As much as I enjoy Renaissance painters and contemporary fine artists, I can’t leave out the artist who had the most influence on my art career, Norman Collins aka “Sailor Jerry”. His clearly illustrative style depicts simple images of topless pin up girls and silly visual anecdotes that correspond to U.S. military members and their exploits. Before I understood through first hand experience as a Veteran what these images meant I was drawn too the simple color schemes and designs.
When I was younger, I had a rebellious streak and was drawn toward counter culture. Tattooing was a natural attraction for me, I already had plenty of experience doodling skulls and scantily clad women. Here was an art form that embraced exactly what I had been putting on paper and often times at a similar skill level. It wasn’t until I started obsessing over the art form that I realized how deep the actual meaning of these tattoos were.
Tattooing dates back as far as 5000 years. Scientists believe it was used as a means to cure arthritis, the discovery of Ötzi the Iceman is what lead them to this belief. As time progressed tattooing would evolve into colorful decorations and superstitious myths. The wearer of the tattoo was believed to take on the traits of an animal that was put on them, tribes used them as identifiers, and sailors used them to show the places they had been. These myths and the persona attached to the tattoo culture are what captivated me.
Sailor Jerry seemed to embody all these aspects. His designs were tailored from his naval experience and his travels to the Far East. When He opened up shop in Honolulu Hawaii he happened to be at the right place at the right time and was able to capitalize on the sailors looking to earn this right of passage. He was working just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and would go on to tattoo many of the sailors who pass through Hawaii. Sailor Jerry’s style became synonymous with the bravest generation the World has seen, World War II Veterans. Ironically his style originates from traditional Japanese tattoo art, he even corresponded with Japanese Master Tattooers during the war.
Tattooing is unique to other forms of art, in that the art piece dies with with owner. Some extreme collectors have bought the skin off the deceased wearer. How one goes about this I’m sure I don’t want to know. Tattooing is deeply personal and connects not just generations of sailors but millennia of human tradition of being captivated by art. Sailor Jerry’s images are so poignant they are still relevant today and link generations of military personnel. He is truly a legend in every aspect.