Sailor Jerry Lives: Norman Collins’ epic influence on modern-day tattoo culture

Beyond Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, it’s hard to name a guy that’s had more influence on tattoo culture, and the young men and women who continue to push it forward.

Why is Sailor Jerry so pervasive? His work is the rare blend of taste and badassery that can only come from a true original innovating on the fringe of culture.

To celebrate his legacy, we gathered a crew of amazing modern U.S. tattoo artists to explain how they got into the game, and how Sailor Jerry continues to influence it today.

If you walk into a tattoo shop and speak to an artist, they’ve been influenced by Sailor Jerry, either by his style and water-color pallet, or by his technical innovations with needles and mechanics. The artists tell us about how they got into tattooing, and made it their lifestyles, as Norman Collins did years ago, when he invented tattoo culture.

Adam Thompson Paterson, Jersey City Tattoo Co. in Jersey City, NJ: As soon as I first saw tattoos, it seemed like there was potential to do something fun with them. Any thoughts of making it a job came much later—years later. I just wanted them for myself and my friends all wanted me to do them. It was more about just wanting to be tattooed.

Skip Sampson, 1603 Tattoo & Piercing Co. in Tampa, FL: Tattooing as an art form was introduced to me very early in my life around 7 or 8 years old. My mom would give me tattoo magazines to draw pictures from, to keep myself busy, and I have been hooked ever since.

Heath Rave, Speakeasy Custom Tattoo in Chicago, IL: I would say when I was around 14 or so. My first exposure was definitely through punk rock and heavy metal, and in high school I began buying tattoo magazines and using them for reference in art class.

Rob Villacampa, Our Lady of Ink Tattoo in Secaucus, NJ: As long as I could remember tattoos always intrigued me. As I got older I really started to appreciate the challenges of art in general and the possibility of doing it in skin was amazing.

Oliver Pecker, Elm Street Tattoo in Dallas, TX: I started out tattooing as an art form on myself and a few friends just because we wanted tattoos. I’ve always drawn and painted from my earliest memories, and when I was a teenager I started noticing people with tattoos and instantly, bam, I wanted tattoos. It took me about a year before I realized that it was a career opportunity. 

Keith Underwood, Austin Tattoo Company in Austin, TX: I guess when I was a very young teenager I got into tattoos. I was a little criminally minded, and thought tattoos made you look tough.

Andy Hefner, Deluxe Tattoo in Chicago, IL: Through Thrasher Magazine and the band X’s interview in the movie “Decline of Western Civilization.” My childhood dentist was also covered in tattoos. Or that’s what I thought at the time. He could have had, like, four.

Sailor Jerry Flash

Brian Grover, Autonomy Tattoo in Rochester, MN: I grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, so I was always around tattoos. As kids, the types of people that had tattoos looked really cool to us, local tough dudes, that sort of thing. And, of course, through different bands I was exposed, but there weren’t any local shops around so it was very far off from us. It was a very “seedy” thing, which made it even more interesting to us. 

Nick Collela, Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago, IL: Tattooing became interesting to me when I first got into punk rock and Black Flag, seeing all the Tattoo Times really changed it all for me, looking at all the tribal designs from Leo and all the punks tattoos by Bob Roberts was so amazing.

Scott Ferguson, Thick As Thieves Tattoo Parlor in Denver, CO: Tattooing became an interest of mine as far back as the 70’s when I saw an old pinup girl my uncle got during the Korean War. I got super inthralled in tattoo culture during the 80’s as I grew up around the punk scene in Washington D.C. Kids got tattooed in those days to show they were mean. If you had tattoos in those days you were a punk, skin, biker, convict, or a military person with grit in there teeth, and a taste for booze, and blood. 

Becoming a tattoo artist isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle. And it takes tons of dedication. How much? Norman Collins famously turned down a scholarship to Yale so he could continue doing what he loved: pushing tattoo culture forward while putting his signature work on countless people.

Paterson: As soon as I got an apprenticeship, I realized that tattooing was what I wanted to do full-time. I was 28 (2000). I had been messing around with it since ’95 while in college. Tattoing was illegal at the time in NYC.

Sampson: I entered into the industry at 15 years old as client, again with my mother’s support. Then began working around that same shop after school and on weekends answering phones, drawing flash and cleaning. By 18 years old I was given the opportunity by the husband and wife who ran the shop to tattoo. They literally asked me if I “wanted to learn to tattoo.” I haven’t stopped since and that was 20 years ago.

Rave: I was around 20 years old when I realized that tattooing would be me lifelong career. I had been apprenticing for a year at that point, which through the best of luck I had offered me, and the first tattoo I was allowed to do on a friend was the greatest feeling in the world, and I wanted to do nothing else. 

Underwood: I really didnt have any other direction in life, but was hanging out in tattoo shops a lot. I suppose at that age, around 18, all i knew was that i liked hanging out and should figure out a way to make money, so I could keep hanging out.

