Filmmaker Interview: Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry

Watch Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry for free at The Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn on Saturday, August 7, 2010. Click for more information.

Director Erich Weiss talks with Rooftop Films about Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, which explores the rise of American tattoo art through one of its pioneers, the maverick Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins. (Read the Rooftop Films review of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry.)

Rooftop Films: For people finding out about Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry for the first time here, tell us about the movie.

Erich Weiss, director of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry: It’s a loose documentary about the life and times of Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, who’s considered the father of the old school tattoo. It goes into the culture that surrounding World War II and the enlisted men’s lifestyle, harkening back to times when tattooing was in the back alley. As opposed to where it is now, on reality TV.

RF: How did you become interested in the history of tattooing?

EW: “Was I born in a back alley?”

RF: Were you born in a back alley?

EW: No, where I grew up in Philadelphia, a lot of my friends became tattoo artists. I got my first tattoo at 14. At that time, it was a scary thing — everything’s scary to you when you’re 14, but tattoo shops were particularly scary. They weren’t customer friendly. It was usually a big biker or some scary old man working in there and it wasn’t in the best part of town. And there were questionable people walking around. But inside these scary places, you looked on the wall and there was this beautiful artwork. The artwork entailed everything about life: love and death and glory. When you’re a kid, that stuff is fascinating. When you grow up, it’s fascinating.

RF: At a young age, were you aware that there were artists behind what you saw on the walls?

EW: As I looked at all this artwork, I saw that a lot of the stuff that intrigued me was work by Sailor Jerry and a lot of the other old school artists, like Owen Jensen, Tats Thomas, Cap Coleman [who drew with] traditional American bold-line designs. You’d point and someone would say, “That’s a Sailor Jerry.” Part of that reason is that two of his proteges, Don Ed Hardy and Mike Malone, they put out flash books in the late 80s that contained Sailor Jerry’s artwork and that really fired up his myth again.

RF: What is it about Sailor Jerry’s work that made it — and him — so special?

EW: He was a pioneer. He invented new ink colors, he invented purple ink at a time when people thought purple ink would be toxic. He invented steady power supplies for tattoo machines. He invented the bulldog machine, which is a type of tattoo machine. But what he’s really known for is that he was the guy that fused that Japanese aesthetic of telling a story with American content, fusing Japanese style of shading and color usage with the bold-line traditional look of American tattoos. He created a whole new genre of tattooing.

RF: Sailor Jerry passed away in the 1970s, but in the film, you talked to Don Ed Hardy and Mike Malone [aka Rollo Banks] and a number of other legendary artists — who have shunned media in the past. How did you approach filming them?

EW: I wanted to meet all of these guys. It took so long because no one would talk to me. I had to get people to vouch for me, and I think that’s what makes the movie worth while. This is an insular society. If everyone was so open and, “Yeah, come into my tattoo shop with a camera,” it would’ve defeated the purpose.

RF: Why is he “Hori Smoku” Sailor Jerry? What does Hori Smoku mean?

EW: All the Japanese tattoo masters they have a surname or a moniker: Hori. Hori comes from the Japanese “to carve,” so there are these Japanese tattoo masters like Horiyoshi, Horitaka. It’s an honorific. And Jerry, being a product of World War II, being a military man, he’s indoctrinated to hate the Japanese, with Pearl Harbor, with the war, but yet, he corresponded with these Japanese tattoo masters, trading design ideas, ink colors. He really respected the artwork and he wanted to push it forward. But he still had that love-hate thing with the Japanese, so he nicknamed himself Hori Smoku, so when he signed his letters, if a Japanese person read it, with a thick Japanese accent, it would say, “Holy Smoke.” So it was a dig to the Japanese as well as a fake honorific.

RF: Did the Japanese tattoo artists respect Sailor Jerry?

EW: They respected his artwork. He was a complicated guy. He was a complete hellraiser and a prankster and had a sick sense of humor. I don’t know how well that went over with the Japanese. They saw him using colors and techniques that were never used by Americans before. To do this on a shitty side street in Honolulu’s Chinatown, when your canvas is a bunch of wayward sailors and merchant marines, that’s something else!

RF: You got your first tattoo when you were 14. What was it?

EW: I think it was a really corny kanji. It was really bad. It’s covered up now. I broke the rule in covering up the tattoo. Now I don’t think you should cover up tattoos. I like the mistakes. I like those bad ideas. You look on your arm and you’re like, “Man, I was such an asshole!” It’s good reminder.

Watch Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry for free at The Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn on Saturday, August 7, 2010. Click for more information.