The art of tattooing dates back thousands of years and spans the entire world. Originally possessing spiritual power amongst the people of the South Pacific, European sailors coopted the practice and began to cover themselves in images precious to them.
Many vintage tattoos depict nautical themes and the sailor’s life.
While tattoos promulgated throughout the world during the period of European colonization, our idea of vintage tattoos in the U.S. was defined by just one man. Norman Keith Collins, later known as Sailor Jerry, was born in Reno, Nevada in 1911.
As a wily youth, he hopped freight trains and traveled all over North America, eventually learning of the art of stick-and-poke tattooing from an Alaska man known as Big Mike. He later met Tatts Thomas in Chicago who introduced him to his latest invention, the tattoo machine.
At 19, he enlisted in the Navy and sailed the Pacific, where he encountered the intricate tattoos of Polynesian people. He later settled in Hawaii where, besides skippering a three-masted ship and playing the saxophone, he set up shop as a tattoo artist.
As more and more U.S. service men stopped in for some original Sailor Jerry ink, people on the mainland began to notice his unique and vibrant images. Besides imparting his own style that consisted primarily of soft fading and looping, cartoonish lines, he also developed his own pigments, making body art more vibrant than it had ever been before.
Classic Sailor Jerry tattoos include pin-up girls, bottles of booze, the ‘Aloha’ monkey, and traditional Hawaiian themes.
Vintage tattoos can take on a huge array of symbolic meaning, but each pays homage to the rich history of tattooing.