Sailor Jerry – A History / Inspiration


It’s always so indelibly fascinating to try to untangle the many strands of tattoo culture that is woven into the very fabric of what makes it a modern-day myriad of traditions, geographies and centuries worth of history. Really, it’s influences are endless. And endlessly inspiring.

What is now known as ‘traditional’ American style within the tattoo world – pin ups girls, swallows, anchors, daggers and snakes … all emblazoned with a trademark flush of primary colour and a thick, black handwriting – harks right the way back to the 1700’s. Oh yeah, we’re going there.

As far as the records that exist show, the Victorians had little to no exposure around the tattoo culture. It was only when we, as a nation, began to explore further shores by ship that history shows our first interactions with ink. It was supposedly the men on Captain James Cook’s crew who were the very first to start adorning their skin with mementos of their travels; Japan, China, The Pacific Islands – their traditions all bled into this new sailor aesthetic. The symbology these men chose encapsulated their life and experiences at sea, pretty much setting a new visual vocabulary for what would become the now infamous Sailor style – left untouched and unchanged for 200 years or so.



But when you’re delving into the history of the Sailor-tattoo, one name crops up far more than any other. One name that engulfed all of that history, the stylised effigies, the very real and raw meanings behind the symbology and, by hand, crafted perhaps the most singularly definitive tattoo handwriting of all time. His name was Norman Collins. Or Sailor Jerry, as he become known.

Yeah … you’ve heard of that one, right?

As a child, he hopped night trains around the States, skipping from city to city leaning tattooing from a guy called ‘Big Mike’ in Alaska. First it was the hand-pricking method, but he picked up his first tattoo machine in the 20’s, under the guidance of Tatts Thomas. A servicemen-sailor by trade, Collins got his miles in at sea before settling in Hawaii, his love of the country clear in a huge amount of his work.



He was the first Westerner to learn directly from the Japanese masters, fusing traditional techniques with his American sensibility to brandish his own, unique tattoos. Vivid colour, bold iconography and a timeless ode to craft. No matter how much the tattoo world has transformed, evolved or converged, Sailor Jerry’s influence is inviolate. Pervasive. As permanent as the ink on his skin.

No other tattoo aesthetic has quite stood the test of time quite like it, which is why we’re so damn drawn to it. Whenever we’re searching for new inspiration for a collection, there’s nothing more seductive to the creative palette than a rich narrative and plenty of history. We’ve been delving into the meanings behind some of the most iconic Sailor Jerry flash cards. Do we sense a new capsule collection coming? We think we do …



Swallows –

A swallow tattoo indicated that a sailor had sailed over 5000 miles, but was also associated with ‘return’. Swallows have a specific migration patterns, known widely as ‘homing birds’, always able to find their way back to where they belong. If a sailor were to die at sea, the swallow would carry his soul home.



Anchor –

The ultimate symbol of stability to a sailor, quite literally the most secure object in their life. This is often why you’ll see an anchor tattoo adorned with a banner holding someone’s name – it’s a homage to the person in their life that provides the most steadfast of support.



Pin Ups –

Sexy, sassy and completely unapologetic about it. The pin up girls tattooed on sailors arms were likely the only women these fellas were seeing for months at a time, so became the embodiment of unyielding femininity and the exploration of male fantasy. These chickas have always been seriously hot.



Nautical Star –

A depiction of the North Star, which sailors used to navigate the seas. It’s symbolism, still to this day, roots in helping a sailor find his way home.

Other key Sailor Jerry symbology:

Bottles of booze
Lucky 13
Aloha Monkey

Image Source: Sailor Jerry

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