HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (12/27/12) –“Sailor” Jerry Swallow’s 53-year mark on the international world of tattooing, with especial regard to his work in the realm of American traditional style, is undeniable, timeless, and—quite literally—indelible.
Guided and taught by old-school tattooing legends like Huck Spaulding, Paul Rogers, Cap Coleman, and childhood mentor Charlie Snow, as well as Japanese master Kazua Ogori (Hori Hide) via overseas correspondence, Swallow’s knowledge and understanding of classic tattoo design is enviably vast—a fact evidenced by his astounding, decades-long collection of work. And while he’s aware of his following and the impact he’s had on artists the world over, fame is his last concern. In fact, he remains humble about his craft and has done what he can to catalogue and honor those who have helped to shape America’s historic tattooing landscape.
But what does this legendary artist have to do with Hopkins County, KY?
An inspiration to many, and a true friend to most who meet him, the Nova Scotia native has spent the last two weeks in Madisonville, KY with close friend and nationally recognized tattoo artist, Jack Hinton, inking new tattoos and meeting new people.
A member of Mainstream Body Art on South Kentucky Avenue, Hinton carries the enduring flame of traditional American design into the modern age. And, in paying homage to one of his biggest influences, Hinton recently featured his work alongside some of the nation’s most recognized tattooers in a high-quality art publication, Homeward Bound at Last, which celebrates Jerry Swallow’s 50-year impact on the world of traditional American tattoo art.
With this in mind, it’s really no surprise that the renowned 67-year-old took the time to visit Hinton in Kentucky for the holiday season. What’s more, it seems that time spent in Kentucky has made a positive impression on the staple artist.
So who is Sailor Jerry Swallow and what is his fabled story? To find out the answer to these questions and more, Sugg Street Post contributor, Landon Miller, was able to talk with the venerated and personable artist within the confines of Mainstream Body Art’s smoky, art-filled VIP room. The result of their conversation is as follows.
Landon Miller: Alright Jerry, first things first. What brought you to Madisonville, KY?
Sailor Jerry Swallow: Eh, more than anything, just to hang out with Jack [Hinton] for a while.
LM: How did you get to know Jack?
SJS: I met him on the internet first, and then I met him in person in St. Louis while we were at a tattoo convention. He invited me to come down after the holidays to come hang out and do some tattooing, so I made an early trip instead.
LM: What do you think about Kentucky so far?
SJS: I like it. It reminds me of home.
LM: And your home is?
SJS: Nova Scotia
LM: You have been working in tattoo shops since the age of 12 or 13. Is that correct?
LM: At age 16, you started tattooing. What attracted you to the art at such a young age, and what has kept you going for 53 years?
SJS: I used to go to downtown Halifax, and my dad was a bus driver, so I would take a ride downtown with him after school, and one of the stops was in front of one of the old tattoo shops down there. I'd get out there and look at the flash in the window. It was different. There was just something different about the place. In those days, anything to do with tattooing was magical. So, I just used to go down there and hang around, and if the old man [Charlie Snow] was sitting out in front, he would get me to run errands for him. You know, get him a newspaper or something like that. He didn’t let me inside the shop for a long time. Then, one day, he just started letting me inside to sweep the floor, run errands, and stuff like that. After a while, he started getting old and was looking for someone to tattoo. He told me to come down and he'd teach me how to do it. I went down on the day he told me to go in and was tattooing the same day.
LM: For our readers who aren't familiar with your story, explain how you received the title “Sailor” Jerry Swallow?
SJS: They used to call me “sailor” when I was a kid because I used to wear little a sailor hat all the time, and it just stuck. Everybody tattooing back then had a nickname, so the old man [Charlie Snow] just called me the same name. He said “There's another Sailor Jerry, but f**k 'em.”
LM: Throughout your 53 year career as a tattooer, what is the one time in your career you would like to revisit, or what is your biggest accomplishment?
SJS: I think it would be changing the style of the tattoo design a little bit. Everybody, at one time, did almost the same thing. [Cap] Coleman, [Paul] Rogers, and Huck Spaulding, they were doing something different. I used to see everybody's tattoos where I was at. I was lucky, because I was young, and I gave Huck a call, and he was really f***ing good to me, and he said, “If you ever get down here [Albany, New York], just come down to the tattoo shop.” A week later, I was there. If you want to learn somebody's style, you’ve got to be with them. That was probably about the best time in my career—hanging around Huck and [Paul] Rogers.
