My trip to Honolulu, in the footsteps of “Sailor Jerry”, the godfather of modern tattoo culture

It was a cold, grey and rainy November day in Paris. Life was good but I couldn’t imagine what was coming next… Suddenly I got this phone call from Marjorie, the French brand ambassador for the Sailor Jerry rum (whom I worked with for the Paris Surf & Skateboard Film Festival’s first edition in September).
After few seconds she asked me: “Hey Guillaume, we’re doing a cool influencer and press trip soon, in order to celebrate what would have been Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins’ 106th birthday, would you like to join our team and a bunch of other cool people from around the globe?”
Me: “Yes of course,” then (me expecting it would be in London or New York, which would be of course awesome) “where is it?”
Marjorie: “Hmm, you’re gonna like it I think… It’s in Hawaii.”
Me: “What?? Let me think… YES OF COURSE!!!”

I couldn’t really believe it. But lo and behold, a few weeks later I got my tickets and all info for what would be one of the greatest trips of my life. From the 12th of January to the 15th, my life was blessed with a magical time out from my everyday life.

This is the story of how I was invited to follow in the footsteps of the legendary tattoo master, Norman Collins, whose creative spirit and value serves as an inspiration to this day. Sailor Jerry had arranged a tour of his most important moments in life in his adopted hometown and resting place: Honolulu, Hawaii.

Text: Guillaume Le Goff
Intro photos: Guillaume Le Goff
Photos: DR James Grant – Sailor Jerry

DAY 1

After a 20+ hour flight trip from Paris to Oahu, Hawaii (with a short stop in San Francisco), here I am, on the other side of the world. It’s almost night, and before joining the crew at our hotel lobby, I’m walking on Waikiki Beach. Yes, THE Waikiki Beach. It’s warm, the waves’ music is in my ears, I’m just walking on this legendary post card cliché. I can’t believe it… It’s also winter here so not so many tourists as expected. It’s quiet, peaceful.
Am I really here?

Back at the Modern Honolulu Hotel, it’s now time to meet everybody and get our first taste of a Sailor Jerry night. After a few well deserved and refreshing piña colada cocktails, we are going out in Chinatown, which is where the nightlife is happening in Honolulu. In the early 1900’s, this part of town is where the American marines and sailors went to get a few days of proper fun, after some long months on the seven seas. Y’know, just your basic mix of alcohol, sex, and tattoos.

This is where Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins decided to settle and to open his tattoo parlour after he retired from the Marines. The starting point of a legendary story that spread towards the world and helped shape what would become modern tattoo culture (and, yes, also rum as we know it).

Our program starts with the screening of Hori Smoku, some delicious local pizzas and yet more cocktails. Hori Smoku is a fascinating documentary dedicated to the life of Norman Collins (1911 – 1973), in addition to the birth of the tattoo culture in America and “how an underground network of artists and fans took inspiration from the East to form a vibrant American folk art that is as recognizable as the Statue of Liberty today“.
A dope film where we can realise how Norman’s path, character and values were unique. As Sailor Jerry explains why they’re inspired by him:

He blazed his own creative path in his life and his art in equal measure […] Norman wasn’t one who was much for peacocking, but his entire story – from his time hopping trains to his stint in the merchant marines to him starting his own tattoo business – was a quest to define a very special identity for himself

After more drinks and talks, the jetlag catches up on us. It’s time to go back to the hotel, as tomorrow’s gonna be a huge day – first a visit to the Punchbowl Cemetery, which is the resting place of Americans marines, and also the location of Norman Collins’ grave. Then, we’ll cross the island up to a place of myth and legend: North Shore, home of worldwide famous surf spots Pipeline and Backdoor at Banzai Beach.
Needless to say I can’t wait and sleep will be short (but intense). Mahalo!

DAY 2

Aloha! Friday, January 13th, 10am.
Yes, it’s getting real in Hawaii: we all jump in the van and head to Punchbowl Cemetery. I feel quite emotional as we’re entering this area. In the US, all marines have the choice to be buried either in Texas, or here in this cemetery in the heart of Oahu. We find Norman Collins’ grave and celebrate his memory with a few rum shots. Rest in peace, man.
On the top, the view of Honolulu is amazing.

Time to hit the road. North Shore is waiting for us! After a one hour drive amongst the pineapple fields and wind turbines with no traffic, we arrive at Waialua Bay, right on time for a local lunch of fresh fish and sea food watered with Sailor Jerry’s fresh cocktails.

Next stop is the legendary Waimea Beach (home of Eddie Haku’s Big Waves contest), such an impressive spot… Of course by this time of year it’s impossible to have a swim there, and even though few surfers are riding, the stream is incomparable, the waves are way too big! How can I describe the feeling that inhabits you, watching this grand show, feet in the sand – it’s just crazy to be here so we make sure to take in every second of it.

Arrived at Banzai Beach, and luckily we happen upon the famous Backdoor Shootout surfing contest happening. Right here, right now! How incredible – the sound of this place, you can instantly feel the unique force of the elements. Having watched this spot so many times on video, to be here, with all the locals, it’s really something, believe me.
We join the crowd on the beach to witness the madness: top level surfers taking HUGE waves and riding tubes after tubes – crazy! Can I stay here forever? I think I could.

