Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand remembers her mentor.
“Sailor Jerry” Norman Keith Collins was possibly the most accomplished American tattoo master to his time: inventor, innovator, rogue, true renaissance man. He defined his craft in two eras: BSJ and ASJ (before and after Sailor Jerry).
He did more for the ancient art of tattoo than any other single person. He searched for (and found) pigments that were safe to use, expanding the tattooist’s pallet from the three of four colors previously available to an array as vibrant as the rainbows that arched over his Hawaii home.
He created better power sources, machines and needle configurations that would coax pigments into the skin without trauma.
Most importantly, he spearheaded the introduction of single-service products and hospital-style sterilization into the business to prevent the spread of blood-borne pathogens into tattoo shops.
He fought a legendary and often humorous war with “scab vendors” (tattoo artists of shallow skill and suspect motives). He set standards of execution and quality that remain the hallmark of the industry.
Sailor Jerry was an avid proponent of the art of tattoo, as a staunch conservative, often rankled his community-at-large with his stern demands for respect. He caused a furor when he doubled his fee from $25 to $50 an hour, and celebrated when his angered clients swallowed their pride and returned for more work at his new rates.
He rode his baby-blue Harley Davidson motorcycle with sidecar until his last days.
He pursued his many hobbies to the professional level. He was a talk-show host, a master seaman, a dance-band saxophonist. He was an innovator, a jokester, a genius. He was not always easy to love but always worth your respect.
In 1972, I was invited to be one of the seven artists at what was to be the first international tattoo convention in Hawaii, hosted by Sailor Jerry Collins. He dubbed us “The Council of the Seven.”
The council lasted approximately one week. When the other attendees left, I remained behind with Jerry to work for another several weeks. Although I had only begun my tattoo career, Jerry opened his home and shop to me, requiring that I work from 3 p.m. to closing (usually around 10:00 p.m.), just as he’d demanded of a regular (i.e. male) apprentice.
Sailor Jerry disliked the many newcomers in the business and was even less tolerant of women of any age coming into it. Yet, when I arrived at his door for this landmark council, I was welcomed wholeheartedly.
I learned many things from Jerry during this short time but nothing more important than how a tattoo artist should think about the art and their place in it.
Jerry was notorious at fending off disrespectful or irritating customers. He was a master at shop talk, whether he was dealing with a drunk marine or shy college coed. He was an imposing man with little tolerance for fakery and falseness. He suffered no fools.
Jerry was intelligent and street smart. He could curse like the sailor he was, and could seduce like a Shakespearian actor, his mellifluous voice rolling like distant thunder.
He was happy living an isolated life in Hawaii where his primary clientele was the young military personnel stationed there. He was a prolific tattoo artist, working nonstop during military paydays in his tiny downtown Honolulu shop. When the military business slowed down between paydays, Jerry worked on the locals, concentrating on the young women of the islands.
Jerry had demanding and diverse interests which he invariably pursued to the professional level. He played saxophone with his own dance band, he piloted boatloads of tourists around Waikiki as the only licensed skipper of a huge, three-masted schooner moored in the Honolulu harbor.
He had a late-night radio talk show wherein he lectured against the impending (as he saw it) downfall of the American political system by infiltration of liberals. He was a prolific writer and carried on in-depth communications with many pen-pals throughout the world.
Jerry was a consummate practical joker of incomparable magnitude. Often, the entire city of Honolulu would have to halt “business as usual” because of one of his pranks.
One favorite was the time he strapped a giant salami and two hairy coconuts just below the golden belt on the revered statue of King Kamehameha, right before the beginning of the King Kamehameha Day parade.
Floats, marching bands, majorettes, and dignitaries had to stand in the hot Hawaiian sun until workers could find a ladder large enough to scramble up and cut down the offending pornographic appendages.
He was never found out for his many elaborate escapades.
At the shop, he was constantly innovating. He found better power sources, manufactured new machine frame configurations, invented needle setups.
He sought out and found color pigments that were nontoxic and safe. To ensure their safety he would tattoo these discoveries into his lower legs. If the colors reacted, he’d dig them out and try the next batch.
When a tooth gave him trouble, he took a hammer and chopstick and knocked out the offender with a solid whack.
He cured his own skin cancer by tattooing prescription medicines meant to be taken internally directly onto the malignant areas.
I cleaned the shop, set up his station before his next project. I checked the points of his needles, filled and emptied the autoclave, and bagged and stored the equipment in his desiccator.
I listened. I watched. I bantered with customers, sitting in the sultry tropical shop, the air carrying the fragrance of teriyaki sauce, the customers smelling like coconuts. I did what an “old-school” apprentice did.
His teaching was covert. If I couldn’t devise what he was doing by watching, I would have to hint and wait for an answer. Ours was a verbal dance. Had I appeared any more eager, the flow of information would have stopped immediately.
Asking any overt questions was forbidden.
My gender was a course of constant flirtation on his part. Whenever a young woman came into the shop, Jerry would look over at me and wink. And then he would begin to do what no other tattoo artist had yet accomplished – he’d do single-needle, tiny,highly detailed, full color designs on her hip or abdominal area.
He wasn’t concerned that he was inventing a style of tattooing, which he dubbed “Feminigraphics.” He was more excited that he could, at his age, still look at young women, embellish their bodies and possibly get a snapshot afterwards for his photo albums.
“I’ve never had it so good,” he wrote, describing his latest project in a letter to me in 1973.
“These pretty young girls are going to make a dirty old man out of me yet.”
His letters to me were disclosures of matters of his heart, disappointments, emotional attachments, interspersed with technical data and gossip about the tattoo scene in Hawaii.
I was the least likely candidate for this kind of relationship with him. I respected the two things he disliked the most in tattooers: youthful inexperience and being female. However, his real nature overrode his prejudices. His gifts to me were of generosity, patience, friendship, and understanding. He was a teacher, a role model, a rascal, an innovator, and a legend.
When Sailor Jerry died in 1973, I was living in San Diego. After I got the phone call, I drove to the beach and watched the Pacific Ocean roll in and out at my feet. Hours later, I went home, called my Grandmother and borrowed the money to make a down payment on his shop and its contents.
Over the years, I have wondered at my good fortune to be placed in the company of one of the greatest legends in the tattoo field. I have no answers.
However, my memories of those days are vivid and I gratefully own a portion of his shop which I now am pleased to present to his many fans for purchase.
Thanks Jerry for teaching me a lifetime of lessons in a few brief weeks.