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A Brief History of Hori Smoku

Updated: Jan 6

Greetings friends of Speakeasy Tattoo!

This is Marléna here with a brief update on what we’re up to over here at Speakeasy Tattoo Los Angeles! Also, stay tuned for a brief history of one of the most influential American tattooers. This week at the shop came and went, faster than you could say ‘Hori Smoku’. Summer is in full swing with recent temperatures of 95 degrees, our little A/C units are working very hard to keep the shop cool! This weekend us apprentices are teaming up with the artists of Speakeasy tattoo, to repaint and otherwise beautify the front studio, in preparation for the shop art show. Lastly for shop updates, I will confirm James’s previous post regarding the livelihood of the lizards at the shop- the lizards are doing great, I think I saw the King Lizard today on my way out of the shop.

For this week’s topic, I wanted to learn some more about the life and legacy of one of the most cited names in the tradition of American traditional- Sailor Jerry. Born Norman K. Collins, Jerry was born in Reno, Nevada, in the year 1911. Soon after, his family relocated to Ukiah, CA, where he lived until he was a teenager. The nickname ‘Jerry’ was given to him by his father, the name was taken from the family’s stubborn bull, Jerry. The ‘sailor’ part was added later, after Jerry’s service in the U.S Navy. The young Jerry set out to travel and see the country, his mode of transportation? Train hopping! It was during his time on trains that Jerry met a man named “Big Mike”, who first introduced Jerry to handpoke tattoos. Eventually Jerry landed in Chicago, where he met the tattooer Tatts Thomas. It was Tatts who first brought Jerry into a shop setting and set him up with tattoo machines. Jerry’s initial experience tattooing on State St in Chicago, coincided with a national boom in the popularity of tattooing. Tattooing initially became vastly popular among sailors and service members, as a result large port cities became hubs for tattoo enthusiasts. Other popular venues included carnivals, Coney Island, bars, and military bases.

Eventually Jerry left State St in Chicago, to enlist in the United States Navy. It was during this time that Jerry was introduced to the art of Southeast Asia, which would later influence his tattoo work greatly. It was also during this time that Jerry first visited Hawaii, the place he would come to call home. After finishing his time in the Navy, Jerry returned to Honolulu, where he had previously started up a small tattoo shop. When he returned, the shop he had left with his previous business partner had been abandoned and left with the door wide open. Jerry cleaned up and reopened for business. Jerry’s shop was located in the historic Hotel St. district in Honolulu. The Hotel St. district was located in Honolulu’s Chinatown, and served as a one-stop-shopping for Navy members to visit bars, brothels, and tattoo shops (typically in that specific order!). Jerry kept a pet monkey in his shop.

Jerry was a stark conservative, and openly anti-American government, as he considered the government to be consistently weak and leftist. At one point in his career, he shut down his shop in protest of the amount of taxes his tattooing business accrued. As a critic of the government, he didn’t want to contribute so much tax money to what he thought was a government on the verge of enabling communism. Eventually Jerry would reopen a shop in Honolulu, where he settled for the rest of his career. It was during this time that Jerry began a very important correspondence with the Japanese tattoo master, Horiyoshi II. Through written letters, Horiyoshi shared ancient Japanese tattoo knowledge with Jerry, aiding Jerry in the perfection of his craft. Jerry would then take on the nickname ‘Hori Smoku’, as an ode to the Japanese lineage that was shared with him. It was also during this time that Jerry focused on developing his own ink formulas. Jerry contributed unique ink formulas to the tattoo world that didn’t previously exist, such as purple! Previously tattooers were known to say “the one color you can’t have is purplę”, but Jerry was inspired to prove a local tattoo nemesis of his wrong by formulating purple. Another important relationship that was formed later in Jerry’s career, was his friendship/mentorship with San Francisco tattoo artist Ed Hardy. Ed Hardy became a fan of Jerry’s while studying art in San Francisco, after establishing a mail correspondence with Jerry, Ed moved to Honolulu to work in Jerry’s shop. It was Jerry who connected Ed Hardy to Horiyoshi II and Japanese tattooing. In 1973 Jerry suffered a heart attack and died. He left his shop to Ed Hardy and his other protégé, Mike Malone. His instructions were to leave the shop to his students, or burn it all.

Thats all for this week! Thanks again for reading!

until next time,


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