Chapter One Tattoo

The Ultimate Guide to Sailor Jerry Tattoos

Sailor Jerry tattoos are one of the most popular and highly recognizable styles of tattoo seen nationwide. If you know what to look for, you’re pretty much guaranteed to spot one while walking around in just about any city in the US. Sailor Jerry pioneered the American traditional tattoo style and revolutionized the American tattoo industry. With their bold black outlines and limited color palette, Sailor Jerry inspired American traditional tattoos are the essence of the early American body ink counterculture movement. Historically seen on US sailors and military men, Sailor Jerry tattoos can now be seen on a wide variety of different people across the country. With the growing popularity and acceptance of tattoos, a Sailor Jerry traditional tattoo may be the perfect choice for your first, or next, piece. 

Chapter One Tattoo in San Diego is nationally recognized for extraordinary custom tattoos, and an exceptional customer experience, and is one of the premier destinations for Sailor Jerry-inspired tattoos. With a wide variety of artists that specialize in American traditional artwork, Chapter One is the go-to spot for high quality Sailor Jerry tattoos.


The Origins and Legacy of Sailor Jerry

Sailor Jerry is arguably the most influential artist to the American traditional style of tattooing. At his original tattoo shop on Hotel Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown, Sailor Jerry produced a variety of the most well known and iconic American traditional tattoos. At the height of the US’s involvement in WWII, countless Navy sailors adorned their bodies with Sailor Jerry’s quintessential pieces, which helped to spread their popularity and change the culture of tattooing forever.

Who was Sailor Jerry? Exploring the life and work of Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins

Sailor Jerry, born Norman Collins in 1911, spent the bulk of his childhood in Northern California. As a young man, Collins took to the rails and traveled across the country by train hopping. Along the way, he started practicing his craft by performing stick-and-poke style tattoos on those he traveled with. 

By the late 1920s, Collins found himself in Chicago where he became close with local tattoo legend Gib “Tatts” Thomas. Thomas taught Collins the ins and outs of the tattoo machine, allowing him to further practice and perfect his craft. 

From Chicago, Collins enlisted in the US Navy so he could sail across the seas and experience more of the world. While in the Navy, Collins developed a life-long love of ships, which later influenced his unique style of tattooing. Collins’ time in the Navy also allowed him to see the styles of tattoos present in Japan and Southeast Asia at the time, which helped him further develop the iconic style he would soon come to pioneer back in the US. 

After serving his time in the Navy, Collins settled down in Honolulu. A few years later, while he was opening up his first tattoo shop on Hotel Street, the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred. This turned the once backwater town of Honolulu into a hustling and bustling point of shore leave for millions of American servicemen.

It was here that Collins became Sailor Jerry. With the influx of young, gungho sailors looking for excitement before shipping off to war, Sailor Jerry provided countless young men with body ink that reflected their bold and swaggering attitudes.

Sailor Jerry spent the remainder of his life in Honolulu providing people with tattoos in his unique American traditional style. When he wasn’t tattooing, he was sailing and enjoying the open ocean that he had come to love and appreciate. His legacy lives on, with his distinctive tattoo style and designs still being built upon and reproduced to this day.

The Traditional American Tattoo Style: Key characteristics and influences

Sailor Jerry’s unique style of Traditional American tattoos can be defined by key characteristics and influences. Some of their key characteristics include:

  • Bold, black outlines
  • Vibrant green, yellow, and red shading
  • Nautical themes

As previously mentioned, Sailor Jerry drew inspiration from the tattoos he saw in Japan and Southeast Asia during his time spent in the Navy. He incorporated elements of traditional Japanese designs into his style, while still maintaining the influences he drew from his time spent working with Tatts Thomas in Chicago. With both of these influences, and his love for all things nautical, Sailor Jerry perfected the style that is known today as American traditional.

Iconic Sailor Jerry Designs and Symbolism

Primarily centered around nautical themes and the vices of sailors at the time, Sailor Jerry’s iconic designs are at the heart of the American traditional style of tattooing. From clipper ships and anchors to liquor bottles and pin-up girls, Sailor Jerry created a multitude of designs that are still popular today – each with their own unique meaning and symbolism.

Classic Sailor Jerry motifs: Anchors, swallows, pin-up girls, and more

Although Sailor Jerry’s catalog of designs is extensive, there are a few iconic pieces that serve to capture his style and ethos. Some of these stand out designs include:


  • Ships
  • Anchors
  • Swallows
  • Pin-up girls
  • Lady heads
  • Sharks
  • Dragons
  • Skulls
  • Military images
  • Snakes
  • Panthers
  • Lucky 13
  • Eagles
  • Hearts
  • Nautical stars

The Meaning behind the Ink: Symbolism and stories in Sailor Jerry tattoos

Sailor Jerry drew from his life experiences and influences to give each of his designs a unique meaning. Although tattoos can take on their own meaning for each individual that chooses to get one, Sailor Jerry’s tattoos were designed with a specific symbolism in mind. Some of the meanings behind popular Sailor Jerry tattoos include:

  • Ships
    • Ships represent both the call to adventure and the determination to return home. They are both practical and metaphorical, as many sailors that got these pieces worked on ships but also used them as a way to see the world.
  • Anchors
    • Anchors serve as a reminder of what keeps you steady. They depict the most secure object in a sailor’s life, and are often adorned with “mom” or the name of a loved one that keeps the person grounded. 
  • Swallows
    • Swallows can represent a variety of different things. Most commonly, swallows represent the idea of returning home. Given that they are land-based birds, their presence would often signal to sailors that they were close to shore. Swallows can also indicate that someone has sailed over 5000 miles, as well as represent the idea that they carry the souls of those lost at sea to heaven. 
  • Pin-up girls
    • Pin-up girls represent both extremes of femininity – from womanly perfection to vixen-like temptation. Oftentimes sailors would go months at sea without seeing a woman, so these bold and iconic designs served as a reminder of what was waiting for them back home.

