top of page
  • Writer's pictureHeidi & Gus

Exploring The World of Sailor Jerry Tattoos

Sailor Jerry Tattooing a customer
Sailor Jerry Tattooing a customer
Hello! Here at Baldy and The Fidget, we have always been interested in tattoos as an art form. The history behind Sailor Jerry tattoos, however, we find particularly interesting. So much so that we have decided to write a blog about it!

Welcome to our fascinating journey into the vibrant and captivating realm of Jerry tattoos! Inspired by the timeless artistry of legendary tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins, commonly known as Sailor Jerry, these tattoos have become a popular choice among ink enthusiasts worldwide. In this blog, we will delve into the history, symbolism, and enduring allure of Sailor Jerry tattoos. So, grab a cup of coffee (or tea or whatever your tipple is) and prepare to be intrigued!

Firstly, who is Sailor Jerry?

Sailor Jerry, born on January 14, 1911, was an iconic American tattoo artist who played a significant role in popularising the tattoo art form. His real name was Norman Keith Collins. As a child, he was given the nickname Jerry by his parents, who had a donkey of the same name. The donkey, true to its nature, was a bit of an ass, and so when Collins was young, his parents saddled him with the nickname (feel the love!). The Sailor part would come later, once Norman enlisted in the Navy.

Initially, as a child, Norman hopped freight trains across the country and learned how to tattoo from a man named "Big Mike" from Alaska who taught the hand-pricking method. This is where a tattoo needle is dipped in ink and then poked into the skin dot by dot. This is the traditional way to tattoo and first started in the Bronze Age around 3105 BCE! Tattoos may be even older than this, but due to discovering tattooed mummies in Austria (Ötzi the Iceman, the oldest-known tattooed mummy in the world), Japan and Chile (Chinchorro mummy), this date has set the bar.

In 1927, Norman met tattoo artist Tatts Thomas (real name Gib Thomas) from Chicago who taught him how to use a tattoo machine. He would pay drunks from Skid Row to practice on.

Tatts Thomas


In 1891, inventor Samuel O'Reilly received a patent for a tattooing machine that was based on Thomas Edison’s electric engraving pen. Previously, tattoo artists had been able to perforate the skin about two or three times per second. O'Reilly's device could perforate the skin at an incredible 50 times per second!

O'Reilly Tattoo machine

At the age of 19, Norman enlisted in the United States Navy. During his subsequent travels at sea, he was exposed to the art and imagery of Southeast Asia which heavily influenced his tattoo art. When Norman left the Navy, he settled in Honolulu. Back then, Hawaii was a backwater cluster of islands, but within a few years, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and everything changed. At the height of WWII, over 12 million Americans served in the military and, at any given moment, a large number of them were on shore leave in Honolulu. The circumstances of war fed a cross-section of American men into environments that usually only existed on the fringes – places like Honolulu's Hotel Street, a district comprised almost exclusively of bars, brothels and tattoo parlours. This was where Norman, as Sailor Jerry, built his legacy.

Ironically, Sailor Jerry was deeply influenced by the culture that played a massive part in the war in the first place - the Japanese. The most proficient and sophisticated tattoo artists of the times were the Japanese masters known as Horishi. Horishi refers to the master tattoo artist who is responsible for creating the intricate and detailed designs that adorn the skin in the traditional Japanese tattoo process. The Horishi is a highly respected figure in the tattooing world, recognised not only for their mastery of the craft but also their dedication to preserving the time-honoured techniques of Japanese tattooing.

Horiyoshi III of Yokohama is currently Japan’s preeminent tattoo master and is revered as a living legend to tattoo enthusiasts around the world for his prolific traditional Japanese bodysuits. Born Yoshihito Nakano in 1946, Horiyoshi III started his apprenticeship under the late Yoshitsugu Muramatsu (Horiyoshi I) and in 1971 received the honorary title of “Hori” (meaning “to engrave” or “to carve”) passed down from master to apprentice.

Horiyoshi III

Sailor Jerry became the first Westerner to enter into regular correspondence with the Horishi of his time, sharing techniques and tattoo tracings. Through this collaboration of artistic minds, Jerry began to create his own style of tattooing blending traditional American and Asian tattooing techniques and colour.

He expanded the array of colours available by developing his own pigments, created custom needle formations that embedded pigment with much less trauma to the skin and became one of the first artists to use single-use needles. His tattoo studio was one of the first to even use an autoclave sterilising machine to sterilise his equipment! Sailor Jerry was instrumental in improving the safety of tattoos. He also introduced the use of a natural sea salt solution to further reduce the risk of infection.

Sailor Jerry's tattoos are characterised by a vibrant colour palette, including shades of red, blue, yellow, and green. These colours were carefully chosen to withstand the test of time and remain bold and vibrant for decades. Jerry's meticulous attention to detail ensured that his tattoos stood out and caught the eye. In addition to his tattoo style, Sailor Jerry was also innovative with ink and created his unique purple pigment in the 1940s. He combined red and blue pigments to create a shade of purple that was unlike any other. This purple was Sailor Jerry’s signature colour, and it quickly became a popular choice among many of his customers.

