Before there were the intricate designs you see in contemporary tattoos all over the world, there was Sailor Jerry, aka Norman Collins, a tattooist in the mid-20th century who almost single-handedly inspired the modern profession of tattooing.
Husson University students in adjunct instructor Kat Johnson’s mixed media class have used Sailor Jerry’s designs as inspiration for an art installation now on display in Husson’s Robert E. White Gallery. The students created their own designs inspired by Sailor Jerry, whose iconic images of stars, anchors, birds, hearts, ships and pin-up girls helped pave the way for today’s tattooing industry.
Johnson, an artist in the Bangor area, knew she wanted to do a wheatpasting project with her students, a medium she’s long worked in as a regular contributor to the Downtown Bangor Wheatpaste Project. She envisioned each student coming up with their own design, to be printed and wheat pasted on the gallery wall.
With so many designs in one space, she thought it might look like a tattoo sleeve, which is often a mix of interrelated images and designs all tattooed on half or all of a person’s arm.
“As we live in Maine with a strong maritime history, the tattoo idea worked well with our shared culture,” Johnson said. “Immediately Sailor Jerry came to mind. His bold line work and signature value coloring were two strong formal qualities I could teach to the students during the process. These elements combined made Sailor Jerry a perfect fit.”
Tattoo as an art form has its roots in ancient Austronesian people, who developed the original stick-and-poke tattoo method, using a mallet and a piercing implement. In the U.S., however, tattooing got its start in 19th-century army camps and sailing ports, where itinerant tattoo artists would travel and tattoo soldiers, sailors and criminals, with designs meant to symbolize their experiences on the sea, in battle and in jail.
Sailor Jerry’s style came directly out of that tradition — albeit with more polish and refinement — and many of those designs are still popular tattoos that people get today.
“Anchors Aweigh,” the tattoo design installation, will be on display through Dec. 7 in the Robert E. White Gallery in Peabody Hall on the Husson University campus in Bangor.