LM: I also read that in 1971 you started communicating through post mail with Japanese master Kazua Ogori (Hori Hide). As I understand it, he tutored you in the form of Japanese art through these correspondences. Could you give me a little insight on that?
SJS: Yeah, I got a hold of him first. I wrote him a couple of letters and he wrote right back. For me, being interested in what he was doing, it was, well, it was different. I would ask him things and he would tell me right away. When I started drawing Japanese style art, I would send it over to him. It would be just like a teacher marking your grades. There would be red “X”s all over everything. That went on until about 1980 before he gave me one of the “Hori” names.
LM: So you finally received a title from him?
LM: Could you tell us what that title is?
SJS: Hori Ryu.
LM: And what does that name translate to?
SJS: That means “master tattoo artist dragon.” He titled me this name with a number behind it, which is pretty common for them to do, like number one, or number two. I can remember in some of his letters he would be like, “I'm going to show you how to do this, but you’ve got to promise me that this is the way you will always do it.” In fact, all these years later, we still write back and forth.
LM: Does he still tattoo?
SJS: Yeah. He's about 85-years-old now and he still does 'em.
LM: In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of traditional tattooing. It has received a lot of pop culture attention. Tell me your opinions on this, both good and bad.
SJS: Well, I think it's good. It's made me feel like less of a dinosaur in the business.
LM: More relevant, right?
SJS: Yeah. It's nice to see people taking an interest in it and doing it the right way. A lot of people that are doing it, though, it's really nice artwork, but it's just not done right.
LM: Are there any negatives that you have seen come out of the resurgence of traditional tattooing?
SJS: Well, you've got too many people doing it that shouldn't be doing it. That's pretty much it. In my opinion, anybody that doesn’t know a little bit of history about tattooing shouldn't even be in the business as far as I'm concerned. There's quite a few of them who don't even care, and they don’t even want to learn.
LM: Why do you think there has been such a big resurgence?
SJS: Jesus, you know, it's really hard to say. For so many years now, everything’s been “realistic” this, “realistic” that. Everybody you see has got it on them. Now, you see a game that’s 40-years-old coming back again, and how bold it is. It looks different. And, in my opinion, it [traditional style] looks better, and it stays. To me, you can't beat that old, simple, traditional style of tattooing. I can see what it is from 20 feet away.
LM: Who were some of your major influences during your formative years as a tattooer?
SJS: I've still got to say Huck Spaulding and Paul Rogers. Same goes back to that [Cap] Coleman style. They had it, and that's what I wanted to do. They showed me how to do it, and I stuck right to it. I tried to change into the realistic style a little bit in the late ‘80s, but I couldn't do it, so I just went back to what I always did.
LM: In the past few years, I guess you have seen people gain a whole new respect for what you do, because for a while there was all the Guy Aitchison stuff. Was there a lull in your career during the “hay day” of biomechanical style, bioorganic style, etcetera?
SJS: Yeah, that was a real downer for quite a few years.
LM: Could you name some of the up-and-coming traditional tattooers out now that you think have something to say?
SJS: I'm not saying this because Jack [Hinton] is here, but he's one of 'em. You've got Clifton Boggs in Canton Ohio, and he's a Kentucky boy, too. Actually, there's quite a few, but not a lot really stand out. Jack's got a really unique style on it. Clifton has a different style totally, but it's all the same kind of traditional stuff. It's really beautiful work. As far as I'm concerned, if there’s anyone who can do realistic and traditional, Jack does it. I've seen the stuff he does. It's amazing. I couldn’t do it; there’s just no way. I'm just stuck in that old stuff, and that's it.
LM: And it has served you well. Here are some random questions. Tell me some of the music you have been listening to lately.
SJS: I like the blues. That's pretty much all I really listen to. Old Mississippi delta blues, John Lee Hooker, and rock and roll from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I throw a little bit of that in once in a while. My kids were all brought up on that music and that’s all they listen to.
LM: By the way, how many kids do you have?
SJS: I have nine.
LM: Do they have a respect for tattooing?
SJS: They do. In fact, two of my boys can tattoo pretty good, but they don't want anything to do with it. One of them likes to do security stuff. The other one likes to cook.
LM: What is your favorite food?
SJS: I was brought up to eat anything, as long as it was dead. Whatever you put down, I can pretty much eat it. When I was growing up, I remember a bowl of peas would be our main meal, or porridge for dinner. Stuff like that. I was 12 or 13-years-old before I ate a piece of chicken. The first real milk I drank, I remember I was 13. Before that, everything was powdered milk, you know, powdered potatoes. We never had a lot of money, so whatever they put on the table, we ate it.
