Depending on which Asian culture we’re talking about, tattoos have been considered deeply sacred, or grossly barbaric, for thousands of years. In ancient China, tattoos were largely shunned, given only to criminals – though a classic Chinese novel also features three heroic main characters who are tattooed. In the Philippines, tattoos have denoted rank and accomplishments for centuries. In Japan, the tradition of tattooing goes back nearly ten thousand years, and has symbolised everything from rites of passage to gang affiliation. What all of these cultures have in common, however, is the process itself. Traditional Asian tattooing involved attaching handmade needles (or sometimes just a sharpened bone or shell) to a thick piece of wood, usually with silk string or leather, and puncturing the flesh thousands of times. Sometimes a specially prepared ink was used, other times black ash was rubbed into the punctures. Large pieces could take years to finish, with the recipient returning every few days for two or three hour sessions.
So how did such a long and secretive process make its way to the other side of the world? Most of the tattoos we recognize as “Asian” are actually strictly Japanese. In China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and numerous other Asian countries, tattoos were largely symbolic, and did not feature distinct images – instead, they were series’ of dots, dashes, and contained patterns. The huge and detailed koi fish, pictorial representations of gods and demons, oni masks, cherry blossom trees, etc., that we associate with traditional Asian tattooing could, for many decades, only be found in Japan. As such, they could only have been discovered, and brought over, by someone who could bridge the gap, both geographically, and culturally. Enter the infamous Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins. While it was certainly not him alone who brought Japanese tattooing to North America, most agree that he had the largest role to play. At 19, Collins enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and spent much time in Asian waters. There, he was exposed to various styles of art and tattoos, and got to know several prominent artists. As a life-long sailor, he was able to keep correspondence with various groups of people from both the underground and professional sectors, and most importantly, with Japanese tattoo masters. This allowed him to immerse himself in the world of Japanese tattooing and bring these ideas and techniques home. So while the name Sailor Jerry may invoke images of old-school flash, it is also him that must be credited for the large and intricate “traditional Asian” pieces we marvel at today.
Oddly, these pieces are now far more popular here than in Japan, or anywhere else in Asia. Still often seen as the domain of criminals and gang members, these large pieces are shunned by the general public throughout Asia. When Sailor Jerry began tattooing in this style, and apprenticing others to do the same, he may have had little idea that he was reinventing, and preserving, a long hidden tradition.