My grandfather, a Marine during World War II, returned from service in the Pacific with naked women etched on his Zippo lighter and a pair of bluebirds tattooed on his chest. The exposed beauties received swimsuits some years later, due to my grandmother's pestering, but the bluebirds remained; reminders of his wartime odyssey and desire to return home safely. I never asked where he acquired his tattoos, but it seems likely they were applied at one of the many parlors located amidst the bars and brothels of Honolulu's Hotel Street District. For all I know, Norman Keith Collins, A.K.A. "Sailor Jerry," was responsible for granddad's bluebirds.
Collins is the subject of a documentary film, Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, by first-time director Erich Weiss. Four years in the making, the film examines the life, art, and legacy of Collins, who is considered by many as the father of modern American tattooing. A pioneer in the field, Collins was among the first to fuse Asian and western styles, to experiment with new colors, and to implement sterilization techniques shunned by many of his generation.
Born in 1911, Collins left home in his teens to travel the country. A tough kid, he visited America's industrial cities and ports, drawn to the tattoo parlors located in the shadows of naval bases, slums, penny arcades, and amusement parks. As with many of his generation, he was influenced by Norfolk, Virginia's August "Cap" Coleman, whose tattoos incorporated bold outlines, black shading, solid colors, and other hallmarks of American style tattooing. Later, Collins settled in Chicago and was introduced to tattoo machines while working for Tatts Thomas, an early Chicago tattoo artist. Collins joined the U.S. Navy shortly thereafter and traveled to Asia, where his lifelong admiration for and study of Japanese tattooing began. By the early 1930s, he had established himself in Hawaii, where he operated tattoo parlors until his death in 1973.
In Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, Collins's story, and the story of twentieth-century American tattooing, is primarily told through a series of interviews with Collins's peers and protégés, including Don Ed Hardy, Lyle Tuttle, Bob Roberts, Mike "Rollo Banks" Malone, Zeke Owen, and Philadelphia Eddie Funk. Industry heavyweights and characters all, they made their bones long before the current "black T-shirt generation" of tattoo artists had dirtied their first diapers. Their interwoven anecdotes provide the layman a framework with which to understand what Don Ed Hardy describes as "a secret world; a really subterranean, outsider kind of art."
The tattoo industry's most eloquent ambassador, San Francisco-based artist Don Ed Hardy capably recites the history of tattooing throughout the film, explaining early on that tattoos were a form of individuation for sailors and military men who were otherwise expected to look, act, and live the same as their fellows. Tattoos, he says, are "amuletic," and people select tattoos in order to assume their characteristics. They are "a distillation of everything dramatic about life."
Philadelphia Eddie Funk's stories are less polished, but terribly entertaining and, for me, reminiscent of tales told by some of the old farts my granddad met with each morning at the coffee shop. Some of the stories Eddie briefly recounts involve "working for the tail end" of Al Capone's organization in Chicago, robbing a grocery store to pay for his first tattoo license, and drunkenly plying his trade for the "stewed, screwed, and tattooed" sailors in wartime Honolulu. His pineapple juice story, one of the extras on the DVD, is another gem that is not to be missed. With each of his appearances, I wonder why I haven't yet seen a Philadelphia Eddie Funk documentary.
Tattooing has become big business. The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reported in 2006 that 24 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 are tattooed. The number is even higher, around 36 percent, for those between the ages of 18 and 29. As such, it makes sense that Collins's work has enjoyed renewed interest in recent years. Some might say it has also suffered abuse. The flash (tattoo artwork) that once adorned the walls of Collins's Sailor Jerry tattoo parlor has been licensed for use on T-shirts, shopping bags, Converse sneakers, and, most notably, bottles of Sailor Jerry rum. Likewise, granddad's bluebirds, symbols of the more than ten thousand nautical miles he traveled, can now be seen on the necks, arms, hands, and chests of landlubbers the world over.
William Grant & Sons, the company behind Sailor Jerry rum, (not to mention Glenfiddich, Hendrick's, Stolichnaya, The Balvenie, and other prominent brands) is currently "building" the Sailor Jerry brand by hosting events nationwide, including screenings of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I attended a screening at San Francisco's CELLspace. After several Sailor Jerry rum cocktails, a screening of the film, catered BBQ, and a performance by punk supergroup OFF!, I was left wondering if Norman Keith Collins's importance as an American tattoo master and pioneer had been overstated in order to promote the brand. And that is my only complaint about the film.
Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry is currently being screened around the country. For a list of dates and locations visit horismokumovie.com. The film is out now on DVD.