Also known as flash, American, or old school designs, Sailor Jerry tattoos have been around for almost a hundred years, never wavering in popularity.
In this article, we’ll get to know the history of these tattoos and unravel the meanings behind the most important designs.
And of course, showcase lots of pictures and ideas for awesome Sailor Jerry tattoos.
The story behind Sailor Jerry tattoos
If you’re not overly familiar with the history of Western tattoo art, you may be surprised to find out that Sailor Jerry was a real person.
The man behind the designs is Norman Collins, an American tattoo artist born in 1911.
Collins’ career as a tattooist began very early when he left his hometown as a teenager to seek adventure. Traveling on freight trains and meeting all kinds of people, he developed a passion for tattooing.
Then, several things happened that propelled Collins towards becoming the best known tattoo artist in modern history.
First, he met Gibb Thomas – another tattoo legend – who taught him how to use a tattoo machine. This opened up a whole lot more room for creativity and helped to refine his technique.
Next, Collins joined the Navy. The life of a sailor meant that he got to travel the world, meeting tattoo artists from other continents and learning very different techniques.
He was particularly influenced by Chinese and Japanese tattoo traditions, allegedly continuing to correspond with Asian tattoo artists even during the conflict between the U.S. and Japan.
By the 1930s, Sailor Jerry had left the Navy and settled in Hawaii, where he opened a tattoo parlor. The arrival of thousands of American soldiers in the 1940s meant that he had plenty of customers.
Because he was primarily tattooing American sailors and soldiers, Sailor Jerry’s tattoos soon reached the U.S. and other parts of the world. As his customers returned home or traveled to different ports, his fame spread.
Sailor Jerry ran the Honolulu tattoo studio until his death in 1973. Never content with what he’d already achieved, he was reportedly always working on improving his technique.
Main features of Sailor Jerry designs
Sailor Jerry tattoos are visually distinctive, with Collins’ signature style remaining largely unchanged over the years.
Overall, the designs are quite simple. The key visual features include a bold, black outline, solid color fill, and no background. Original Sailor Jerry tattoos used a very limited palette, with only three colors: red, yellow, and green.
In his later work, Sailor Jerry began incorporating purple into the designs. In fact, some sources suggest that he invented workable purple tattoo ink.
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The traditional tattoos are also quite small, typically only a few inches in size. Later interpretations of the style became more expansive, sometimes even taking the form of full-back or chest tattoos.
Browsing the designs, you’ll notice a couple of themes that stand out quite clearly among Sailor Jerry’s original portfolio.
For Sailor Jerry, sparrows (or swallows) were references to traditional sailor tattoos. Depending on the exact period and area, the swallow could represent a particular achievement.
For instance, traveling to a specific continent and back, or sailing a certain amount of miles.
They could also symbolize protection. For example, two swallows on the top of the chest would allegedly prevent the sailor from drowning.
Hearts are also a common sight, as are ribbons and lettering – usually spelling a name or a phrase related to the life of a sailor.
The most famous example of this subject matter is the Sailor Jerry mom tattoo. It includes a red heart with a ribbon, reading ‘MOM’ in simple lettering.
You’ll also find plenty of animal themes, with designs often including eagles, snakes, or sharks. Later additions to the style commonly include horses – specifically, the iconic image of Pharaoh’s horses.
Lastly, pin up girls and Hula girls appear as a common theme. Pin ups were popular among soldiers during WWII, and Hula girls reflect Hawaiian influences on Sailor Jerry’s work.
One more term to explain is that of ‘flash tattoos’. This phrase is sometimes used in reference to Sailor Jerry designs and traditional American tattoos in general.
In tattoo terminology, a flash is the opposite of a custom tattoo. Artists create sheets with a dozen or so individual designs, usually sharing a theme or style. Tattoo artists hung them on the walls of their studios to serve as a sort of catalog.
The term allegedly comes from around Sailor Jerry’s time, when tattooing was illegal in many places or at least considered unwelcome.
Tattoo artists would set up in the back of a bar or another venue, with their equipment in a suitcase. This way, in case there was any trouble, they could get away quickly – disappear ‘in a flash’.
Sailor Jerry tattoo designs
There’s no better place to start than a Sailor Jerry anchor tattoo.
The significance of the anchor in Collins’ art is clear – it’s one of the most common, universally recognizable nautical symbols.
The words ‘sink or swim’ refer to independence and being in charge of our lives. If you’re left to sink or swim, it means you are given no help and have to survive on your own.
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In general symbolism, the anchor stands for stability and balance in any given sense. It can also symbolize safety, security, and protection.
Some interpret the symbol as representing a place or a person that ‘grounds’ us, that makes us feel safe and strong.
A traditional Sailor Jerry ship tattoo depicts a full-rigged vessel – with several masts and square sails.
To make the design fuller, waves and clouds are added, sometimes alongside – as in the example above – a setting sun.
Like all the other original Sailor Jerry tattoos, the ship designs are small and simple.
Later adaptations of the design often include larger designs which, though they have more elements, stick to the simple visual style and technique.
Possibly the most popular Sailor Jerry pinup tattoo, this design shows a woman holding the helm (the steering wheel of a ship).
The words ‘steady as she goes’ are included on a ribbon. This is a reference to a nautical phrase, which means that the ship is moving forward steadily and securely.
Though they have a varied and complex symbolism, to Sailor Jerry, eagles represented his vision of an idealized America.
The birds are usually depicted in a dynamic pose as if mid-attack.
Eagle and snake
This classic Sailor Jerry eagle tattoo features a snake, being devoured by the bird.
Traditionally, this design represents conflict, in any way you want to interpret it. It can stand for war in the political sense, a personal battle, a conflict between two people or two sides of one’s personality, or a disagreement of beliefs or ideals.
Note that these particular tattoos stay true to the original Sailor Jerry color palette, using only black, red, yellow, and green.
Though these creatures of legend have plenty of different meanings in various cultures, the Sailor Jerry mermaid tattoo is a reference to the life of a seafarer.
Mermaids feature in many sailing myths and superstitions. Whether they’re providers of comfort or a threat, they are always alluring, fascinating objects of desire.
Sailor Jerry mermaids draw on images of pin up girls. This particular tattoo also carries Hawaiian themes – especially through the background, the flowers, and the mermaid’s dark hair.
Interestingly, in addition to the standard design, here the artist added sailor tattoos (such as the dagger and the skull) to the mermaid’s skin, underlining the nautical connection.
In sailor tattoos, snakes often mean the danger that the sailor can represent. They also serve as protection against treachery and lies. Cobras or rattlesnakes are the most common, usually shown mid-strike.
Although Sailor Jerry flower tattoos are a rarity, floral elements are sometimes incorporated into larger designs – like in the example above.
The red rose is, among other things, a nautical symbol – in reference to the compass ‘rose’ (the lines indicating the cardinal directions).
Sailor Jerry sleeves are not a common sight. The vast majority of the designs created and tattooed by Collins himself were, as we’ve already seen, fairly small.
In Sailor Jerry’s time, sleeves and large tattoos, in general, weren’t popular. Most customers came in for one small flash at a time. Each flash was often significant in some way, for instance as a reminder of certain events or people, or a mark of a specific milestone.
Still, it’s entirely possible to design a Sailor Jerry-style sleeve. One approach is to create a standard sleeve design that follows the general visual style of Sailor Jerry tattoos and includes relevant themes.
This will result in a complete sleeve, a single large piece with no ‘blanks’ in between the elements. It may not be a direct copy of Collins’ designs, but it will make for a great modern homage to the original pieces and the artist.
Another way to complete a Sailor Jerry sleeve is to tattoo a selection of Collins’ original flashes in close proximity along the length of the arm. The end result will look a bit more fragmented than a single large piece, but it will also be more authentic.