Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry:

The Life and Times of American Tattoo Master Norman K. Collins.


Published:

Tattoos have become almost run-of-the-mill these days, but in the early 20th century, they were purely rough-and-tumble, belonging to an underworld of rebels, criminals and sailors.

Honolulu was one of the capitals of that tattoo underworld, thanks in large part to Norman K. Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry, a tattoo artist often regarded as the father of modern-day tattooing, who spent most of his career working in Chinatown.

Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, a documentary about Collins recently released on DVD, explores that tattoo world in high style, using Collins’ experiences to bring the seamy history of Chinatown to irreverent life.

Collins’ rise to prominence, for example, coincided with World War II, when Hotel Street was notorious as the best place for a sailor to get “stewed, screwed and tattooed,” and when Collins was pumping out as many $3 tattoos as humanly possible.

He would later go on to break new creative ground with his tattoo work in the ’60s, fusing classic Americana visuals with the nuance and complexity of Japanese tattoo art, but Collins never lost his pugnacious spark. The grizzled tattoo artists interviewed for the documentary take great pleasure in recounting lurid anecdotes of his many exploits. (One of them involves Jerry throwing an incontinent pet monkey full of tattoo ink at an unfortunate sailor in service dress whites.)

Collins doesn’t always come across as a nice guy—he was apparently a prankster with a sadistic sense of humor and a bit of a bigot to boot—but his larger-than-life personality makes for compelling viewing, and his perspective on the underbelly of Chinatown is one you may not have seen before.

 

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Honolulu Magazine August 2017
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