Mountain View

The facts behind Sailor Jerry Rum

We asked Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand for permission to retrieve this article she published on her MySpace blog back in August 2009, regarding the Sailor Jerry brand

Tattoofilter in History
© Ellen van Doorn

By Shanghai Kate Hellebrand.

HONOLULU -- Life is wonderful in Hawaii. Gorgeous weather, sun, surf, sweet music, fruit and flowers that fall from the sky. My visit here in July 2009 has been the perfect vacation. I've been swimming in the deep blue, bobbing in the white water and trying to find my sea legs again. But all's not perfect in paradise. There's a darker side to this place of beauty. Life is wonderful here (anywhere, really) if you have money. It's a slice of hell if you don't. You can't get in a car and just drive away. You're trapped. It's an expensive place to live and many residents have to work two, three jobs just to get by. I know because I lived here for almost six years - 1973 to 1978. It took me almost two years to figure a way off the Islands. I had moved to Hawaii with my then partner -Michael Malone- shortly after Sailor Jerry had died in '73. We were given the great opportunity to purchase his estate. We were just getting started in tattooing and didn't have two quarters to rub together so I went to my family for the money for the down payment for the shop, all its contents and the use of his Jerry's name.

Malone and I became co-owners of that fabulous tiny landmark, 1033 So. Smith Street. No one else had any right to any of Jerry's estate. Not Ed Hardy, not Zeke Owen, possibly not even Louise Collins, Jerry's widow. And we were ignorant of what we had.

There's been a lot of water through the Ala Wai Canal (local joke!) since then. Malone took his own life two years ago, Hardy went on to "sell-out" his own name and legacy with a vast line of "merchandise," Zeke still roves the world and that world is covered in Sailor Jerry kitsch products from refrigerator magnets to rum bottles.

My purpose for this summer's visit has a stronger purpose than just spending time at the beach. I have an agenda, I need to connect with Louise, Jerry's widow, get her memories on tape and visit Jerry's grave. I need to set some things right. Why I haven't spoken up sooner is a mystery, even to me. I think it's because I've been so Old School for so long, possibly it's because it involves so many lifelong "friends." When all is said and done, however, I was naive, I dropped the ball. I've had some issues: injuries, movement, relearning an art that was almost successfully stolen from me. In the dark, devious actions took place. I didn't know how to begin to fix it. I'm getting a clue. Certainly these lies have to be exposed. Maybe it's not too late.


Some people are unaware that Jerry was an actual sailor, that he was a real person. Some people think he's just a fictitious character, like Mickey Mouse. He was larger than life, to be sure, but he deserves better than what his legacy would lead us to believe. He invented the magnum needle configuration, perfected the pin-up, was an electronic genius who refined the power pack, married Japanese and Americana imagery into a style he branded "Horimono" and introduced sterilization into our field. He wided the color palette, wrote "colorful" letters to friends around the world and made it okay to be intelligent in this business. All in all: he was the consumate renaissance man and everyone who loves the global, ancient art of tattooing owes him a great debt.

One of Jerry's best designs is a tattoo of a knife in the back of a unnamed sailor, surrounded by a pool of blood. Lettering underneath says: "Go ahead, everyone else does!" I doubt he meant this to be literal. However, those who professed to care most about him are the very ones who sold him out. Malone and Hardy, to be specific. Certainly not Zeke, who, at the end, was Jerry's chosen son - not the pretender to the throne whom Jerry disliked intensely at his end.

In the mid-1990s, I was approached by a Philadelphia t-shirt printer to exploit Jerry's name and imagery. I declined by saying: "Jerry dreamt his work would be in museums and on gallery walls, not cheaply made household gear and if I wanted to 'sell' him out, why would I need you?"

