Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry

Certificate: E
Running time: 73 mins
Director: Erich Weiss
Starring: Norman Keith ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins, ‘Philadelphia’ Eddie Funk, Don Ed Hardy
Genre: Documentary
Format: DVD
Country: United States

The title ‘Hori Smoku’ originates from the traditional Japanese Hori titles given to their tattoo artists and is the honourary title attributed to Norman Keith Collins aka Sailor Jerry.  Using a range of talking heads, archive photos and a whole lot of ink the documentary examines to origins, influences and legacy of Americas greatest ever tattoo artist.

Tattooing has become big business over the years and what Hori Smoku offers the viewer is an otherwise unobtainable look at the grass roots of Western tattooing by the men who lived through it.  As you would expect from a documentary about tattooing the films use of colour during the animation of the screen (in Jerry’s distinct style) is wonderful, there’s a certain richness to his style which is often imitated but rarely matched.  The use of green, blue, red and of course black creates before you a free flowing graphic of the work that made Jerry who he was.  It’s also a useful device for transitions between the talking heads and archive footage from Hawaii but it also works as a wonderful way of juxtaposing the classic Japanese style which caught Jerry’s eye and how constant refinement of his own style.  Similarly the use of the typewriter letters gives the audience a rare insight into the man’s attitudes and beliefs.  This was a pleasant surprise as the name ‘Sailor Jerry’ is a brand now and with corporate America comes a degree of sanitizing that must be achieved in order to appeal to everyone.  The fact that this documentary is willing to show and speak of Jerry’s right wing views, the fact that he hated Richard Nixon because he considered him too liberal, the fact that he gave up tattooing in the 60’s because he hated the Government and the idea of the IRS taking his hard earned money and the fact that he had a serious hated of Lyle Tuttle and the way he embraced the spotlight all point to character flaws but does so with such honest disregard for how it may be interpreted that it has a refreshing honesty that you can’t help but admire.

The talking head is a documentary technique that’s with the genre for life, there’s few ways around so the challenge is to present the talking heads in new and interesting ways.  Outside of the work of Errol Morris there’s few documentarians who truly attempt to subvert the talking heads in American documentaries and Hori Smoku is no exception.  This doesn’t really matter in the long run though, being able to absorb stories from such amazing characters like Eddie Funk (who started tattooing in Chicago when it was still run by the mob), Zeke Owen and Ed Hardy who both worked alongside and under Jerry during his peak is brilliant.  The use of archive photos from his shops taken at the time adds to the idea of getting a snapshot of the life of a man and creates a genuinely interesting colleague of tattoos that today seems cliché but at the time where some of the most cutting edge pieces of work available.  It’s testament to Jerry’s work that his ink looks as current and original and beautiful as ever, one can only imagine what he could have achieved today with all the technological advancements we have made.

The most interesting thing about this documentary is Jerry’s relationship with Japan.  Having fought against them in the second World War he became fascinated with the style and the logic behind the artwork, why waves move in a certain direction, why certain kimonos are worn by certain women and most tellingly how they don’t tattoo you straight away.  How the Japanese artists of the time would study you and your character and if they didn’t think they you would wear their work with honour they would refuse your trade is very much against the notion of America and the almighty dollar yet it appeals to Jerry because of his pursuit for honour.  His relationship with Ed Hardy is also an interesting one as Hardy’s admiration led to working alongside Jerry but his ability to behave more pragmatically mean he was able to travel back to Japan with a visiting Hori and (believed by some people) surpass his mentor.

There are a few problems with the documentary but oddly it’s own of the films biggest strengths.  The documentary is exclusively about Jerry’s work and in being about his work ignores large portions of his life that are genuinely interesting.  His days on the Boxcars, his marriage, his time in the US Navy, the fact that he remained a Captain until the day he died and his radio show (which took up a large portion of his later life).  The presentation of work is so enjoyable and well delivered it makes you wish they would include everything else.

Hori Smoku is not a documentary that will change your life, it will not get an innocent mans death sentence overturned like The Thin Blue Line it won’t even tell you everything you want to know but what it does achieve is well done.  It will take you on a journey from the early twentieth century until the present day via the art of tattooing, it will entertain you and most importantly for the genre it will leave you with a hunger to discover more.


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