Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry - My Work Speaks For Itself

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Behind The Legend of Sailor Jerry



Rock Band

The creators of the video game Rock Band, which features original Sailor Jerry tattoo designs, interviewed Director Erich Weiss to get the real story on what the tattoo master would have to say about the tattoo world today. Check out the story from their blog:

We hate to break the news, but legendary tattoo artist Sailor Jerry—who created many of the tattoo designs in Rock Band and likely influenced the rest-- didn’t like rock’n’roll music very much. And he liked rock’n’roll people even less. Jerry created many of his designs in the 1930’s and 40’s, and wasn’t pleased when the hippies started wearing them a couple decades later. If you’re a pale-skinned goth type and you went looking for a tattoo from Jerry today, he’d personally beat you up.

So why did Sailor Jerry wind up connected with Rock Band? Because sometimes the original is still the greatest. And there are real-life, tattooed rockers on the Harmonix staff who wouldn’t dream of getting inked with anybody else’s designs. When you think about old-school tattooing—the tough-guy imagery of anchors and skulls, inscribed hearts, tigers and dragons, and well-proportioned women—you’re thinking Sailor Jerry. Though Jerry himself (real name, Norman Collins) died in 1973, his designs are still worn around the world. And despite Jerry’s personal tastes, his images have become an essential part of rock’n’roll culture.

But the designs were born in a much different atmosphere. Himself a sailor, Collins set up camp in Hololulu where he corresponded with tattoo masters from Japan; they traded photos and designs which he incorporated into his work. By World War II he’d set up his parlor in the Chinatown section of Honolulu, the customers were seafaring men who would get “stewed and tattooed” during their furlough (Most tattooists today would forbid you to drink before getting inked; but Sailor Jerry didn’t have that rule). That’s one reason why the tattoos have the kind of dark humor that a sailor might relate to.

“Sailor Jerry did traditional tattoos with the bold lines, the broken hearts and the pinup girls; those iconic images that you really associate with tattooing. They were dark, but they were more the ironic kind of dark,” notes Erich Weiss, a filmmaker who recently wrapped up “Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry,” a documentary on the artist.. Jerry’s humor was also salty as you might expect; some of his designs feature comic-book type characters saying things they couldn’t say in a comic book—or a teen-rated game. “He was big on slogans, lots of double entendres,” Weiss says.

Other designs have secret meanings that a sailor would recognize. Some, for instance, would wear a pig on one foot and a chicken on the other—that meant that the farm animals would help your safe return to land. Sparrows on the chest would represent the number of nautical miles you’ve travelled. A golden dragon would mean you sailed the Asiatic Sea, and a turtle meant that you’d crossed the equator in a submarine.

It was a natural evolution when the original 50’s rock’n’rollers, the greasers and bikers, adopted tattooing; and this was something Sailor Jerry had no problem with. The real shift happened during the 60’s, when tattoos became aligned with the San Francisco hippie culture. At this time a new school of tattoos appeared, coming directly out of the hippie scene: Among the most famous was Greg Irons, a poster artist who worked with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, and who brought the psychedelic flavor into his tattoo designs (though he retained enough of the rougher, Sailor Jerry influence to alienate some of the hippies).One of the biggest names, Lyle Tuttle also started tattooing around this time. With a slightly softer, more accessible sense of design, Tuttle helped to make tattooing respectable; and he did some of the more famous celebrity tattoos—including the one on Cher’s butt.

Sailor Jerry didn’t live long enough to see tattooing become mainstream, and he practically died with his boots on (he had a heart attack while taking his new Harley Davidson on a test run; and succumbed later at home). But he already had mixed feelings about tattoos crossing into pop culture. “He was really anti-hippie, hated the whole movement-- in fact he was a right-wing libertarian,” notes Weiss. “In terms of music, he was more into Chinese opera. So if he was around today, I think he’d have mixed feelings. But he’d be blown away by the level of artistry that’s in tattooing now.”

Most of all though, it was Sailor Jerry’s designs that linked tattooing with the edgier side of life, made them the province of swashbucklers, circus people, and rockers—“a formal rebellion against square society,” as Weiss puts it. That, along with some unique designs, is part of Sailor Jerry’s legacy; and it’s one that your Rock Band character can sport proudly.