Sailor Jerry's purple colouring tattoos
"I was the first one to start using purple, white, yellow and blue-now they are all trying to do it. Color is here to stay. Good color that is!"

Feb 18, 1971, Sailor Jerry Quote

Traditional American Tattooing:

Sailor Jerry tattoos are well rooted in the traditional American tattoo style, characterised by bold, black outlines, vivid colours, and iconic designs. Jerry drew inspiration from nautical imagery, such as anchors, ships, swallows, and pin-up girls, often incorporating them into his tattoo designs. These timeless motifs continue to be prevalent in tattoos today, serving as a tribute to the rich history of American tattooing.

Symbolism and Meaning:

Every Jerry tattoo tells a story, often imbued with deep symbolism and personal significance.

Anchors, symbolizing stability and strength, are a popular choice among those seeking to represent a steady foundation in their lives.

Swallows, traditionally associated with sailors, signify freedom, loyalty, and safe return home. This "return" symbolism is rooted in two ideas. The first was the swallow's famous migration pattern, always returning home to San Juan Capistrano. Second, it was believed that if a sailor dies at sea, birds carry his soul home to heaven.

Pin-up girls, with their alluring charm, represent femininity and empowerment. The woman inked on a sailor's arm would be the only feminine form he would see for months. Applying his bold, refined style to the pin-up, Sailor Jerry created what could be argued as the world's most iconic pin-up tattoos.

Lady head tattoos are often associated with beauty, femininity, romance, desire, independence, or good luck. They can also represent a heroine, muse, or a lover. Lonely sailors at sea thousands of miles away from their homes would often get these women to remember the loved ones they had left behind. Many of the most popular lady head tattoos depict gypsy women of the European Romany culture, whose travel & nomadism were romanticised as a free way of life.

Snake tattoos represent potency and power. Unlike panthers, which are usually depicted in mid-action, snakes are typically shown coiled and ready to strike, representing a don't-tread-on-me sensibility, thus warding off evil, misfortune and potential brawls. Sailor Jerry's favourite snake to ink was a King Cobra.

Lucky 13 tattoos play part in the long-standing tradition in tattoo culture of celebrating that which others fear (hence the thematic prevalence of things like skulls and knives). Sailor Jerry's Lucky 13 motif is probably the most famous set of tattoo designs that flip a bad luck symbol on its head. The series showcases Jerry's iconic design sense along with his sense of humour.

A sailor staring down a long stint at sea- including the possibility of not returning home-often wanted a heart tattoo to keep his loved ones close. Sometimes these hearts were just images. Other times, they read "Mom" or featured the name of a special girl. Hearts remain one of the most popular tattoos for both sailors and civilians.

Representing the North Star (historically used by sailors for navigation) a nautical star tattoo was believed to keep a sailor on course and help to guide them home.

The Revival of Sailor Jerry's Legacy:

Jerry asked that upon his death, his shop be passed on to his protégés, Don Ed Hardy and Mike Malone (aka Rollo Banks). If neither took the place over, Jerry left instructions it was to be burned to the ground. Malone took possession of the shop and ran it for almost 25 years.

Although Sailor Jerry passed away in 1973, his influence and artistry continued to thrive. His distinctive style has experienced a resurgence in popularity, with many contemporary tattoo artists drawing inspiration from his work. The Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum brand has also played a significant role in preserving his legacy, celebrating his art through collaborations with artists and events.

Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum Bottle

Here at Baldy and The Fidget, we have also been inspired by Jerry and created our Cats With Tats collection. We even have a Jerry Tattoo Cat print!

Sailor Jerry tattoos have developed a very strong following among individuals who appreciate the bold, timeless aesthetic and the fascinating history behind them. Tattoo enthusiasts gather at conventions and events worldwide to showcase their ink, share stories, and celebrate the artistry of Sailor Jerry and his enduring influence.

Finding Your Own Sailor Jerry Tattoo:

If you're considering getting a Jerry tattoo, take your time to explore various designs and find one that resonates with you. Look for a skilled and reputable tattoo artist who specialises in this style. Consultation with the artist is crucial to ensure they understand your vision and can bring it to life. Remember, a tattoo is a permanent form of self-expression, so don't rush the process and enjoy the journey of finding the perfect design. So, if you're considering getting a tattoo that stands the test of time, why not dive into the world of Sailor Jerry tattoos and let your imagination soar?

In Conclusion:

Jerry tattoos represent more than just ink on skin; they embody a rich cultural heritage, artistic mastery, and individual stories. Whether you're drawn to the classic motifs or the personalised adaptations, Jerry tattoos offer an opportunity to carry a piece of history with you wherever you go.

"If a design is good enough, it will find its own buyer. We don't have to sell it."

Jun 28, 1971, Sailor Jerry Quote

Heidi and Gus

bottom of page