by Jason Whyte
Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry - At SxSW '08!
“If you really want a true classic tattoo you’d have to go back in time and head to the humid, drunken streets of Chinatown, Honolulu. That’s where you’d find Sailor Jerry Collins.
Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry is the first film of its kind, about the roots of American tattooing, told through the wild eyes of the men who pioneered this pure form of American folk art and were influenced by its most famous artist, Norman K.”Sailor Jerry” Collins.
Is this your first film in the at SxSW? (Or the first film you have) Do you have any other festival experience?
First time at SXSW.
Will you be coming to Austin to attend the festival? If this is your first time, what do you expect to discover? If you have been here before, what do you love most about the city?
I’m excited to premiere the film in Austin. Mike Malone, one of the main interviewees in the film, (and an amazing person in general), was based in Austin for many years. Mike passed away a year ago- it’s an honor to show this film in a town that meant so much to him.
Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?
Pretty simple- my family ran a restaurant in Philly; when I finished college I went to work for a well-known Steakhouse in D.C. to learn the biz. I was 22, green, and working at a place where ego was served as a daily special (which probably prepared me for LA in retrospect). I was terrible- I mean, extremely bad at it. I liked the creative aspects of the kitchen - but lets just say people skills were not my thing. So I did what most 20 somethings do… I went to tending bar.
Eventually, reality set in and I went to seek a profession away from the service industry. I had a fine arts degree (it was covering a whole in my wall) so I took a job as a graphic designer right when everything was going to the Mac. I eventually became an art director at a couple different ad agencies; my last job of that nature was Art Director at Comcast.
I always liked to shoot and never really could swing it in the 9-5 world, so I started doing small video projects, working production, scenics, music videos, that kind of thing. Being from Philadelphia, the “artistic world” is quite small and close-knit, so projects would find me. As luck would have it, a friend of mine who ran a production company (Tycoon) began working on a project with a then little known performer named John Legend, and they needed a cameraman. I ended up touring with John around the world for roughly 2 years, filming his tours and charitable missions like the Show Me Campaign with the Jeff Sach’s Millenium Promise organization.
I was totally hooked. I loved it, the energy, the travel, and the opportunity to film and craft a story. From working with John, I was able to work with more directors, artists, and performers, which led to some commercials and music videos and the inevitable move to that mecca of B.S. – Los Angeles. I was back in Philly for bit seeing family, when I was approached by Steven Grasse, the owner of the Sailor Jerry Brand. He wanted to do some archival interviews with Mike Malone and Don Ed Hardy, the two tattoo artists that inherited the artistic estate of Sailor Jerry Collins. I’ve been getting tattooed since I was a teen-(symbols of a misspent youth), so I jumped at it. After two days at Ed’s and Mike respectively, Grasse was real excited and we all decided there was a lot more to film and a great story to tell …a year and half later we cut Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry.
Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!
I have had every shit job you can think of, so it’s not so much “who” I wanted to be, more so “what” I wanted to be. “Fulfilled” would probably be the best answer.
While you were making the movie, were you thinking about the future release of the film, be it film festivals, paying customers, critical response, and so forth?
Its funny, we didn’t set out to make a movie per say. We really just wanted to document Mike Malone’s and Ed Hardy’s story and get some insight into Sailor Jerry’s life. As we interviewed everyone, we all started thinking ”Hey, you know there really is something more here…” Each interview opened up another door; like in San Francisco, Ed Hardy would say “You know, I don’t really know that story but Zeke would…” and then boom! Hardy would make a phone call and 3 weeks later we would be sitting with Zeke Owen in some tattoo shop in Maryland hearing these crazy yarns. I mean, you enter this secular, secret world, and its all sorts of people vouching for you to the next guy -like Zeke, you meet him and he’s like everything you wanted to be as a kid- this stuntman/biker/tattoo artist “Lee Majors” type of dude with Hawaiian shirt and crazy stories of bar fights in Guam or riding his Harley across America with a tattoo needle sterilizer strapped to the back.
