In an age of tramp stamps and TLC saturation, it’s hard to imagine a time when tattoos walked hand in hand with the title of 'Badass' along a field of broken dreams and shattered bottles. Erich Weiss can, however, spending over a year documenting stories from legends such as Ed Hardy and Eddie Funk about an even more legendary figure of the tattoo world, Sailor Jerry. The end product is Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, a history lesson which will play during NXNE for all who need it on early tattoo culture and the role Sailor Jerry played. Spending much of his life on the harbours of Hawaii both serving for and inking the navy, Jerry’s style became a unique hybrid, adapting Japanese techniques and applying them to Americana imagery. I met Weiss to talk about his film, the process and role of tattoos in our fucked up culture.
What made you decide to pursue Sailor Jerry’s lore as a subject for a film?
Initially I was asked by a guy named Steve Grasse who did a licensing agreement with the Sailor Jerry estate to go to interview Ed Hardy and Mike Malone to get Sailor Jerry’s story. Obviously Sailor Jerry was a mentor to them so he (Grasse) said go out, film them, just so we have them for record. I came back and said, “Well you know, I could probably make a documentary out of this. Can you give me some money?” to which he said, “A documentary sounds like a great idea. Have fun making it. Only without the money.” So I got a little bit of cash and initially I was going to try to get these interviews done in about three months. I would find someone but they wouldn’t want to talk to me so I would have to find someone to vouch for me, that kind of thing, I had to get a lot of doors pried open for me and I ended up traveling the country for about a year and a half. The adventure itself was pretty awesome. Each one of these guys are a legend in their own right. Everyone I interviewed has had an indelible mark on tattooing. I’m using Jerry not just as a biography but as well to talk about the history of American tattooing. Where it started, because it didn’t start in a mall, well not entirely, it started in arcades, but it didn’t start on TLC. It’s an American folk art, it’s a trade. A lot of people take pride in it. I’m hoping that the movie at least pays respect to that.
What do you think of tattoos overall effects on pop culture?
Everything kind of gets commodified one way or another.
But say sitting alongside with good ol’ rock and roll?
Well you know, it’s all about rebellion. The powers that be will always commodify rebellion but at least if I can get money to make a movie with all my creative input with a good story. All this stuff about Hotel Street? No one really knows about that, to imagine our grandfathers up to that stuff...
I’m sure it’s a pleasant place now.
Well no, actually. We showed the film on Hotel Street and they’re doing a revitalization. It was pretty run down for a while but now it’s gentrifying. But just to think about that, to think about our grandparents, eighteen and nineteen year old guys going off to war and they’ll have about forty-eight hours to lose their virginity, get effed up and have a good time. It’s pretty amazing.
I wanted to ask about that, it seems so strange that tattoos would become part of that trinity of poison. On an impulsive level I can understand the booze and hookers, but why tattoos?
I think we explore that a little bit in the film because it’s that idea, you know, it’s the last hurrah or it’s an amulet of good luck. Most of these guys were going to Japan or the Philippines, this was going to continue going on from Pearl Harbour all the way till Vietnam, the Pacific always had something going on. For all these guys, that was the last port so they just went ape shit.
One of the things you implement in the film which is important about Sailor Jerry, was that not only was he able to craft his own style but also the ability to assimilate other styles and cultures despite being such a... how you say... radical patriot.
I think a social libertarian is a good way to say it. I talk about this all the time with people, you can’t apply today’s kind of norms and look at someone that was a fifty year old man in 1950. That was the way that the world was. It was a segregated world, it was a racist world, that’s how people were. It’s wrong but then again our government doctored people to hate the Japanese. Almost rightfully so, if you lived in Hawaii during Pearl Harbour you would probably hate the Japanese. But with Jerry, he had enough respect for the craft and the art to contact these Hori while still retaining the fuck-you calling himself Hori Smoku. He was just that kind of guy, he had that kind of ego.
Why did these artists decide to take up tattooing? Why use skin as a medium or at least away from regular art?
For a lot of these guys it was just the culture they were in. You could go into the history of sailors and tattooing and it just goes on forever. Cook, Captain Cook, there’s actually a great exhibit in Philadelphia right now about sailors and tattoos, it goes in depth about all of this. It’s an artistic outlet that’s still masculine and still vocational. These artists in trade, like a master carpenter and we’re dealing with bravado and we’re dealing with masculinity. I could never imagine Sailor Jerry in a beret. He did his work on sailors, there’s something to be said about that.
This network you dived into seems to be really loyal, connected over distances around the world.
It was like teams. Very secular. If Jerry didn’t like you? Fuck you. You’re not in my fold y’know? That idea of lineage and respecting your elders those sort of things really held true.
Sounds a bit like a family tree.
Yeah you can see, I tried to share that in the film as well. It keeps going, there is a lineage, that stuff is important.
What is the sentiment towards tattoos today? Kids seemingly getting tattoos for just about whatever?
Actually I’d rather see that.
Rather see that?
Yeah y’know, that shit's fun. I’m not talking about the symbolism, I think people should think about the symbolism of the tattoos you get because there’s a story to that, there’s history. But these tattoos are meant to be goofy, they’re meant to be a fuck-you. I turn on the TV, I don’t want to hear the story of your cat’s feline leukemia.
“I got this flaming horse on a chopper in memory of my second cousin’s removed tonsil.”
You ask any tattoo artist, you know what they think? They want you to give them your money and shut the fuck up.
So no offense to Chewbacca riding a shark.
Shit man, that’s a great tattoo. I’m visualizing it now.
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