Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry - My Work Speaks For Itself

Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry - Now Available to buy & on Netflix!


California Chronicle Hypes Hori Smoku


California Chronicle

California Chronicle Hypes Hori Smoku

By Robert W. Butler, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Nov. 12--Fun" isn't a word usually associated with documentaries, but "Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry" will leave you grinning like a drunk.

Erich Weiss' film centers on Norman K. Collins, who for half a century ran a tattoo shop in Honolulu where he created images that have entered our visual vocabularies.

Some enthusiasts regard Collins as the best, most influential American tattoo artist ever.

Unfortunately, there's almost no film footage of Collins, aka "Sailor Jerry," who died in the early 1970s. In a weird way, that turned out to be a blessing, because it compelled the filmmaker to throw out an even wider net.

Through the testimony of Collins' friends and enemies (sometimes one and the same, depending upon the stage of his life you're talking about) we learn a fair amount about Collins -- a cantankerous proto-libertarian who could hate with a passion and at one time had a local radio talk show that sounds like early Rush Limbaugh.

The film extensively quotes from Sailor Jerry's profane, bitter, frequently hilarious correspondence. He was like a surly right-wing Garrison Keillor.

Beyond the man himself, "Hori Smoku" (pidgeon English for "Holy Smoke," which gives an idea of the political incorrectness in which the Sailor Jerry legend is steeped) also offers a brief history of classic tattooing.

And in my favorite part of this doc, it provides a riotous look at the heyday of Honolulu as the center of American life in the Pacific (or, more accurately, American lowlife).

Collins joined the Navy in the '20s and fell in love with Hawaii. Upon his discharge, he opened a shop that became legendary for his bad temper (he'd often refuse to work on customers whose attitude or politics he disliked) and his original designs, conceived in an all-American style as iconic and instantly recognizable as that of cartoonist R. Crumb.

"Hori Smoku" is at its best in describing wartime Honolulu, when the streets were teeming with military men who had only a few daylight hours of leave. (There was a complete blackout at night.) The military had carousing down to a science.

First, servicemen descended on the saloons, where each was served the maximum three shots at once. A minute later, they were pushed out to free up space for other customers lined up 20 deep at the bar.

Then there was sex. The prostitutes working in Honolulu's legalized brothels were expected to service 100 soldiers, sailors and Marines every day. We know because the military kept extensive records.

After that, the carousing fighting men were expected to visit a prophylaxis station to check for signs of venereal disease, but many opted instead to spend their remaining hours of freedom being tattooed.

Weiss' film made me wish I could have been there.