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Hori Smoku at NXNE on City News.ca


City News.ca

Hori Smoku at NXNE on City News.ca

NXNE 2009: Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry Director Talks Tats
Wednesday June 17, 2009
Michael Talbot, CityNews.ca

Eric Weiss is a feeling a bit rough when we meet to discuss his enthralling new documentary 'Hori Smoku, Sailor Jerry: The Life of Norman Keith Collins.'

I'm a bit woozy myself, thanks to the complimentary Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum that was served up following a screening of the feature length flick the night before. Weiss' film chronicles a time long before tattooing was part of mainstream popular culture, before there were Sailor Jerry rums and t-shirts, when the only branding was taking place under the youthful flesh of shaky soldiers intent on getting Screwed, Stewed, and Tattooed before facing the horrors of World War II.

It was in those times that Sailor Jerry reigned supreme. Based in Honolulu for most of his life, he set up shop on the notoriously seedy Hotel Street strip and proceeded to paint thousands of living canvasses, becoming one of America's most prolific and revered folk artists along the way.

The film delves into the complexities of Collins' fiercely independent character, utilizing rare archival footage, photographs, and interviews with those who knew him best --- the men he befriended and mentored, many of whom went on to become the tattoo legends of today.

Sailor Jerry created a slew of iconic images in his early years, but he wasn't satisfied with churning out the same old war-time slogans and symbols over and over again. He was always evolving, and truly entered the legendary realms when he boldly began combining Western styles, with those of the Japanese masters he respected despite the rampant racism that pervaded American culture, and Jerry's own personality, during those turbulent times of war.

His love of eastern design, but bigoted attitudes towards the Japanese people is just one of the contradictions that marked his personality. He was also intent on being the best tattoo artist in the world, and had the appropriately sized ego to suit his lofty goals, but at the same time he hated press and the pretension and phoniness he detected in some of his rivals, who actively courted television cameras and reporters.

Weiss spent several years researching Jerry's life and he's certain that the intensely private Collins would be peeved that some brash young kid from Philly had the nerve to make a movie about him.

"He'd hate it," a stocky, ink-stained Weiss smiles. "If he was alive, I probably wouldn't have any teeth in my head right now."

"He just didn't like publicity."
Weiss, who is 36 and got his first tattoo at 14, admits ink culture has changed immensely over the years. You're no longer part of that 'exclusive club' if you have a tattoo, but he notes that the popularization has also served to shatter stigmas and help the artists become legitimized and respected for their unique creations.

"Getting a tattoo was like the ultimate f-you, like 'yeah, I'm gonna be a rebel' - and now it's becoming this sort of symbol of mainstream society - the nursery school teacher has a little heart on her butt," he smiles.

"I think that's one of the reasons why I liked making the movie...because it's kind of like an homage to (the pioneers)...like, hey, this stuff didn't start on a reality show, this beautiful artwork started in some dirty back alley streets, and there's more to the story than that --- there's a whole culture to it."

"This is something that has roots, and has a lineage," he continues. "It's like, you know the Rolling Stones, but how many people know Muddy Waters, and before Muddy Waters, how many people know that...there's something to be said about knowing the roots of things."