Sailor Jerry Tattoos FAQs

Who is Sailor Jerry?

  • Sailor Jerry, born Norman Collins, is one of the most influential artists to the American traditional style of tattooing. His iconic use of bold, black outlines, vibrant green, yellow, and red shading, and nautical themes have helped to define the popular American traditional style. 


What do Sailor Jerry tattoos mean?

  • Sailor Jerry tattoos have a wide variety of meanings. Sailor Jerry designed each of his pieces with a specific underlying symbolism. From ideas of adventure to the desire to return home, each Sailor jerry design carries its own unique meaning. That being said, tattoos often take on new meaning depending on an individual’s motivation for getting a specific image. While Sailor Jerry’s designs have their underlying symbolism, you’re free to assign whatever meaning you want to your personal tattoos.

Chapter One Tattoo: Your Destination for Authentic Sailor Jerry Tattoos in San Diego

If a Sailor Jerry tattoo is what you’re looking for, then Chapter One is the place for you. Chapter One Tattoo is one of San Diego’s highest rated and most trusted shops and is home to multiple resident artists that specialize specifically in American traditional tattoos. Our artists’ portfolios are available on our website so you can find the tattoo artist that best suits your needs.

Experience and Expertise: Meet the skilled artists at Chapter One Tattoo

While all of our artists are highly trained and capable of producing Sailor Jerry tattoos, here are a few that specialize in this style specifically:

  • Colton James Phillips
  • Gary Dunn
  • Dante Brooke
  • Tiff Saxey

San Diego’s Vibrant Tattoo Scene: Why choose Chapter One Tattoo for Sailor Jerry-inspired ink?

With countless tattoo shops in San Diego, what makes Chapter One Tattoo stand out from the rest? For starters, Chapter One’s founder and owner, Cash Scott, is one of the most well known and renowned artists in San Diego. He is both respected and admired for his abilities in the tattooing community. Secondly, Scott founded Chapter One with the customer in mind. He had seen how intimidating tattoo shops could be for first time customers, so when it came time for him to open his own parlor he wanted to create a space that was warm, inviting, clean, and modern. Chapter One is exactly this, with its brightly lit and open floor plan that places all the focus on the amazing art present within its walls. There’s no denying that tattoo shops can be cliquey and off-putting. Chapter One Tattoo aims to provide a space for customers that makes everyone feel like they are welcome. Getting a tattoo is a big life decision, you deserve to feel comfortable all throughout the process.

Designing Your Sailor Jerry Tattoo

Sailor Jerry tattoo flash sheets are available in just about every tattoo shop. You can pick from a wide range of designs reproduced in his iconic style. If you’re looking to add personal touches and enhance the meaning of your Sailor Jerry tattoo, then Chapter One is the right shop for you. We pride ourselves on providing the highest quality custom tattoos possible.

Collaborative Process: Working with Chapter One Tattoo’s artists to create a custom design

The first step in the process of designing your Sailor Jerry tattoo is to figure out what image you’re looking for. Once you’ve settled on an image, think about what aspects you want to change or add to the piece to make it your own custom tattoo. Once you have a solid idea in your head, reach out to one of our artists to set up a consultation meeting. At this meeting, you can discuss your design ideas and work collaboratively with our highly professional artists to come up with a design that is American traditional in style, but still uniquely your own.

Choosing the Right Placement: Exploring popular body areas for Sailor Jerry tattoos

Sailor Jerry tattoos can look great just about anywhere on the body. Placement really comes down to client preference. Some things to consider when exploring placement options are:

  • Visibility – Do you want your tattoo always showing, or do you want the option to cover it with clothing?
  • Size – How big do you want your tattoo to be? Will the size you’re looking for realistically fit in the location you want it?
  • Future tattoos – Will you be able to fit other tattoos near the location you’re choosing? How will this location affect future tattoo placement?

Taking these points into consideration, some of the most popular placement locations for Sailor Jerry tattoos include:

  • Forearm
  • Bicep
  • Shoulder
  • Calf
  • Leg
  • Chest

Embrace the Timeless Tradition: Get Your Sailor Jerry Tattoo at Chapter One Tattoo in San Diego

Sailor Jerry tattoos are timeless pieces that embody the soul of American traditional tattooing. They are as prominent and popular now as they were when Norman Collins first set up his shop in Honolulu during WWII. If you’re looking for a piece that is bold, a Sailor Jerry tattoo might just be the perfect choice for you. If you’re looking for a tattoo shop that is top rated, highly professional, clean and welcoming, then Chapter One Tattoo is definitely the right choice. Feel free to check out our website and reach out to any artists whose work catches your eye, or come down to the shop and meet our amazing team in person. Walk-ins are always welcome. Make your Sailor Jerry dream design a reality, come down to Chapter One Tattoo today.