Vintage in style, today’s rockabilly tattoos are a combination of sailor tattoos and key elements of ’50s fashion. From the sailors came the anchors, sparrows, stars and pin-up girls, from the prime time of rockabilly music came the ’50s iconic cars, music symbols and ironic red hearts.
While cultures across the world had been decorating their bodies with ink for centuries, in America during the ’50s, having a tattoo was looked down upon. For the rebellious rockabillies of the time though, having a tattoo became a defiant fashion statement that soon turned into a phenomenon.
Girls, cars, and musical symbols and instruments tended to dominate. Women, who were less likely to get tattoos, would wear necklaces with pendants with the same kind of artwork, along with sayings like ‘faith’ or ‘rock’, known as rockabilly tattoo necklaces.
The resurgence of today’s rockabilly tattoos is in no small part to the work of one of the most popular artists of the ’50s – Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins (1911-1973)
Sailor Jerry joined the navy when he was 19 and traveled around the world getting his first tattoos and gaining exposure to tattoo art in Southeast Asia. He opened his first tattoo parlor in Honolulu’s Chinatown, a place where sailors gathered to drink, pay for women and get tattoos.
As sailors were very superstitious, they would look to anything that would indicate that they would come home alive. Over the years signs turned into symbols for luck, safe travel and returning home.
One of the most popular tattoos at the time was the swallow. For sailors it was a potent symbol of returning home safely. As the swallow can’t fly far from land, when a sailor spots one he knows land is close by and therefore home. Not only that but swallows also return home every year, no matter where they are. It’s also a bird that chooses a mate for life and therefore is a symbol of love and loyalty to the family.
Sailor Jerry’s art work rose to popularity almost immediately. Many of his customers were Navy men on short breaks from their difficult life on ship. This meant many of them were rabid drinkers, not looking for fine line work, but wanting something that would get attention and something they could show off to their buddies.
The popularity of Sailor Jerry’s work has continued long after his death and has seen an influx in recent years. The West Coast tattoo style took a lot of these older designs and recolored them with new vibrant inks. Not only that, but after Jerry’s death the royalties of his art went to two of his students, Ed Hardy and Mike Malone. In 1999 they formed the company Sailor Jerry Ltd and used his artwork on just about everything, from clothing to playing cards, purses, even shoes. They also produce Sailor Jerry rum, based on the rum that sailors used to make on board their ships. From retro tattoo work to material goods; Sailor Jerry is everywhere.