Then, back in the van and time to hit the road by the east to go back to Honolulu from the coast road, passing by amazing luxurious mountains and quiet heavenly beaches. Few stops on Waimanalo Bay to catch some waves and fun and here we are again at the Modern Honolulu hotel. The night is growing late, we’re all exhausted – but enchanted – after this long, lovely, and unforgettable day, and after some cocktails in a cool bar downtown, our beds look like the most peaceful place in the whole world. Can’t wait for tomorrow!

DAY 3

Saturday, January 14th – the birthday of Norman Collins!
This third day is another big one. The crew scheduled a visit to Pearl Harbor. The name speaks for itself: a historical spot, full of terrible memories from World War II. This port was the target of the infamous Japanese attack on December 7 1941, where more than 2.300 US marines and civilians lost their lives – scary to think that this place, right here in Honolulu, marks the moment the USA entered the war.

Afterwards we’re visiting the USS Missouri, where, in an epic historical twist, peace was signed in 1944, the final touch to WWII. A visit to Pearl Harbor is a solemn visit in times, and troubled mankind, also very emotional.

Back in Chinatown, the afternoon is dedicated to the history of Norman Collins’ life, and his innovative tattoo art and spirit. Again, the crew does not disappoint: They invited Samantha Sheesley, an art specialist and paper conservator from Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, to explain us everything. She brought original pieces of Norman Collins’ artwork and tells us his story.
It becomes clear to me that Norman was one of a kind – I mean, what a life! No wonder he’s considered the OG father of modern tattoo culture. He brought tattoo art to the next level with his creativity and technique, fueled by his unique character and path in life. Back then, in his Honolulu studio (located just a few streets from where we are right now), he innovated new ways of inking people, with new colors, new formats, mixing old and modern techniques, soon reaching a well deserved success, followed by a national fame that eventually turned international.

Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins forged his own signature style by combining the bold lines and balls-to the-wall attitude of American tattoos with technical sophistication of Asian art. Along the way, he pioneered innovations such as purple ink and medical-grade sterilization.

In front of our very eyes, Samantha takes us inside a wonderful world of truly authentic creativity. Like Norman is quoted saying by the end of his life in 1971: “You must understand the feelings of originating as opposed to imitating”.
Can the message be any clearer? Of course that’s what Sailor Jerry brand did by starting their rum. They were inspired by their favorite tattoo artist, celebrating those who were exemplars of Norman’s values. Thanks so much for all those precious informations and all the great talk Samantha, we learnt so much that day with you.
But the day doesn’t end here. No, what about a getting a flash tattoo at Norman’s studio?

We’re a group of 12 people and of course everyone’s gonna bring home a little souvenir from Hawaii! We go to Old Ironside just a few blocks away, and after a few more drinks, it’s my turn. I’m choosing a classic illustration (‘Aloha’ letters with the famous Diamond Head volcano, a palm tree and a sunshine in the back) from an OG old school Norman Collins sketch.
1, 2, 3 – let’s go!
I’m now the proud owner of a local flash tatoo. Aloha for life.

Last night in Honolulu, lets see how Chinatown is rolling! I mean, at this point, what happens in Hawaii stays in Hawaii right? Let’s just say we went to a karaoke bar, and the SJ crew made sure to keep us hydrated with lots of beers and cocktails, and leave it at that 😉

DAY 4

They had warned us: for our last day in Honolulu, there’s going to be a secret afternoon party somewhere! At this point, what else could we expect? It seemed like we had been in Hawaii for weeks, going by the crazy amount of experiences and dope memories made here.

We have a bit of free time in the morning, so I take this opportunity to go skateboarding at the famous A’ala concrete skatepark in Chinatown. A few trick later I return to the hotel.

We all embark in the van to drive to an awesome modern villa in the the heights of a magnificent neighborhood. Our awesome hosts have prepared yet another unforgettable afternoon for us: chill in an overflowing swimming pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean, fresh drinks, Hawaiian massage, good music and finally, a great local meal as the sun sets front of us.
As if that wasn’t enough, a local band of two is performing classic Hawaiian songs accompanied by a stylish and luminous dancer girl as icing on the already overflowing proverbial cake: what a moment!

Imagine how my heart broke when I heard it was time to go to the airport!
But yes, every dream has its end and it was time to head back home. I said goodbye and thank you to the Sailor Jerry crew and my group of travel companions from all across the world.

DAY 5

I was back in Paris. Had it all been a dream? Was it real? As I look down at my right arm I see the Aloha tattoo.
A hui hou Hawaii, aloha aku oe Sailor Jerry!*
(*A bientôt Hawaii et merci Sailor Jerry!)

BTW: for those who want, please go on my Instagram account (@guillaumelegoff) for more photos from the trip or check #sailorjerryhawaii. Enjoy!

For more Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, watch this trailer:

0 YO!