Stewed, screwed and tattooed. Although this may sound like some
revenge grindhouse bill from the 70s this was in fact the supplementary
pleasures enjoyed by the enlisted soldiers of WW2 before they were
shipped from the shores of Hawaii to a shaky fate.
Whereas as booze and girls would fade to a haze of memories the next
morning, it was the ink that remained, and through this that renowned
tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins i.e. Sailor Jerry gained his rep.
Whereas the fleshy canvases bearing pin-up girls, broken hearts and
racial taunts would usually make a for a glossy table book, first time documentary maker Erich Weiss
decided to take these pieces of art and cement them together with
interviews of the men who knew the man and some vintage scenes from war
struck Hawaii to make a colourful three dimensional account of the man
with the needle and the origins of the tattoo laws of America.
Weiss also makes a wise choice to spread the focus of Hori Smoku
towards tattooing during conflict. Although Jerry quite the colourful
character makes (and not just his skin,) there’s only so much of 60
minutes you can endure about him with little footage of the man himself.
A sea of illustrations juxtaposed against tinny footage of nervous,
alive looking young recruits, ladies of the night and cheap bars would
appeal to any hot blooded tattoo enthusiast, and the gruff tones of the
contributing artists that knew and admired Collins add a dimension of
respectful reflection to a time where the art was bloody and a bit more meaningful than your boyfriend’s name in Hindu on your wrist.
To get the appeal in Weiss has left out sizeable chunks of Collin’s personal life, stating in the interview after that nobody would end up liking him.
Even the carefully selected footage that does portray the man doesn’t
fall over itself to keep him in a favourable light. There’s no denying
Sailor Jerry lit the torch for tattooing, but at the same time he was
selfish in that he didn’t he didn’t want to share this revolution of
ink, instead choosing to tantalise those lacking his gift, which was
pretty much everyone.To bring a streak on Sailor Jerry’s true identity
running throughout, readings of his letters to various organisations and
radio stations are read aloud expressing his rather prominent views,
often punctuated with the sort of lexis that would make anyone that
wasn’t used to him whither.
Interestingly for Collins, especially with the attitudes of the time
was his embrace of Japanese technique and style, moving away from his
signature portfolio of girls, ships, devils and weapons to interpret
dragons and geishas as well as a much wider pallet into his designs.
This new found fusion of Eastern and Western design was another revolutionary phase of tattooing
with Collins at the helm, emphasising the dark humoured right winged
genius of this hardened middle aged man. At times you do wonder if an
hour might be a bit long for a doc where there is virtually no
audio-visual evidence of the subject. The footage of a war burdened
Honolulu gets a little repetitive and the sequences of stills does beg
for a little action to assist the voice overs. It’s lucky then that the
contributing interviews are in themselves a detailed insight into
Collin’s personality. Ed Hardy’s is perhaps the most interesting as the
protégé that would eventually surpass him to work in Japan, leaving some
feelings still unresolved but essentially now one of, if not the most
popular tattoo artist in the world. “Crazy” Eddie Funk is just that and
like fellow artist Zeke Owen speaks ruefully of Sailor Jerry and his
This could be considered a tribute to Sailor Jerry but also couldn’t. The risk of relying on interviews by those closest to him is that they will always shine over the bleaker memories. The
perks of this calibre of cast however is they aren’t ashamed to speak
of his faults, his competitiveness and his longing to keep tattooing a
closed art meant solely for the backstreets of tortured towns. The end
package is am impassioned reflection on the origins and evolution of ink
in the US and it’s hell-bent driving force. Weiss strives to portray
every aspect of this with as many mediums as he can access and, although
images of Sailor Jerry are rationed we walk away feeling like we know him.