There’s a lot going around about sailor tattoos, old school tattoos, Ed Hardy, Sailor Jerry… and a lot of confusion with all that. Who was Sailor Jerry, why does he have a rum, and why should we care?
Sailor Jerry - The Artist
Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins is probably one of the best known tattoo artists in American tattoo history (really, art history) who worked most of his adult life out of Honolulu.
He’s credited with helping spread tattooing into mainstream America outside of just sailors and criminals because of the shear number of sailors he tattooed who were on base in Hawaii who later came back to the continent sporting bright, clean designs. He spoke out against “scab vendors”–old school scratchers–to elevate the industry to an art form. He even briefly hosted a talk to talk about tattoos at a time where they were illegal in most of the United States!
Most importantly, as an innovator, he helped introduce hospital-style sterilization into tattooing to help cut down on risks of infection. He helped create better inks and built upon the patented tattoo machine to get ink into the skin more easily and with less scaring.
Outside of his sweet designs, however, most of this history isn’t talked about. Only older tattoo legends, such as the brilliant Shanghai Kate, are really telling this important part of tattoo history. Everyone else seems to think he’s a brand.
Sailor Jerry - The Corporation
Jerry died in 1973, leaving behind several unfinished tattoos (bummer) as well as his art and tools to his three proteges: husband and wife tattooists Mike “Rollo Banks” Malone and Shanghai Kate and Ed Hardy. That last name sound familiar? It was actually Kate who bought Jerry’s estate with a loan from her grandmother after his death.
All three were Jerry’s apprentices, and Shanghai Kate was in particular was one of the first American female tattoo artists. In the mid-1990’s a Philadelphia tshirt vendor approached her for the rights to put Jerry’s art on shirts. She turned them away, stating: “Jerry dreamt his work would be in museums and on gallery walls, not cheaply made household gear and if I wanted to ‘sell’ him out, why would I need you?”
According to Kate, here’s what happened after that:
[her now-ex] Michael Malone and Ed Hardy basically “sold the rights to Jerry’s name” to this promoter who then took the whole deal to Gyro Advertising. Jerry hated marketing publicity and advertising, so this alone was a violation of his values. What’s more troubling, however, is that this deal is illegal. I was not in the room when the papers were signed, yet it was with my money the estate was initially purchased and I was then co-owner of the estate. It’s like you own a car with your wife but decide to sell it without her knowledge. Can’t be done. Hardy has no right to sell or act in Jerry’s behalf in anyway other than his arrogant declaration that he is.
Eventually, a British liquor company bought the Sailor Jerry Corporation and put out the now famous Sailor Jerry Rum, despite the fact that Jerry himself stopped drinking in his 20’s completely.
Jerry’s widow, Louise, had never been contacted by the Sailor Jerry Corp, nor has she received a dime from them. In fact, she only learned about the brand after spotting a bottle of Sailor Jerry Rum at a bar while out to dinner with her children. Ed Hardy eventually sent her a “complimentary” copy of Sailor Jerry’s flash book after publishing, but that was it–despite the fact that she relies on her children for income.
While strangers fatten their bank accounts, tattooing history is being distorted and Jerry’s family lives in poverty. To show support for this legend and his legacy, boycott the Sailor Jerry Corporation. You can get your own authentic Sailor Jerry merch through Shanghai Kate’s online shop, where 30% of proceeds go to his family and another proportion to telling the real story of the famous American tattooist, Sailor Jerry.