Not satisfied with this answer, the t-shirt "promoter" made a deal with my ex, Michael Malone, and Ed Hardy who basically "sold the rights to Jerry's name" to this promoter who then took the whole deal to Gyro Advertising. Jerry hated marketing publicity and advertising, so this alone was a violation of his values. What's more troubling, however, is that this deal is illegal. I was not in the room when the papers were signed, yet it was with my money the estate was initially purchased and I was then co-owner of the estate. It's like you own a car with your wife but decide to sell it without her knowledge. Can't be done. Hardy has no right to sell or act in Jerry's behalf in anyway other than his arrogant declaration that he is.

Flash forward to today: Gyro Advertising is no longer the owner of the Sailor Jerry Corporation. A United Kingdom liquor company (responsible for the rum) is. There's another lie: Jerry didn't concoct any rum recipe. The advertising agency came up with this idea. Jerry did drink years ago when he was a young sailor but had been sober for years when he gave up sailing and started concentrating on his work and raising his family. Louise says she never saw him take one sip. Being a strong Christian woman of faith, I take her word. No matter how delicious that rum may be, and many people tell me they drink it a lot, it's built on a lie. Jerry is spinning in his grave.

But what has his coffin on super-spin is that the Sailor Jerry "corporation" website proclaims at the bottom of every webpage: "We are a small, family owned business" and "we pay a royalty" on every item sold.

My meetings with Louise, Jerry's widow, tell a very different story. It took me 20 years to find her. We found each other quite by accident. I believe Jerry's spirit was involved. We've met several times in different locations but this time I wanted to take her to Jerry's grave to interview her. This is what she told me.

She has NEVER BEEN CONTACTED (not even a phone call!) by the "Sailor Jerry Corporation" . . . she has not received a penny from the sale of his name or images. She, in fact, is living on her Social Security. She lives basically out of one suitcase and the trunk of her car. This corporation lies without conscience.

While in Honolulu, Louise reluctantly took me to the home she still owns that was the site of the "Council of the Seven" - the first international tattoo convention on American soil, hosted by Jerry in 1972. The home is falling down because it needs so much work and is unliveable. She has no money to repair it. She cannot live in the home so she lives with a daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren in a two bedroom apartment. She has no bed of her own, she sleeps in whatever bed may be available for her. She earns her keep by babysitting the children: ages 11, 9 and 18 months. After the printing of the American Tattoo Master book by Ed Hardy, Louise received a complimentary copy from Ed and that's it. No money, no further contact.

Louise might have kept a keener eye on the happenings of the estate bearing her late husband's name. She has had little to no contact or interest in the world of tattooing and only discovered the use of her husband's name and images by spotting a bottle of Sailor Jerry rum at a chain restaurant's bar recently on a rare family birthday dinner out. I asked her why she didn't act when she saw the rum: "I didn't know what to do or who to go to." I've been angry about this for a long time and it's only recently that I've begun to figure out what to do and how to help. The first acts have been set in motion. I knew the man well and he wouldn't EVER want his name put on magnets and wallets and panties (well, okay, maybe panties). He wouldn't want his name to be used to sell rum. AND he most certainly wouldn't want his family to live in poverty while strangers he hated fattened their bank accounts through lies. He would want this put right.

Maybe we can find a way to get some honor back into this whole thing. Maybe we can't. But I can tell YOU, dear readers, what has happened and the lay of the land. One of my attorneys told me I could possibly shame them into responding. This is that attempt.

I have written books and I own a large collection of Sailor Jerry acetate tattoo stencils which I'll be posting on eBay for sale. I will be donating 30 percent of all sales of books, stencils, flash and drawings to Louise and her family. And I am asking you now, when you hoist your next glass of rum, to think of the man, the lies and the family that needs your help. If you can afford to buy a bottle of falsified rum from a liquour company that poses as his estate and lies about its donations, possibly you can make a small donation of your own to the family and the woman that loved him so much. If so, please contact me at: I'll make it happen.

P.S. Keep watching. This wrong must be put right and I believe, if I have any mission in life, it is to do this. Any questions, contact me. Possibly you could also ask these bastards: How can you sleep at night?

Mountain View
filter bychevron_right
Body partchevron_right
chevron_left back