The family of the legendary “Sailor Jerry” has sued the makers of a popular worldwide brand of spiced rum named after the iconic Chinatown tattoo artist, who died in 1973.
The lawsuit was filed in Circuit Court on Thursday, ahead of tonight’s scheduled, fifth annual Sailor Jerry Festival
in Chinatown in honor of the man known in real life as
Norman Keith Collins — a teetotaler.
In 2001, long after Collins’ death, a 92-proof, spiced rum came on the market under the Sailor Jerry’s name, and according to Honolulu attorney Mark Davis may now be the No. 1-selling brand in the world, perhaps even ahead of the Capt. Morgan brand.
Davis filed suit against New Jersey-based William Grant &Sons Inc. and Scottish-based William Grant &Sons, private companies. The companies took control of the Sailor Jerry brand in 2008, according to attorney William G. Meyer III,
an intellectual-property expert who is also handling the lawsuit on behalf of Collins’ heirs: his 83-year-old widow, Louise, and their four children.
“Over the centuries a basic tenet of every civilized society has been ‘thou shall not steal,’” Meyer said. “‘Sailor Jerry’ was the world’s most famous and iconic tattoo artist. His persona, his legacy, and his reputation were illegally co-opted by the wealthiest family in Scotland into being their involuntary spokesperson and marketing tool for one of their best-selling distilled liquors without any permission from, or any payment to, ‘Sailor Jerry’s’
The companies could not be reached for comment late Friday.
The attorneys said the Sailor Jerry brand and its issues came to their attention when a mainland film crew approached Meyer with a project titled “The Stealing of Sailor Jerry.”
The family also grew concerned last month when the rum company announced a new, 70-proof apple-flavored spiced rum called “Sailor Jerry Savage Apple.”
Three years ago, Davis said he believes, more than 1 million cases of Sailor Jerry rum had been sold by retailers, including Costco on Oahu.
“I bought a bottle at Safeway for $28,” he said.
Sailor Jerry is being marketed as Collins lived his life, with a couple of notable exceptions, Davis said.
Davis displayed a bottle with a label on back that reads, “The undisputed father of the old-school tattoo, Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins built his rep tattooing in WWII-era
Hawaii, in Honolulu’s brawling Hotel Street district, where soldiers and sailors came to raise hell before heading off to war. He was a master craftsman of unflinching integrity and in his name, we make our spiced rum.”
Under Hawaii law, Meyer said Collins, aka “Sailor Jerry,” has “a postmortem right of publicity.”
Collins’ family is seeking unspecified compensation for all liquor sold under
Collins’ name, and “we want them to stop making the rum under the ‘Sailor
Jerry’s’ name,” Meyer said.
Long before he became “Sailor Jerry,” Collins was born on the mainland on Jan. 14, 1911, and arrived in Hawaii from Nevada, where he became obsessed with the art of tattooing and was especially enamored with Japanese tattoo artists, the attorneys for his heirs said.
On his way back and forth to Japan, Collins met his
future wife, Louise, who
was on vacation in Hawaii.
In 1965 Collins had his own late-night talk radio show on KTRG 99 in Honolulu, according to the lawsuit.
One of his radio commentaries, entitled “Ode to Old Glory,” was read into the congressional record in 1968 by a California congressman, according to the
Collins wanted to join the fight during World War II but could not serve because of
a heart condition. Instead he signed up for the Merchant Marine, giving him his “Sailor Jerry” nickname.
Collins was an “important iconic figure” during World War II, when he set up a
tattoo shop at 1033 Smith St. that catered to service members going back and forth between the war in the Pacific, according to the lawsuit.
It was there that Collins developed landmark techniques still in use today, such as sterilized needles.
While Davis said other “Sailor Jerry” marketing
materials refer to a “rock-and-roll” attitude, in real life Collins and his wife lived
a humble, simple lifestyle.
Their primary possessions were their house in Waipahu, a motorcycle and the contents of Collins’ tattoo shop, which were sold after his death.
Collins and Louise never drank, and Davis said “Sailor Jerry” would have resented some marketing materials that refer to a “rock-and-roll lifestyle.”
“Despite his fame, ‘Sailor Jerry’ absolutely shunned publicity and was known to kick reporters out of his tattoo shop who came to interview him,” according to the lawsuit. “Although he was an imposing figure who was as tough as nails, ‘Sailor Jerry’ was also a wonderful and loving father and husband to his wife Louise
After her husband’s death, Louise — a retired registered nurse — could not maintain “her small
family home in Waipahu,” according to the lawsuit, which said the home is now in foreclosure.
Louise lives with her daughter and survives on Social Security payments, according to the lawsuit.