Honolulu’s Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins was many things. An avant-garde tattoo artist who helped christen tattoos into American mainstream culture from the Honolulu shop where he inked thousands of World War II-era servicemen. A local radio personality. A husband and father. A patriot who shunned celebrity with his tough-as-nails persona.
But according to a lawsuit filed in Hawaii Circuit Court on Thursday by his 83-year-old widow Louise Collins, one thing Sailor Jerry was definitively not is a hard drinker.
“Neither Sailor Jerry nor Mrs. Collins consumed alcoholic beverages during the course of their relationship,” reads an excerpt from the lawsuit.
That’s in part why Collins is seeking damages from William Grant & Sons liquor distillery for misappropriating Sailor Jerry’s likeness in its marketing of its 92 proof spiced rum.
The lawsuit claims the maker of Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum has no authorization to brand its booze with the name and legacy of the man credited with bringing tattoos “out of the shadows … resulting in tattoos being recognized as a legitimate art form.”
“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,” reads an excerpt from the lawsuit. “His tattoos were easily recognized by many comrades in arms during the war and by the rest of the country when they returned home after the war.”
William Grant & Sons did not return a request for comment.
The lawsuit claims he would not have approved of the use of his name and art to market liquor to “a young hipster crowd” using themes that emphasize “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” resulting in millions of dollars in sales. And, the lawsuit alleges, neither do his surviving family members.
The lawsuit claims this is how it happened: A pair of tattoo artists who had studied under Sailor Jerry bought the contents of his Smith Street shop from Collins after he died and formed a limited liability company. Then, in the 1990s, they began marketing merchandise bearing their teacher’s name and tattoo designs — without seeking permission from Collins or other family members. One of those products, according to the complaint, is Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, made in a partnership with the UK-based distillery.
The complaint alleges that the two tattoo artists — Mike Malone and Don Ed Hardy — unlawfully authorized the distillery to use Sailor Jerry’s legacy for marketing.
In May, the liquor distillery announced the launch of a new Sailor Jerry alcoholic beverage — a 70-proof apple flavored spiced rum called Sailor Jerry Savage Apple, according to the lawsuit.
Since Sailor Jerry’s death in 1973, Collins has continued to live in Hawaii, although the lawsuit states that her Waipahu home since fell into disrepair and is in the process of being foreclosed on. She received social security payments and lives with her daughter, according to the complaint.
The suit claims the defendants never contacted Collins nor any of Sailor Jerry’s heirs to seek permission to use Sailor Jerry’s name, tattoo designs and likeness, nor have they offered to compensate the family for the money they’ve earned from the product branding.
The timing of the lawsuit coincides with the fifth annual Sailor Jerry Festival in Chinatown on Saturday. A publicity website for the event says the festival honors Sailor Jerry and his Chinatown roots and features live music, movie screenings, a pin-up pageant, an art exhibit, tattoo specials, standup comedy, burlesque, Chinatown tours and more.
The lawsuit does not mention the event nor its organizers.
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