101 Most Influential People in Tattoo (No. 9)—Sailor Jerry Swallow
Preferring to fly under the radar, Sailor Jerry Swallow, the legendary old-school tattooist from Nova Scotia, is a master of his craft and one of a diminishing crew of innovators and charismatic OG’s that have paved the way for the current crop of world-class tattoo artists. Currently holding court at Stay True Tattoo, in St. Thomas, Ontario, Sailor Jerry is like stepping back in time and understanding what the roots of tattooing were all about. A brilliant artist (while his flash is pretty-much traditional old-school, his forays into watercolor art belies a magnificent talent and understanding body art design) and die-hard craftsman, the man’s work ethic alone has inspired countless tattooers who keep slinging ink year after year after year. And loving it.
Here’s the story I have told many times; it was published in Skin&Ink several years ago. It seems Mike McCabe wrote a story for me about his visit to Jerry’s shop in New Glasgow. It was an excellent exposé, extolling the many virtues of this time-honored artist and his graphic accomplishments over the last four-and-a-half decades.
After it was published in Skin&Ink, I received several letters. One of them stood out from the rest. It, in a very disrespectful and accusatory way, stated that Sailor Jerry’s artwork was second-rate at best, couldn’t compete with the current crop of young artists and should be dumped, unceremoniously, in a pile, along with all the other old-timers and has-beens of the tattoo world.
Since I loved to print outlandish and often vitriolic letters in my Letters to the Editor, I earmarked this one for the very next issue. I should point out that, besides publishing colorful, often hysterical letters from readers, one feature that the readers liked most was when I answered these very letters in the magazine and didn’t pull any punches in my responses. Hey, it was my magazine and I could do bloody well what I wanted. But, because the letter criticizing Sailor Jerry’s work was so over the line and without basis, I let it get go without comment. My mistake.
When the magazine hit the newsstand and Jerry Swallow saw that terrible letter, he let me have it. “How come you didn’t print one of your cool response, like you do with everyone else?” he wrote. There were also a few other choice words about my parentage and my right to edit scribbles on public restroom walls, let alone a tattoo magazine.
I was stunned. I had completely underestimated his reaction. I figured, of course, that the letter was so hateful and stupid that everyone, including Sailor Jerry himself, would take it for what it was: a letter from a crank. Guess not. So, with somewhat trembling hands, I immediately dashed off an apologetic email to Nova Scotia extolling the virtues of Jerry Swallow and bringing the hammer down on his misdirected critic. I remember writing something like, “Everyone knows and respects the many years of hard work and legendary artwork that you have produced, and any comments to the contrary are obviously written by someone who is either insane or knows about as much about tattoo art as a ground squirrel.”
Well, it turned the trick. Not only did Sailor Jerry Swallow answer me almost immediately, he completely understood, forgave me totally and signed his email “Friends Forever.” In fact, when we met in person for the first time in Calgary a year or so later, we embraced like long-lost brothers. It turns out that he was a big Larry Flynt fan, so I’d forward him memorabilia like Flynt’s annual Christmas card or invitations to special black-tie parties at the Beverly Hills Hotel. As for Jerry, he sent me something I will never forget: his gorgeous original poster he painted for the June 2008 issue. The same Japanese warrior poster that I have framed and hung, magnificently, on my office wall, right next to where I work, each and every day. It is signed, “With love n’ respects. To my friend Bob Baxter.”
Love ya, S.J. You’re the man.
P.S. I thought it might be amusing to add a small anecdote to the above story, just so you know how foolish I felt. When I wrote Sailor Jerry to apologize for that letter to the editor, I added a sentence that, out of nervousness and not proof reading my own email, I added something like: “No one took the guy who criticized you seriously. After all, no one has to defend someone as great as Sailor Jerry Collins.” Ooops. I was in deep doo doo already, and after hitting the send button, I realized my mistake and knew I had screwed things up even more. All that said, either Jerry Swallow read right past the mistake or didn’t pay it any mind, because his heartfelt response cemented a relationship that we have shared ever since that day.