Like other Polynesians, Hawaiians imported their traditional tattoo art, known as kakau, to the islands. It served them not only for ornamentation and distinction, but to guard their health and spiritual well-being.
Images of lizards, which were greatly respected and feared, and of the Hawaiian crescent fan (Peahi niu) for the highest-ranking members of society, dominated Hawaiian kakau.
Intricate patterns, mimicking woven reeds or other natural forms, graced men’s arms, legs, torso and face. Women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrists and sometimes on their tongue. (PBS)
Queen Kamāmalu had a tattoo applied to her tongue as an expression of her deep grief when her mother-in-law died in the 1820s. Missionary William Ellis watched the procedure, commenting to the queen that she must be undergoing great pain. The queen replied, He eha nui no, he nui roa ra ku‘u aroha. (Great pain indeed, greater is my affection.) (Fullard-Leo)
The designs were applied by specially trained kahuna, experts in one or more critical tasks, who applied pigment to the skin with a needle made from bone, tied to a stick and struck by a mallet.
Traditional designs varied widely, according to available records, but many memorialized fallen chiefs, leaders or family members. The process was guarded with great secrecy and all implements were destroyed after use, according to the dictates of kapu. (PBS)
Fast forward to modern tattooing … some suggest the history of tattooing can be divided into two periods, before Sailor Jerry (BSJ) and after Sailor Jerry (ASJ). That’s how important he was to the development of tattooing. (Levy)
Born on January 14, 1911 in Reno, Nevada, Norman Keith Collins first took the nickname ‘Jerry’ (apparently given to him after his father noticed a similar disposition between the young troublemaker and the family’s cantankerous mule).
He eventually landed in Chicago and two things happened that changed his life. One, he hooked up with local tattoo legend, Gib ‘Tatts’ Thomas, who taught him to use a tattoo machine. (For practice, he paid bums with cheap wine or a few cents to let him tattoo them). Then, at 19, he joined the Navy and he became known as Sailor Jerry.
When Collins mustered out of the Navy, he settled in Honolulu. Within a few years, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and everything changed.
At the height of WWII, over 12 million Americans served in the military and, at any given moment, a large number of them were on shore leave in Honolulu.
The circumstances of war fed a cross-section of American men into environments that usually only existed on the fringes – places like Honolulu’s Hotel Street, a district comprised almost exclusively of bars, brothels and tattoo parlors. This was where Collins, as Sailor Jerry, built his legacy. (Sailor Jerry)
Although Jerry was world famous for his tattooing, he had other interests. The sea was always a part of his life and while holding Captain’s papers in the 1950s; he skippered a tour ship that covered the Pearl Harbor memorial.
His study of electronics led to a first class FCC license, and for several years he hosted a late night talk show on a local radio station. On that show he was known as “Old Ironsides”, another reflection on his interest in the sea. (Tattoo Archive)
He taught himself to be an electrician, which helped him innovate his tattoo machines. He played in a jazz band. He toured around in a canary yellow Thunderbird and he was out on his Harley when he had the heart attack that would take his life (after collapsing in a cold sweat, he got back on his bike and rode home). (Sailor Jerry)
Sailor Jerry built a reputation for quality work, which attracted customers in spite of the cost. He is credited with the invention of the magnum tattoo needle, used to apply broad strokes of color to the skin, as well as an improved tattoo-machine construction, whose smooth operation resulted in greater detail and less pain for the sitter.
He was the first tattoo artist to find and use a purple ink that was not fugitive or toxic. During a time when trade secrets were guarded, he befriended the most talented tattoo artists in the world, corresponding only with those whom he tested and deemed worthy of his attention.
His studies culminated in a style that combined the bold colors and designs seen in Japanese tattoos with iconic Americana imagery.
Sailor Jerry, who longed for the day when tattooing would be seen as fine art, would be pleased to learn that his flash, stencils, rubbings, and sketches underwent full conservation treatment at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts. (Sheesley)
Norman Keith Collins ‘Sailor Jerry’ died June 12, 1973 and is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
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