LM: Any art form demands a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Can you give any advice on sustaining longevity?
SJS: Well, you’ve got to keep drawing. You’ve got to be drawing all the time. That's what I've found. Everything you do, when you look at it, you’ve got to say to yourself, “The next one's going to be better.” You’ve got to keep that in mind, because if you do something that's perfect, then you kind of get a big head and you don't try anymore. Jack [Hinton] and Clifton [Boggs] are great people, but you’ve got to go talk to them. If they like you, they're going to tell you anything you ask them. That's the way to do it. All these guys that “know everything” really don't. I can sit down and watch Jack [Hinton] tattoo and walk away learning three or four new things, and I've been tattooing my whole f***ing life.
LM: So keep learning....
SJS: Keep learning, yeah.
LM: What would you tell a young person that doesn't tattoo, but wants to start?
SJS: Well, there are way too many people tattooing now. So don't do it. It ain't as easy as it looks, and it's the hardest life you will ever get into. It'll wear you down. Tattoo is a mean f***ing boss; it'll kick your ass one day, and then give you a hug the next. If you get somebody that's really dedicated, you know, they'll hang in. I went through some of the toughest times; you wouldn't even believe it. If it wasn’t for guys like me…You know, a lot of them guys are dead now, and they should get a lot of respect for keeping tattooing alive. It [tattooing] would have f***ing collapsed. When I first started, you couldn't make enough money to eat sometimes, but we kept going. By the way, I hope you don't mind me cursing on here. I don't even realize I'm swearing sometimes.
LM: F**k it, we'll keep going. Your work with watercolor is prolific, to say the least. If you had to give an estimate of how many watercolor pieces you’ve done, what would you say?
SJS: We were talking about that about two weeks ago. We came up with an estimate of at least 10,000.
SJS: The first 25 or 30 years in this business, I would change my flash in the shop every year. I would rip it all down and do it all over again. Not at once, but I would be doing four, five, or six sheets a day, and I’d pull down six. Then I’d put up six new ones. My walls always had like 300 sheets up. Then I would do sheets for other tattooers. I've done sheets for tattoo supply companies at a rate of 500 to 600 sheets a time.
LM: Did you ever see any money out of that?
SJS: No. I never took money from them because these guys were always good to me. I can't remember the last time I had to buy ink or anything. It just goes around.
LM: The bartering system, basically?
SJS: Yeah, but there's not a whole lot of that around anymore. It ain't like it used to be. I wouldn't take any money from Huck Spaulding. I worked for three months down there [Albany, NY] doing his catalog up for him. He was determined to give me money, but there was no way I was going to take it. He was just too good to me, you know? So his deal was like, “You can have anything on my property except my old lady,” but I never felt right about doing it. Same thing goes for asking for stuff, too.
LM: What does the term “flash” mean and from where did it originate?
SJS: A sheet of tattoo designs that you have on your wall where your customer can come in and pick one of them is flash. They were always so bright, and it makes the shop look—as they used to call it—flashy. So that's where the word came from.
LM: Do you think you will ever come back to Kentucky?
SJS: Yeah. I would like to come back again. I've been here before. I was here about 18-years ago visiting a buddy of mine in southern Illinois, and he's pretty close to Paducah. So we were down that way quite a bit. At that time, there weren’t a lot of shops down here, but I’ve drove around [Kentucky] and it looks so much like back home. You really feel comfortable here right away. The people are nice here, too.
LM: Well, from a tattoo enthusiast to a tattoo legend, I want to say it has been an honor to interview you.
SJS: I appreciate you talking to me. I've been all over the world. I can walk into a shop in Holland and be recognized—not that I'm looking for someone to bow down to me, because I find that embarrassing—but I've walked into shops that I’ve never been in and they knew me. The States are even better. Here, I can go into any shop and they know who I am. They treat me really nice, but in my own country, I can go into a shop there, stand around all day, and they act like they don't even want to say “Hi” to you. Back home, it's like, “Who gives a f**k?”
And while the biblical adage of Luke seems to fit quite well here - "No prophet is accepted in his own country" - Sailor Jerry Swallow's deeply rooted anchor holds firm, it endures, and it will continue to inspire traditional tattoo artists the world over for generations to come. Thank you, Jerry.
Sugg Street Post
Written and edited by Luke Short
Interview by Landon Miller
Photos by Jeff Harp