By Michael Corcoran
Imagine if there was a company making Babe Ruth rum and Babe Ruth clothing and Babe Ruth iPhone covers and using iconic images of the baseball legend in all sorts of manners. Much wealth is built on dead cash cows- it’s the capitalist American way. But what if the family of Babe Ruth was never contacted before the market became flooded with images of their husband or father? What if they never received a dime?
Sailor Jerry Collins is to tattooing what Babe Ruth is to baseball, a giant in the field who’s become the embodiment of “old school.” He was certainly a mythic figure in my young adulthood of the mid-1970’s after I came under the influence of Mike Malone and Kate Hellenbrand, the couple who bought Sailor Jerry’s shop in 1973, after Collins died at age 62 from a heart attack. A true American patriot, who tried to re-enlist at age 30 after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, but was turned down because of a heart condition, Sailor Jerry hated the Japanese for what they’d done on that December morning. But he also had a passion for Far Eastern art and philosophy, revolutionizing tattooing in the 1960’s by adapting the traditional Japanese tattoo art form to Western motifs. Before Jerry, “tattoo artist” was considered an oxymoron in most circles. This was carny stuff.
Sailor Jerry was among the first to document his tattoos by taking photographs, among the first to market tattooing to women. His clientele was about 90% military men- and he created the macho “decal” designs that would send them off to war a little braver- but he also tattooed elaborate, conceptual back pieces and sleeves, which made him the mentor for next generation tattooists Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven, Michael Malone and Zeke Owen. In the year Sailor Jerry died there were maybe 500 tattoo artists in the world. In 2014, there are at least 500 in Central Texas.
“In the beginning there was Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins, father of the old-school American tattoo. Then a clothing company was created to protect and sustain his legacy,” say the first sentences in a recent press release announcing that Iggy Pop was now part of the Sailor Jerry Ltd. design team.
I came in during the 25 years between those two sentences. But even though I never met the man, I heard enough stories to know that Sailor Jerry would’ve hated having his name associated with sneering punk rockers and flocks of young dummies with disposable incomes. The way his name, image, philosophy and art are used to hawk all sorts of products, from spiced rum to skateboard sneakers, is a fame that would’ve probably sickened Sailor Jerry, who used to refer to publicity-seeking tattoo artists like Lyle Tuttle as “prosta-tattoots.” The real Sailor Jerry- yes he was an actual person, not some Bunyonesque folk hero who tattooed to the Misfits- hated hippies and liberals. He played big band saxophone and railed against the government on an overnite radio show, which he hosted for several years as “Old Ironsides.” The Hawaiian Islands were “the hemorrhoids of the Pacific.”
The underground rumblings at Punchbowl cemetery on the island of Oahu have no doubt moved the earth in recent years as the proudly Conservative man buried there has become a hip lifestyle brand. But the Richter needle would’ve jumped with the claim from Jerry’s widow Louise Collins that she never gave permission for those uses and has been bypassed by the proceeds.
Austin filmmakers Angela Lancaster and Paul Galvan trekked to Honolulu recently while shadowing Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand, “the godmother of American tattooing,” and tracked down Louise Collins, 77, who lives in an apartment with her daughter, Sailor Jerry’s kid. In her first interview on camera, Louise told Lancaster that she’s never received any compensation as executor of her husband’s estate, from either Gyro Worldwide, the Philadelphia company which started developing the Sailor Jerry brand in 1999 or the Scottish-based William Grant & Sons alcohol company that bought the Sailor Jerry brand et al in 2008. The spiced rum is a hit, with over 660,000 cases sold in 2013, up 15% from the previous year.
Malone and his girlfriend/partner at the time Hellenbrand, who owns a tattoo shop on Guadalupe Street in Austin, paid $20,000 to Louise Collins for Sailor Jerry’s shop at 1033 Smith Street and its contents, which included Sailor Jerry’s tattoo designs. But did they also buy Jerry’s “intellectual property,” including his name, likeness and the copyrights to all his artwork? Malone, who passed away in 2007, and his business partner Hardy, who made millions in the t-shirt business, believed they owned all things Sailor Jerry. And Gyro Worldwide, now named Quaker City Merchantile, seemed confident all the paperwork was in order when they plunked
down a reported $20,000 to Hardy and Malone for those rights in 2003. Quaker City owner Steven Grasse boasted in 2010 that he made some serious “F.U. money” when he sold the Sailor Jerry name and intellectual property to Grant & Sons. QCM was retained to handle advertising for the Sailor Jerry brand, including a current $7 million TV advertising campaign.
But did Grasse sell something he didn’t own? Asked to comment, Quaker City spokesperson Laura Price forwarded a statement from Grant & Sons that claims that the Malone purchase in 1973 included intellectual rights.
