AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 10, “True Love Forever: Preserving the Legacy of Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins”

Presented by Samantha Sheesley, Paper Conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts

“Good work ain’t cheap and cheap work ain’t good.” This is one of many pearls of wisdom from Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, a colorful man and visionary artist whose unique style (a hybrid of American design and Japanese colors) and innovation (he developed the first non-fugitive purple tattoo ink and designed the magnum needle) made him the most important figure in American tattoo art. The CCAHA recently undertook conservation treatment on Collins’ flash art, acetate stencils, and preliminary drawings, which are currently on exhibition in London.

Collins was a sailor in the Navy and it was while he was stationed in the Pacific that he befriended Japanese tattoo masters and developed his love of tattooing, sailing history, and Asian philosophy. A feature documentary about Sailor Jerry was produced in 2007; Sheesley played the documentary’s trailer as part of her presentation, which I really enjoyed – it was nice to hear Collins speaking in his own voice about his work and to see more images of his art.

Collins longed for the day when tattooing would be respected as art and he was committed to using high-quality materials. His flash art, the drawings posted on the wall of tattoo parlors for customers to choose from, were done with fine inks and watercolors on cotton wove paper; the colors on these drawings remain vibrant and the flash art required little treatment beyond removal of pressure sensitive tape from the back. The acetate stencils, which were used to transfer designs onto the customer’s body, are artifacts of a lost practice, since these stencils are created digitally now. Creating acetate stencils was typically the first task of a tattoo apprentice.  Treatment of the stencils included surface cleaning and mechanical removal of adhesive residue. The preliminary drawings, custom designs, and sketches are crayon and charcoal rubbings and drawings on thin tracing paper.  These were quite fragile and required extensive mending. All of the art was housed in sealed packages for safe travel, storage, and display in preparation for worldwide exhibition.

This project provided many opportunities for outreach, including news articles, exhibitions, presentations, and videos, that connect with a wide range of audiences.  For conservators, Sheesley’s talk was an opportunity to learn more about the art of tattooing – it’s history, technique, and materials. She has also had the chance to speak with tattoo enthusiasts, who are very interested in and knowledgeable about the art, and teach them about conservation treatment and how to care for their designs.

W. Grant & Sons, the company that now owns the Sailor Jerry name (which is used to market a variety of products including a popular spiced rum), recently opened a venue in London called Hotel Street, named after the location of Collins’ tattoo parlor in Honolulu. The Sailor Jerry art is currently on exhibition at Hotel Street and Sheesely traveled to London to speak about the conservation treatment. W. Grant & Sons also has a collection of letters and manuscripts in the Sailor Jerry archives, which will soon make their way to the CCAHA for treatment.