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Erich Weiss at Rock of Age Tattoo
Erich Weiss at Rock of Age Tattoo (Photo by John Anderson)

Got Ink? 'Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry'

Flash is fast. Flash is cool. Flash was invented by Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins, who was no fool. Not, at least, when it came to getting subcutaneal on raw, corn-fed, post-Pearl Harbor G.I. flesh. Ink-slinging his days away in a dingy, dark, and entirely disreputable back alleyway called Hotel Street in Honolulu, Sailor Jerry developed and refined the art of the "flash" tattoo – characterized by bold lines and iconic, uncluttered design – to needle-prick perfection. And in the wake of Dec. 7, 1941, there was no shortage of ready, willing, and able canvases in the 50th state: dogfaces, leathernecks, and flyboys on their way to hell in the Pacific, little Lee Marvins unwittingly appropriating Toshirô Mifune's tatsu warrior-style, courtesy of Old Ironsides Jerry.

Sailor Jerry is the legend, but director Erich Weiss' Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, an eye-popping, endlessly fascinating spit 'n' gristle documentary on the man who birthed the American tattoo revolution over half a century ago, is the fresh and scabby fact. It might sting a bit, but it's pre-pop-culture history writ large and smart and gorgeously messy, with nary an autoclave in sight. It gets under your skin, and the marks it leaves there are forever fascinating, outlaw-cool, and way more than skin-deep.

"Hotel Street has become sort of lost in history, and that's where a lot of men became men," Weiss explains. "We view that era 'the greatest generation,' but these were young, scared kids – 17, 18 years old – coming from Nebraska and Idaho and shipping off to war. The next thing they know they're in Honolulu, and they've got 48 hours to get drunk, lose their virginity, and get a tattoo before they go to Iwo Jima."

That was a time when getting inked with the bold, thick skin art known as "flash" was neither art nor entertainment, a prebody mod era before Depp's "Wino Forever" or atomic citizen Jim "Hawaiian Prince" Hughes' full-body Gojira, 3,800 miles (as the late, great Austin inskter Mike "Rollo" Malone flew) from Texas and a square's lifetime away from respectability. Sailor Jerry's tattoos artistically echoed the war in anything but olive drab: vivid, momentous rites of passage, painful and bloody and permanent.

Today, right this very moment, that guy (or gal) next to you is emblazoned (somewhere) with pigmented skin imagery that likely wouldn't be there were it not for Sailor Jerry. His work spoke for itself, but Weiss' Hori Smoku is an equally eloquent statement in its own right, equal parts pop-culture anthropology, outsider-art overview, and a hard-boiled history lesson tough mugs like Mickey Spillane would've instantly recognized.

"Back then [tattooing] was all done during the daytime," says Weiss, "because during the war the islands were blacked out at night. So you had these young kids, a long ways from home, heading off to war, and they'd get four shots of whiskey, three minutes with a $3 hooker, and then go get a $3 tattoo. That's a $6 entry fee into adulthood."

Thursday, March 13, 11am, Dobie; Friday, March 14, 1:30pm, Dobie

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