Austin attorney Anderson Simmons isn’t so sure and said copyrights, as well as rights of publicity, may have been violated. Hawaii law HRS 482P states that “every individual or personality has a property right in the use of the individual’s name, voice, signature and likeness.” According to Hellenbrand, who said she borrowed $5,000 from her grandmother to make the down payment on the shop, the written contract between Malone and Jerry’s widow Louise Collins was little more than a bill of sale saying that Michael Malone bought Sailor Jerry’s shop and its contents for $20,000. Since the name of the shop was immediately changed to China Sea Tattoo, the Sailor Jerry trademark ended there.
“William Grant & Sons has the burden of proving what particular intellectual property they purchased and proving that their title to that particular property traces back to the estate of Mr. Collins,” said Simmons. “Unless they can prove they purchased the rights to (Sailor Jerry’s) publicity from his estate, or that Mr. Malone purchased it from the estate and then they purchased it from Malone, they may be violating that right of publicity.”
Simmons viewed a copy of the statement from Grant & Sons and said it was lacking in information. “This isn’t any kind of evidence to prove ownership,” he said. “If they bought the rights to his publicity, why didn’t they say so, instead of vaguely referring to the purchase of ‘intellectual property,’ a term which wasn’t even in common usage when Mr. Collins died in 1973… I doubt they have a contract that actually states they were getting the ‘intellectual property’ when they purchased the tattoo shop from the estate.”
This controversy over who owns the rights to the Sailor Jerry name, likeness and artistic copyrights is nothing new. Shanghai Kate first brought up in online forums in 2009 that Louise Collins was one step from homelessness while rich men were becoming richer on the name and reputation of her late husband. By that time, Malone had died and Ed Hardy took the brunt of Kate’s scorn. His son, Doug Hardy, who now runs the Hardy business from San Francisco, shot off a vitriolic response:
“Mike and my father became the sole owners of Jerry’s artwork after Louise sold it (Mike had sold a good amount of Jerry’s artwork to my father). It would have been burned and lost forever otherwise… Mike decided to make some money off of the artwork, first by partnering with my father to make the Sailor Jerry flash books (which are still used by tattoo artists around the world) and then later partnering with the clothing company that still produces the Sailor Jerry line of clothing. The clothing company made a deal with the liquor producers who make the rum, which apparently is a world-wide smash hit. Recently the liquor company bought out the rights completely, and my father and the executors of Mike’s estate got paid in a settlement, which was from I understand, not a huge sum. Mike had been selling Jerry’s original art for years, which was just as much of his right as licensing it as he had purchased it in full from Louise years earlier. That’s the end of the story.”
Maybe. Neither Louise Collins nor the two children she had with Sailor Jerry have ever challenged the ownership of the Sailor Jerry name and intellectual property in court. But, then, it’s only been a couple years since she was in a restaurant and saw a bottle of Sailor Jerry rum and wondered, “what’s this all about?” In the early ’70s, tattooing was a secret society that wives didn’t belong to. They didn’t want to know what was going on- a mindset that remains with Louise Collins perhaps. But there could be millions of dollars at stake here.
Ed Hardy wrote the esssential book about Sailor Jerry in 2004. After a long and informative intro, the book is turned over to the letters Sailor Jerry wrote to Hardy, who later replaced him as America’s greatest tattoo artist. On one letter dated Dec. 27, 1971, Jerry seemed especially prophetic when he wrote: “There has always been a sort of hypnotic fascination about tattooing but until now nobody has been able to get artistic work so I think we are on the upgrade as far as the profession is concerned although there are a hundred bums all around trying to tear it down with their stupidity and greed…It’s the old story, we build up the demand and the bums cash in on it. And the hell of it is that most people are so aesthetically blind that they don’t know the difference…”
Just like some folks can’t tell if the legacy of Sailor Jerry has been enhanced by the glut of exposure or watered down. He’s famous, immortal, a household name. Somebody’s making money; does it matter who?
When I worked at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor as a teenager in 1972 I befriended a group of Marines who had all been tattooed by Sailor Jerry. Their tattoos were so clean and colorful and badass, especially the pinup girls. They each had one- the sexy chick that will never leave. One night I accompanied one of the jarheads to 1033 Smith St. and wandered around seedy Hotel Street while Sailor Jerry put a tattoo on my friend. It was a large knife plunging into his back with the words “Go ahead, everyone else does!” It was the first fresh tattoo I’d ever seen so I never forgot it.
UPDATE: The family of Sailor Jerry settled with William Grant & Sons in October 2020. Amount paid to them is confidential.