Grover: My story in tattooing is more one of hustling and less one of persuing some “artistic drive.” The more experienced I became in tattooing and trying to learn things the right way, the more I’ve come to see myself as a tradesman. Again, this lead me to admire our forebearers in tattooing, and through that made me proud to be a part of this tradition. 

Spencer: I love drawing, socializing and makin’ money. I was in love with the environment instantly. It’s not like a career counselor gave it to me as an option. I pursued something that instantly appealed to me along with challenging me. 

Paterson: My styles: All around do-what-the-customer-wants tattooing with a focus on small, traditional tattoos. I also like larger, Japanese-influenced tattoos. Both styles are classic and look good on the skin.

Sampson: My style really developed out of listening to my clients and watching what the older tattoos were doing in the skin. You can say it was developed from experience and observation. A range of tattooers have helped me shape the way I see things, mostly Scott Silvia, Mike Davis, Aaron Cain, Jack Rudy, Ed Hardy, Freddy Corbin, to name a few. And Sailor Jerry, of course. I get influenced everyday by the number of amazing artists. My core of why I do what I do, was from most of the down-to-earth great people who helped shape this industry to what it is now.

From his flash artwork to his well-documented Asian influence, Norman Collins tattoo designs are some of the first that budding artist try out on paper and eventually clients. The artists explain how Collins’ influence is with them every time they pick up a needle.

Pecker: The tattooing I love the most, and what I have tried to specialize in for most of my career, is American Traditional. I learned from Richard Stell. I really feel in love with the American Traditional style primarily from the flash designs of Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins.

Hefner: Jerry designs were the first flash that I saw on shop walls that made me really feel anything. Jerry’s work has a huge influence on what I do—the proper way to execute a tattoo design so it will stand up to whatever life throws at it.

Paterson: First time I saw Jerry’s stuff was the blue flash collection book on “Hardy-Marks.” My friend showed it to me in a bar and told me she wanted a tattoo from it. I didn’t appreciate it until later, after I had worked in a shop. There was no internet at the time, and traditional styles weren’t as popular as they are now. But once you saw one of Jerry’s swallows, that was the only way you wanted them to look.

So the influence was huge. As soon as you saw his tattoos, that’s what you wanted to wear and what you wanted to draw. Less is more, but still well-drawn. His work is a really good example of simple imagery that remains elegant years later. Deceptively elegant. He took imagery that predated him and cleaned it up, made it nicer.

Sailor Jerry Eagle

Sampson: I first heard of Sailor Jerry when I was introduced to the history lessons by Bob Montagna and Bowery Stan and my old mentor Kevin Mckenzie. Listening to them talk about it around the shop and then reading the books and hearing the old timers just talk to me as a “kid” in the industry when I started.

Rave: I learned about Jerry right away in my apprenticeship, even had some classic pin-ups of his put on me at the time that never got finished. I immediately loved and appreciated his work and the fact that he and a few other paved the way for my ability to have an opportunity in this amazing career. His influence as an artist wouldn’t come till later, though, and really started coming through when a friend taught me how to paint with watercolors and it showed me the true beauty of his designs.

Villacampa: Growing up my uncles used to talk about their time in the service and always bring up their tattoos. I took it upon myself to try and learn more about the guys doing tattoos around that time and I always came back to one name: Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins. As an artist it seemed as though Sailor Jerry refused to quit learning and realized once you quit trying there will always be someone to take your place. That always stuck with me.

Underwood: I learned of the Sailor Jerry legacy almost immediately at my apprenticeship. My first teachers, Danise Wolfe and Mike Dalton, respected what came before them and passed that sentiment on to me. Then later in my career I went to work for Mike Malone, who was a student of Sailor Jerry and later bought Sailor Jerry’s shop and entire portfolio from his widow. My education was kicked into super high gear. Most every thing i tattoo is done with the lessons my elders passed on to me in mind.

Collela: The first time I really learned of Jerry’s work was the Sailor Jerry Letters Book that Ed Hardy put out. Wayne Borucki gave me that book. From then on I just wanted to see more and more of Jerry’s work. Jerry made tattoo designs beautiful with out losing any of the toughness that I was drawn to.

Ferguson: I’ve been looking at Norman Collins flash since the first time I stepped into my first shop. The colors and clean bold lines of those tobacco stained flash sheets have always been a HUGE source of inspiration and I’m certain will continue to be. As a tattooer his eagles, panthers, roses, etc. set my mind and hand in motion to build stepping stones to become a real tattooer, putting food on the table and have a hell of a lot of cool stories! His legacy is big in my eyes!

Hefner: The first book that my mentor gave me was a copy of Sailor Jerry Vol. 2. He said, “Read it and draw everything in here.”

Paterson: I don’t think anyone could ever be the same as him. He was tattooing on a super high level and also inventing so much of the gear and tools that we use today. There might be tattoers today who have pushed the art form further, but he was the whole package: He built and designed machines, he developed tattoo ink, and he brought japanese imagery into the American style. Sailor Jerry was a double threat with his mechanical and technical side. He invented needles, machines, colors, drawing styles. Most if not all professional tattooers working today are standing on his shoulders in some way.