Sailor Jerry’s Legacy: Why Booze And Tattoos Have Always Mixed Well

Photo: John Parra [Getty Images]

If you’ve visited a cocktail bar in the past few years, you’ve probably noticed a few things. For one, the skill and creativity of bartenders all across the nation seems to be at an all-time high. Secondly, there are a lot of tattoo-clad bartenders. But, is there any connection between the shaking and mixing of alcoholic drinks and a propensity to having your body tattooed with elaborate, beautiful artwork? The answer is a bit complicated.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the worlds of booze and tattoos began to meld together. But, there’s no denying the importance of Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins. The Navy veteran, turned tattoo artist is legendary in both worlds. “After his time in the Navy, where he earned his master’s papers on every vessel you can get tested for, Norman Collins set up shop in Hawaii to tattoo United States service men and women with his iconic designs,” says Ashley Thomas, Sailor Jerry Rum Ambassador. That is where Sailor Jerry began to cement his legacy and became the “father of old-school tattooing”. And, even though he might be referenced as “old school”, you can still find his work on the bodies of bartenders and other people all over the world.

Photo: Alex B. Huckle [Getty Images]

When he died, he left his shop to Don Ed Hardy and Mike Malone. “In 1999, the duo partnered with Steven Grasse, of Quaker City Mercantile, to create Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum,” says Thomas. “Aiming to honor the same rebellious spirit as the tattoo legend, as well as the legacy he created in his Honolulu shop, Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum is as straight-up, no nonsense, and smooth as the man who inspired the liquid.”

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Tattoos are probably the most important part of Sailor Jerry Rum’s brand identity. “From our redesigned bottle, where you can find pieces of flash art from Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins himself, to the many events we do nationwide – including a Harley-Davidson ‘My Work Speaks for Itself’ Design Contest, and free tattoos at varying activations across the country – Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum is built on a legacy of tattoos.”

Bartenders are the ultimate storytellers and tattoos are an extension of that. “Just like Sailors in history commemorating life moments like crossing the equator, bartenders commemorate moments of significance in a similar way, with artistic permanence,” says Thomas. “Cocktails are no different than any other story, or any other artform, so tattoos provide a great extension and outlet to go deeper behind the liquid. Plus, tattoos are just awesome, and so are bartenders.”

Photo: Keith Beaty [Getty Images]

Tattooing is a creative job but at the end of the day, it’s also a service job, just like bartending. “It’s a job where you’re interacting with individuals every day, and our job doesn’t exist without our customers’ involvement,” says Shawn Barber, Tattoo artist at LA’s Memoir Tattoo. Barber collaborates with his clients to bring their tattoo vison to life. “Bartenders also work with their customers to create the perfect cocktail that matches their preferences but also encourage them to branch out and try new things,” says Barber. “Each client has different parameters and expectations, so it’s important to establish an open dialogue with them so you’re able to provide them with the best experience.”

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Recently, the worlds of bartending and tattoos came together even more when Barber and a handful of other bartenders collaborated with Bulleit Bourbon. Back in 2016, Bulleit approached a few tattoo artists with a concept that embraced the medium of tattooing. “The idea was to create a massive patchwork tattoo canvas on leather, that was displayed in LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood and served as the first-ever Bulleit Frontier Works campaign,” he says. “We were all enthusiastic and honored to work with a company as well known as Bulleit, and that showed a true appreciation of the artistry of tattooing.”

Last month, in a tribute to National Tattoo Day (July 17th), Bulleit unveiled a limited release version of its famous bourbon called Bulleit Bourbon Tattoo Edition. The bottles feature artwork from various artists, including Barber who paid tribute to Los Angeles in his bottle design. “It was an honor to put my own unique spin on the design, and share what Los Angeles means to me through tattoos.”

Shawn Barber (left) shows off the Bulleit Bourbon Tattoo Edition bottle with Bulleit Bourbon Founder Tom Bulleit. Photo: Joshua Blanchard [Getty Images]

Barber’s role in collaborating with Bulleit was to draw something that reflected the spirit and personality of his city.” I’ve lived in California for 20 years and Los Angeles for 10 of those years, so I have a fair interpretation of the landscape and artistic community,” he says. “The shape of the Bulleit bottle is so iconic that the design I came up with was meant to embrace and complement that space, and to use simple, organic and purposeful visual elements that reflect the true nature of my city.” Los Angeles has a deep architectural tradition, which incorporates elements from Art Deco and Mayan Revival movement. “I was inspired by that style of architecture and the mix of desert and mountainous landscapes that surrounds us.”

Part of the reason we are seeing more tattooed bartenders is the fact that the artform is becoming increasingly more acceptable every year. “In the last 20 years, I think the major positive change is that there are better tattoos being made around the world and more people are getting tattooed,” says Barber. “The advent of tattooing in television and pop culture has introduced the world at large to more of an artistic understanding of what’s possible in the context of getting tattooed, living with tattoos and being tattooed.”

When thinking about the link between tattoos and alcohol, always be mindful to the fact that tattooing a personal handmade craft that is important and specific to the individual with the tattoo. “If you’re someone who is interested in tattoos, and admires them and loves them, then the best case scenario of getting the best work is to come with ideas,” says Barber. “Find the right artist to complement your idea, and give them the opportunity to make something nice for you.” That’s the best kind of collaboration.