Norman Keith Collins: a Legacy in Ink

When it comes to the art of tattooing, one can’t help but think of the originators who took the craft to another level. Thanks to their hard work in creating unique tattoo designs for men and women, it is possible for people today to express themselves through body ink. Now, when talking about tattoo masters, there is one man who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Because of his unrivaled dedication to his vocation, he has made his everlasting stamp in the long and colorful history of tattooing. And up until this very day, his works are considered by many to be the best tattoo designs in the world. He is called Sailor Jerry; a name that has been immortalized deep in the hearts of enthusiasts in Manchester, NH and all around the country.

But who exactly is this legendary figure? Why is he revered by famous tattoo artists today? And what kind of tattoos did Sailor Jerry design? Sit back, relax, and get ready to be introduced to a true pioneer of old school tattooing.

Norman Collins artwork file by Sheena Car under CC BY-ND 2.0 License


Who is Sailor Jerry?

The history of Sailor Jerry is a story that captures the essence of living your life on your own terms. Born on January 14, 1911, Norman Keith Collins was an American boy who dreamt of freedom. Now, the nickname Jerry was given to him by his parents when he was a kid. The story goes that he was named after the family donkey because of his mischievous nature. Throughout his childhood, he never forgot about his dream. So, when he reached his teenage years, he left home and traveled around the country by hitchhiking on trains. It was on this stage of his life where Jerry honed his talent in the craft, creating freehand tattoos and black outlines using only a needle and black ink.

Excursion to the Windy City

During his travels, he found his way to the city of Chicago where his life was changed forever. Here, he met local legend Gib “Tatts” Thomas who helped him further his skills through the use of a tattoo machine. According to popular lore, he paid homeless people through various means to let him practice his free-hand tattoo designs on live human bodies. Despite his passion for the art, his desire to see the world never went away. Because of this, he enlisted in the United States Navy; a perfect option for adventurers like him. And it was here where he gained the name, Sailor Jerry.

Creating a Reputation

After he left the Navy, Sailor Jerry settled in Honolulu where he properly started his career as a tattoo artist. He set up his first parlor at Hotel Street in 1942, where he became known in the community for his old-school tattoo styles. It was here where he developed his signature classic tattoo styles which include cartoon tattoos, nautical tattoos, and sailor tattoos. Despite his status as one of the best in his profession and the fanfare surrounding his work, he still had an insatiable desire to improve his work. And he did just that by regularly corresponding with Japanese tattoo masters to expand his arsenal; an awe-inspiring feat considering that he did this after World War 2. He carried on with his career until being fined by the IRS in the 1950s, which prompted him to close his shop. Regardless of his actions, he continued practicing his craft in secret.

Solidifying His Legacy

In the 1960s, Sailor Jerry went back to the business he loved by opening a new shop at 1033 Smith Street. It was also during this time where he made 2 significant contributions that would change the industry. One of which was to add variety to the color palette of the craft. He accomplished this by partnering with a company to create the world’s first purple ink that would be safe for tattooing. The other was that he pioneered the implementation of single-use needles and the sterilization of tattoo equipment. Aside from his contributions to the craft, Sailor Jerry also pursued other interests. These included acquiring a schooner and providing island tours as well as establishing a radio show on KRTG called Old Ironsides.

Influencing the Next Generation

As one of the true masters of traditional style body art, it’s no surprise that people from cities such as Manchester aspire to learn from Sailor Jerry. Knowing this, he invited several up-and-comers in the early 1970s to work with him. These include Don Ed Hardy, Mike “Rollo Banks” Malone, Kazuo Oguri, and “Tattoo” Zeke Owen; names that have gone on to be known as legendary old-school tattoo artists. Sailor Jerry went on to work with these future icons and further his tattooing legacy until he suffered a fatal heart attack on June 12, 1973. Living life on his own terms, he left specific instructions to burn his shop to the ground if Hardy or Malone wouldn’t purchase the property. Fortunately, Malone acquired the property and ran it for the next 25 years. In the process, he inherited hundreds of Sailor Jerry’s flashes — a collection of sheets containing old school tattoo designs that were valued at a minimum of $2000 each.

As one of the forefathers of traditional tattoo, Sailor Jerry took the discipline to a whole new level. From creating timeless old-fashioned tattoo designs to introducing a safer procedure to the industry, he revolutionized the craft like no other. Because of such achievements, he has contributed to the change of public perception regarding tattoos. What was once frowned upon has become a socially acceptable form of self-expression in the decades after his passing. Undoubtedly, Sailor Jerry has paved the way for countless tattoo artists to follow in his steps and create a legacy on their own terms.

And if you’re looking for a freehand tattoo artist near you who marches to the beat of his own drum, then look no further than NH Custom Tattoo! As the premier body art parlor in the city of Manchester, we specialize in creating customized tattoos for men and women. Whether it’s a color tattoo, a bold black and white tattoo, or even a trash polka-esque design, we can provide you with ink designs that are as awesome as Sailor Jerry’s tattoos. If you’re interested, you can reach us by calling 603-833-3458 or emailing You can also leave us a personal message by filling up the form found on our CONTACT US page. And if you’re from the area, you can visit us at 1338 Hooksett Road (rt28), Hooksett/Manchester, New Hampshire every Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12 PM to 12 AM.

Set an appointment with NH Custom Tattoo to get a beautiful self-expression tattoo today!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *