I recently had the opportunity to visit Honolulu. Though the scenery was beautiful and the weather divine, my most cherished memory was providing a canvas to keep the legacy of a subculture icon alive.
Sailor Jerry is considered among the early elite of electric tattooing in America. Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins fathered the bright and bold, now old-school style of tattoo. Jerry was a rough, unapologetic patriot who was popular for tattooing American sailors during WWII.
After perfecting his craft in Japan—where he adopted the moniker Hori Smoku—Jerry set up his tattoo shop in Oahu during the early 1930s. For over forty years, Jerry carved his legacy in ink and blood at 1033 Smith Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown red light district.
The grittier side of the Hawaiian Islands, Jerry called the location home until his death in 1973.
The legacy of Sailor Jerry’s shop continued for 25 years under the guidance of his friend Mike Malone.
During the 2000s, the historic tattoo landmark was closed. The building was desecrated by many failed businesses, and had even been disguised as a candy shop, used for illegal activity.
In recent years, the shop received a restoration to its former glory by late California tattoo artist Chris Danley. Now dubbed “Old Ironside Tattoo,” the shops current artist, Harisumi, is passing on the legacy of its namesake. And I simply had to be part of it.
Treading the streets of Chinatown, I breathed in the stale spirit of taboo. Around the corner from the old gentleman’s club stood the sacred grounds of 1033 Smith Street. I was finally there.
I simply stared at the painted bricks as though it was a respected war memorial. Gazing through the porthole on the entrance door, I saw walls filled with the restored history of the master’s past. Flash drawings of Sailor Jerry’s original Pin-up girls, wartime relics and obscene cartoons canvased the walls.
I was prepped for a Sailor Jerry drawn pinup by Harisumi and his assistant Megan. As the needles buzzed we discussed the history of the crude temple grounds we sat among.
Harisumi carried a remnant spirit of the master. His salt and pepper hair, thick black glasses and square-pocket jeans gave him an image of symbolism. He was doing God’s work—Harisumi was an acting prophet of Hori Smoku.
We finished the tattoo about two hours later. I felt accomplished. It was not as though this was my first tattoo, but it symbolized honor to me.
The familiar high of freshly produced ink intoxicated me, while my tattoo began to heal in the Hawaii waters.
I took to Facebook that night to reflect on my thoughts:
“…I had the honor of getting tattooed in Hawaii at the same building where Sailor Jerry performed his craft. If there’s an ounce of spirituality left in this jaded non-believer, it sits within moments like that.”