Today: April 17, 2024

Director Erich Weiss

Beth Webb talks to first time director Erich Weiss about his documentary feature Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry that was well received…

Beth Webb talks to first time director Erich Weiss about his documentary feature Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry that was well received at The Raindance Film Festival 2010. If you didn’t catch it there, you will have to wait until next year for its theatrical release (TBC).

You talked
about your love for tattoos after the film, what was it that made you want to
take this art form and Sailor Jerry and make it into a documentary, especially
when you had such limited visual background on him?

I was given the
opportunity to interview Mike Malone and Don Ed Hardy (two of Sailor Jerry’s
protégés) on another project, and when I returned from doing that, we realized
that there was a bigger story there. The film isn’t so much about Sailor
Jerry, as it is a primer on American tattooing…where it came from and how it
got to where it is today. Sailor Jerry, being one of the more influential (as
well as interesting) artists of that time, was the perfect catalyst to tell
that complete story. Wow, I really didn’t answer your question there at

What was you approach in terms of story telling?

This was a 3 year process and there really wasn’t a lot of
information about Sailor Jerry out there in the media, and he never did any
interviews. There was only ever one book and so it was just a case of obtaining
all this oral history from these guys and then constructing the story out of
that. The I decided I wanted it to be less about Sailor Jerry and more
tattooing in America because it’s so fascinating when you think about it, I
mean you’ve got these 18 year old kids being shipped off to war and they’ve got
48 hours before they go, and this whole stewed screwed and tattooed, that’s
something my grandfather never told me about.

Did he think tattooing would be this widely accepted?

I think he would have hated that, I mean it’s expressing
life as an artform, but if there was one word for Sailor Jerry he was an
asshole. He definitely would not have liked that there is a TV show about
tattooing now, he would have thought that sucks. Ed Hardy is really the guy who
puclished the work of Sailor Jerry, he’s a total tattoo historian. It’s funny
because Ed was all about making tattooing this art form.

What’s your
personal view on tattooing?

I liked that you would go in a tattoo shop and it was scary,
there was bikers and it was in a bad neighbourhood, it’s not like somewhere
where you someone’s like “how are you?” and you get like a late and shit.
Nowadays it’s soccermoms with sparrows on their arms. I guess everything gets
commodified in a way, it’s bittersweet.

Are there any more film plans or was this a labour of

I’m working on a documentary with a graphic design company
in the states and their historians so we’re trying to work on this story of
fontography. I feel like I’m trying to get more niche so I’ll do this about
font then I’ll probably find something more obscure that no one gives a shit
about and spend 3 more doing that.
It’s a great business plan.

There aren’t many interviews of Sailor Jerry, did you
find it hard to get to know your subject?

He was an avid letter writer, so I had copies of a lot of
letters he sent and I got a lot of personality through that. There were only 8
photos though so it was hard to do an hour long documentary based on that.
Eventually I met up with son and obtained a little bit of 8mm footage and some
radio interviews but other than that I knew it was going to be task because he
was so subversive.

Do you feel like you got to know him a little bit or is
it still a mystery?

He’s definitely a mystery, although there’s a lot of stuff
that didn’t make the cut in the film as I’m sure that would have made him a lot
less likable. I kept away from his personal life for a reason I wanted to focus
more on the mythology of how in his world of sub culture.

Do you
think a viewer with tatts would receive this documentary differently?

The general
reactions from both the tattooed and tattoo-less have been positive.
Sure, I wanted those involved in tattooing to feel that the film was authentic…and
from the reactions I’ve seen, that’s been accomplished. I wanted it to be a
‘tattoo-artist approved’ film that people outside that world could appreciate
as well- thus I focused on a lot of the historical aspects that surrounded the
actual art form. Some of the best compliments have been from tattoo artists
that I respect- stuff like, “This film affirmed why I got into tattooing in the
first place”…that’s a good feeling. Additionally, I’m proud that I had the
opportunity to shine some light on some of the pioneers of tattooing that
today’s artists may not have fully realized or been aware of.

What are
your opinions, if any, on the British tattoo market?

I’m about as Ugly American as they come so forgive
me, but I really don’t know squat about the current UK tattoo scene. Ask me
about old UK artists like George Burchett or someone like that, and I ‘ll give you a dissertation.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website:

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