Their modern-day popularity notwithstanding, there’s still something rebellious about tattoos — their permanence, as well as the intimidating nature of the people who have made it their life’s work to ink folks for a living. Of the latter, “Sailor Jerry” — the subject of director Erich Weiss’ documentary Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry — was, simply put, the best.
Sailor Jerry, born Norman Keith Collins, was a Honolulu-based tattoo artist whose advancements in the technicalities of tattooing and blending of Japanese and American influences helped revolutionize the art form. According to Weiss, the mythology of the man — and the tattooing world he influenced — is a subject well worth immortalizing on film.
“I’ve been getting tattooed since I was about 14, and I remember how damn scary walking into a tattoo shop felt back then,” Weiss said. “It was intimidating and unnerving to say the least. They were dangerous places. The walls were covered with… awesome pictures of a life far from the norm. I loved it. And a lot of [what] I saw as a kid, was drawn by Sailor Jerry, which I’m sure formed a lot of my later ‘artistic’ decisions.”
Sailor Jerry was also an inspiration to many modern day masters of the tattoo trade. In order to best tell a history of American tattooing, Weiss chased down some of Jerry’s disciples, men like Ed Hardy, Zeke Owen, and Philadelphia Eddie Funk. It took Weiss almost three years to gather all the footage, interviews, photos, and ephemera he needed, sending him on a search through sources such as the National Archives and World War II newsreels.
“Tracking down everyone for the interviews was a process all in itself,” Weiss said. “I had to have a lot of people vouch for me just to get my foot in the door, so to say. That really just added to the adventure.” Take Mike Malone, one of several tattoo legends that Weiss tracked down.
“The first time I called him for an interview he basically told me to go to f– myself… but not in that friendly of terms. It took a couple trips to Chicago and guys like Ed Hardy to vouch for me before he was finally convinced, which only made it more worthwhile and important — at least that’s what I think.”
Owen, another tattoo great, was an equally challenging find.
“Zeke took over two years to track down,” Weiss said. “A buddy of mine, tattoo artist Martin LaCasse, helped with finding him and [fellow tattoo artist] Philadelphia Eddie.”
For his interview with Hardy, the man with the most instantly recognizable name of the tattoo greats featured in the film, Weiss went directly to Hardy’s turf — his San Francisco shop, Tattoo City.
“Initially, like everyone else, [Hardy] was hesitant to be interviewed, but after some introductions he was really helpful and could see what my intentions were, and that was to tell a story that was compelling and interesting, but also put tattooing in the context of 20th century America.”
The America that Sailor Jerry captured on the skin of the soldiers who patronized his Honolulu parlor spoke volumes on the realities of wartime culture — a culture which is heavily covered in the documentary.
“I wanted to put Jerry’s work in context, so I really wanted to make sure I covered the realities of [the WWII] time period, especially all that went on at Hotel Street in Honolulu. I think its more humanizing. We think of the “Greatest Generation” — our grandfathers fighting WWII — as old men, but a lot of them were just scared kids, 17, 18 years old, with 48 hours to get ‘stewed, screwed, and tattooed.’ Then it was off to the Pacific Theatre to fight; many of them not to return.”
On the current popularity of tattoos — which has inched them ever closer to the point of normalization — Weiss was less enthused.
“Normalization sucks,” he said. “The world is now full of soccer moms sporting sparrows on their chests… I could go on about the notion of rebellion being commodified, sanitized, etc., but it’s a moot point.”
However, after spending years meditating on the works of the greats and the history of the folk art at large, Weiss did have some advice for those ready to go under the needle for the first time.
“No one wants to hear about your tattoo — especially the tattoo artist doing it. Just shut up, pay up, and be on your way.”
Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry screens at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Monday, October 4 at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 for info. Must be 21+ to attend.