Norman Keith Collins abstained from alcohol according to his widow Louise. Sobriety is not unusual, but it is unusual when your name and life, like Collins a.k.a. ‘Sailor Jerry,’ the godfather of modern American tattoos, is being used to sell rum. Last week, Louise Collins filed suit against distiller William Grant & Sons claiming that the company has no right to use the ‘Sailor Jerry’ name—and that Jerry, himself, would have despised the brand’s identity. (For good measure, t-shirt tycoon Ed hardy also makes an appearance in the story.)
“I am appalled to see what these folks have done with Jerry’s name and legacy,” said Ms. Collins in a statement. “This was my husband, the father of my children, and no one ever even asked our family for permission to use him in this way.”
The complaint filed in Hawaii District Court also contended that Sailor Jerry, himself, would have hated everything about the brand. Plaintiff’s attorney Mark Davis wrote that the famed tattoo artist would have scorned Grant’s target demo of “a young hipster crowd” and would have been appalled by the rum’s branding of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”
These claims are likely not a stretch. Tattoos attracted a very different crowd during Jerry’s glory years in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. By his estimation, 90% of his clientele were active service military and the artist considered his work a patriotic service.
“Sailor Jerry dearly respected those who served their country in a time of war and he took great pride in tattooing these mostly young men fresh from, or on their way to, the horrors of war with personal messages in the form of art that reflected some dream, fantasy, love, feeling and/or abstraction of each serviceman,” stated the filing.
If there was any doubt as to Collins’ politics in later years, one needed only to listen to the overnight radio show he hosted. Jerry was essentially belonged to the forerunner of the alt-right. For several years, he took to the airwaves under the no de guerre ‘Old Ironsides’ to rant about the evils of liberals and government overreach.
However, the legal case was not based on Collins’ politics. The issue of murky permissions can be traced back to his legendary tattoo shop on Honolulu’s Smith Street.
After revolutionizing the American ink scene through his incorporation of Japanese technique and aesthetics, Sailor Jerry began training disciples. Legend has it that Jerry named two of these proteges, Mike Malone and Don Ed Hardy (yes, that Ed Hardy) as his successors. In a letter to his wife, he famously wrote, “If it doesn’t end up in their hands, burn everything.”
So, after Jerry’s 1973 death, Malone and his then-girlfriend Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand, “American Tattoo Godmother,” purchased the shop and it’s contents for $20,000 from Louise Collins. In time, Hellenbrand left the business and set up shop in Austin, Texas (where she still lives and works). Replacing her, Hardy came back onboard.
Hardy and Malone began selling the Sailor Jerry designs (flash books) first to other tattoo artists. In 1999, the pair started working with Quaker City Mercantile (Gyro Worldwide at the time) to develop merch and the following year, they launched the rum.
In 2003, Malone and Hardy sold the name and intellectual property to Quaker for a reported $20,000. Qauker went on to hit it big with the line. By 2008, Sailor Jerry was so large that William Grant & Sons purchased the entire range from Quaker. The numbers were kept quiet, but Quaker CEO Steven Grasse later bragged, “I got paid more money when I sold that than anything else that I’ve done” and then described his haul as “F.U. Money.”
The story sounds basic enough, but there’s a big catch. Louise Collins claimed that Hardy and Malone only purchased the shop, not the IP in the first place. According to her suit, they sold something that they did not own to Quaker who then sold something they did not own to William Grant.
The legal challenge contended that no members of the Collins family were ever contacted for permission to use Sailor Jerry’s name, likeness, or designs. In addition, the filing noted that the family never received compensation or royalties from either the clothing or the rum line.
William Grant did not reply to a request for comment. However, the issue of ownership simmered in the tattoo world for years before it hit the courts. A 2014 release from the liquor powerhouse attempted to preempt these very questions.
“The various transfers of ownership from Mike Malone and Ed Hardy to Quaker City Mercantile and, ultimately to the current owners, were all done in good faith and with the usual due diligence about the history ofthe brand and its ownership,” stated the company in a release. “Quaker City Mercantile and Sailor Jerry Ltd continue to work closely together to ensure that Norman Collins’ legacy is absolutely respected and cherished. It is one of the reasons why Sailor Jerry the brand is loved all over the world.”
Despite that stated commitment to legacy, Louise Collins reported that her house is in disrepair and the under foreclosure.