SAILOR JERRY WAS BORN NORMAN COLLINS, BUT CHOSE TO DEFINE HIMSELF ON HIS OWN TERMS. HE SIMPLY WASN'T ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE BORN TO LIVE A MIDDLE-OF-THE-ROAD LIFE AND HE KNEW IT. BACK IN THE 1920'S, WHEN COLLINS CAME OF AGE, TATTOOING WAS AN EXPRESSION THAT BELONGED TO AN EMERGING AMERICAN COUNTERCULTURE. IT WAS A MARK OF NOT BLINDLY FOLLOWING THE MAINSTREAM - OF CHOOSING TO LIVE OUTSIDE THE LINES.
Collins left home as a teenager to travel the country by hitchhiking and train hopping. He wasn't alone. At that time, a substantial number of Americans, young and old, were bypassing the so-called American Dream for a different kind of existence. For some, this was prompted by hardship and necessity. But for Collins and others like him, it was about wanderlust and freedom. They traveled by freight train, took temporary work and camped along the way. This was when Collins started learning his craft, working primitively with only a needle and black ink, creating designs freehand, one poke at a time.
He eventually landed in Chicago and two things happened that changed his life. One, he hooked up with local tattoo legend, Gib 'Tatts' Thomas, who taught him to use a tattoo machine. (For practice, he paid bums with cheap wine or a few cents to let him tattoo them). The second was joining the Navy. The United States Navy was a place where a young man who'd been crossing the country on freight trains could up the ante on his adventure and cross oceans. It was during this time, Collins developed a lifelong love of ships. He would eventually earn master's papers on every kind of vessel you could get tested for.