Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Sailor Jerry's Tattoo Stencils" Books I and II

  Before you buy "Sailor Jerry's Tattoo Stencils" by Kate Hellenbrand, you need to understand the title.  I recommend that any aspiring tattooer get a copy of these books, but you need to know what you are getting. This is not, technically, a collection of Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collin's flash.  Rather, these are actual transfers from those flash designs, the first stage of the actual tattoos.  What you will get are raw, unadorned examples of the very foundation of a tattoo.  This collection gathered by Kate "Shanghai Kate" Hellenbrand, demonstrates the root of the "American Traditional" tattoo design, the style that many tattoo purists describe as the defining style of a "good" tattoo.  

 The American Traditional tattoo style developed not from an aesthetic choice, but rather the limitations of the tools used to take a design from paper to the skin.  Before the advent of the thermograph transfer, tattooers would cut their designs into a thin, plastic sheet.  Grooves cut into the acetate would be filled by rubbing graphite into them.  The skin was prepared with a thin coat of petroleum jelly.  The acetate stencil would be laid onto the skin, transferring the graphite from the stencil to the jelly.  This provided a fragile pattern for the tattooer to follow with his needle.

 The nature of this process limited the complexity and detail of the designs.  If a design was too intricate, it would be difficult (if not impossible) and extremely time-consuming to cut into acetate.  Thus, American Traditional designs are defined by simple, bold lines, with often no more than two to three line-widths.  The transfer process and materials also limited selection.  Tattoo designs tended to be limited to what was popular to those getting tattoos in those early years; Naval or other Military images, primitive pin-up girls, and well-known cartoon characters.  The same acetate stencil would be the basis for multiple tattoos, with variation introduced during the tattoo process.

 Color in these tattoos, usually red, green, blue, yellow, and black, were also limited by the technology of the time.  Tattooers often made their own ink, and there were limits to what could be successfully and economically produced.  Again, the American Traditional style was a result not of aesthetics, but of the practical limitations of the technology of the time.  These limitations came to set the expectations of what a tattoo should look like.  Today, technological advancements allows for a variety of styles to be replicated in the skin, but "Tattoo Art" has become defined in the social consciousness as consisting of strong lines, a bold but limited color pallet, and traditional subject matter.  Put simply, this style is recognized as a tattoo, regardless if it is in skin or on paper.

 These collections offer insight into the foundations of an art form.  With an understanding of the technical limitations, they also highlight the innovative and creative talent of Sailor Jerry.  While these books will have very little value to most tattoo clients seeking a design, they represent an excellent resource for the tattooer who wishes to create tattoo designs rooted in traditional methods and recognized as tattoo art.

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

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