Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry - My Work Speaks For Itself

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


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Interview with Director Erich Weiss

Living in the gritty city of Philadelphia has it perks. A tribe of artists such as Jim Houser, Adam Wallacavage and Paul Romano call it home. Some of the best tattoo artists live here too, having set up shop to a new generation of youth determined to cement their status in life with permanent markings.

Philadelphia is also home to visionary director Erich Weiss, who's first documentary film Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry was recently released on dvd. Known throughout popular culture, Sailor Jerry's work has appeared on clothing, rum bottles and in the skin of millions of people. The luminous documentary sheds a new light on the man behind the flash, through rare interviews, old news clips and lost letters.

What was it about Sailor Jerry that inspired you to commit years of your life in pursuit of documenting his life and art?

All said and done, this project took over 4 years from start to finish. So looking back, yes, there would have to be a pretty good reason to commit so much time and energy. Well, it definitely was covering a topic that I was and still am extremely interested in. I've been getting tattooed since I was about 14 and the characters always fascinated me and situations that I encountered when I entered a tattoo shop... especially as a kid. These places were scary; it wasn't friendly, there were no camera crews or bedazzled clothing lines... just sketchy borderline types in mostly shitty parts of town. Yet in these shops were walls just plastered with these awesome galleries of what really is a kind of original, American/ Outsider folk art. And I think Sailor Jerry is a great example of this -not just in his artwork, but in his character as well... he really is symbolic of a certain time when tattooing was more in tune with skid row than main street; yet the artistry and craft he brought forth was so groundbreaking and exciting that it still inspires today.

By using Sailor Jerry as the anchor for a film, it allowed for us to draw light on the history of tattooing before the TV programs and fashion shows; and show the roots of a trade that in some ways has become so commodified and exploited that much of its original intent, ideology, and well, symbolism, have been lost- or at least heavily diluted.

Can you talk a bit about the process?

In terms of practical process, just gathering content for the film was extremely slow... which I think was to be expected. Most of the people interviewed for the film have been tattooing for more than 40 years... and, like Jerry, were rightfully guarded and extremely hesitant to be interviewed... , as they didn't know me from every other jerk-off looking to get some face time. You don't just walk into someone's shop with a camera and start asking questions. So, I started with people I knew and slowly, doors in this secular world would begin to open. But still, it took a considerable amount of time to get people to actually agree and talk to me; let alone be interviewed. A lot of people vouched for me, and I think, in the end, the true intentions of what we were trying to do could be seen. I remember the first time I called Mike Malone - I think the phone call lasted 38 seconds... ending with him telling me to go fuck myself. But then eventually Hardy and a couple other guys vouched for me and he agreed; without his interviews I don't think this film could ever have been made.

The sheer amount of traveling and information gathering also added to the slowness of the process. I did interviews and went through archive libraries in Chicago, NYC, DC, Maryland, Philly, San Fran, LA, up north in Ukiah... and then of course, Honolulu. I had already cut a rough by the time we got to Honolulu and met Sailor Jerry's son, David. But of course, his insight and archives were so important that we had to go back and re-cut the entire film.

In terms of creative process, well let's just say my liver has seen better days.

Do you think this secrecy has roots in the idea that tattooing is seen is some cultures as ritual and others as signs of criminality?

Perhaps, but it seems in Jerry's case, he just didn't want the government sticking it's nose in his business... he had actually quit tattooing for a bit in the 1950's because of some IRS issues. I think he just didn't want Uncle Sam or really general society to know what kind of cash tattooers were bringing in. Also, he was a firm believer in respecting your teachers and the ideas around lineage and apprenticeship; which the closed nature of tattooing really fostered. You had to earn your way in. Lyle Tuttle told me a story about how at the Pike in Long Beach, there was a tattoo artist that used to make people put a bag over there head and sit in the corner if they came in and started asking questions. A somewhat more subtle approach I guess.

Did you learn anything that surprised you about Sailor Jerry that you learned while making the film?

Jerry was a pretty private guy. He hated the press and hated publicity, so actual media based recordings of the man were pretty hard to find. He was an avid letter writer, and Ed Hardy wrote a book based on these letters, called Sailor Jerry-American Tattoo Master. That was a starting point on gaining some insight, but most of what I gathered was through the oral history of those people that were inspired by or knew Jerry himself. Jerry's "protegees"- Mike Malone, Zeke Owen, and Don Ed Hardy, provided the majority of information; as well as Jerry's semi- contemporaries, like Philadelphia Eddie Funk and Lyle Tuttle. The lore these guys spun about Jerry- from tattooed monkey butts to heart attack inducing purple ink, all added to the charm. He was a complex social chameleon- an autodidactic; self made man who was comfortable both in the hooker-strewn streets of Honolulu's Chinatown or the local Masons' Hall. He spoke Chinese, played the sax, was a vicious and mean spirited practical joker and a Goldwater-style social libertarian.
I think what was most surprising or insightful was listening to tapes of Jerry's radio program. Jerry had a radio program called "Old Ironsides" on KTRG in Honolulu, were he would recite poetry and rant politically- with this deep baritone, super authoritative voice. His son had old reel to reels of the program and when I finally heard them I was blown away... it's one thing to see pictures or hear tall tales, but to listen his actual voice, well, it just feels complete.

How do you think Sailor Jerry would feel about the popularity of his art in popular culture?

I asked the same thing to Ed Hardy- who I think would have an interesting take on a question like that. Ed pretty much said that someone like Jerry, who's life was such a dichotomy, would probably dig the fact that in some aspects tattooing is getting much more respect and is more socially acceptable- I mean, he was a really conservative man. But in other ways he would probably be pretty surly, as a majority of this exploitation of tattoo "culture" has definitely gone a bit overboard in its lack of authenticity. Who knows, its really all conjuncture ... let's face it, tattooing has always been an artistic trade- if don't believe me, well then try walking into any street shop and asking for a free tattoo.

For a first film you've been very successful. Do you have any plans for a future in film? What are you up to these days?

I plan on sleeping for the next month or so. Its winter here on the East Coast and it sucks. Hibernation is not over-rated at all. If you are really bored, you can see upcoming projects at http://wunderhorror.blogspot.com.

Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry is available on DVD at http://www.indiepixfilms.com/. For more information and tour dates, visit http://horismokumovie.com/.