot of trends come and go.

One thing he is certain of though, is that Sailor Jerry designs will only further grow in their impact, popularity and influence.

“If you look at it like fashion, the strong remain fashionable while the rest comes around in cycles.” 

“I think his stuff has well and truly stood the test of time and that his legacy will always remain until eventually he is a household name.”

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