And the list goes on… we started to realize that all these fiercely independent guys have a shared lineage and artistic respect to this one man, Sailor Jerry. It really hammered in the fact that Jerry shaped tattooing as we know it; he created a type of American folk art that combined the Asiatic nuances of what was being done in Japan with the traditional blood and thunder bold lines of American tattooing. And he did this all from a tiny little shop in the middle of the seediest strip in Hawaii at a time when the world was still such a big place…and so our story basically evolved from there…
Of course, now that it is all said and done, we would love as many people to see it as possible-in theatres or festivals, especially with how tattooing has become so commonplace in pop culture today…I think its important to show the roots of tattooing in America- to show that it wasn’t this hipster thing; it wasn’t du jour or “family friendly”- it was dangerous and adventurous and scary. People earned their way into that world- through apprenticeships and pure will. Everyone we interviewed showed this deference towards their teachers- whether it be Philadelphia Eddie towards Bob Shaw, or Michael Malone to Sailor Jerry, and there is something to be said in that. I think one of the best moments in the film comes from when we were sitting in Taylor Street Tattoo in Chicago, after we had interviewed Mike Malone. Taylor Street was owned by Mike and his protégée, Keith Underwood. Well, Keith and I are talking, and in walks three naval cadets- dressed to the nines in shore leave uniforms- straight from the Great Lakes Naval Academy. They were getting ready to get shipped off to Iraq and were marking the moment. The kid picks some flash- an old Malone re-draw of a Sailor Jerry classic. So there’s Keith tattooing this cadet with a Sailor Jerry “Homeward bound” tattoo- doing what his mentor's mentor did 60 years ago! To me, that sums it up pretty damn well.
How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.
Basically Steven Grasse wanted to interview two of the artists that inherited Sailor Jerry’s artwork (Mike Malone and Ed Hardy) and we all soon realized that there was A LOT more to cover, and that there was an amazingly interesting story waiting to be told. It then became a series of people vouching for us and introducing us - Don Ed Hardy played a HUGE ROLE in this, and traveling the country interviewing generations of tattoo artists. We then gathered up all this footage (Im not even sure how much it was in the end) and began to craft the story that you now see.
What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?
With all the footage, obviously editing it all down to its core elements was a real task within itself. I credit my editor, Anderson Bradshaw, for working that out- at times it was a bit daunting to say the least.
Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.
Run and gun! We shoot HD digital out of budget and time constraints; a lot of these interviews were spontaneous/spur of the moment…no real time for set up/lighting etc…mostly available lighting. A lot of the people in the film were real cynical about the project at first- most coming up in a time when tattooing was still a real private world- many don’t really agree with the current high profile nature of the business (Sailor Jerry was also notoriously against that kind of hype) and you got to respect that, so we felt like barging in with a bunch of cameras and equipment wouldn’t exactly be the best approach. Many a times, it was casual, and then we would whip out the camera. We wanted real stories- not cleaned up for the camera lights. So it wasn’t an artistic decision, it was a practical decision.
Additionally, we really were limited with the amount of imagery of Sailor Jerry-the man himself – both photo-wise and film-wise…like I said, he was notorious for not wanting to be filmed. In fact, Ed Hardy told me a story about how Jerry’s funeral was actually filmed but when extended members of the family went to view it on the projector- the film caught fire and burned up! It figures….
Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?
I’m a big fan of Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh's ‘A Certain Kind of Death.’ That film is beautiful. Julie Temple’s ‘Filth and the Fury’ was an inspiration for our project in the way we handled all the information in the film. His technique in mixing in the archival footage, music and so forth.
How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself directing larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?
I’m game for whatever. If the story is good and the work is fulfilling- it can be Ramen or Roll Royce… whatever.
If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?
There’s a scene in Penelope Spheeris’ ‘The Decline of Western Civilization Part II’, where she asks this headbanger / Sunset Strip dude the same question. His reply is something to the effect of “in a gutter somewhere”. Im like that guy only with worse hair.
Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.
I have a slight hetereosexual crush on Steve McQueen. We share a birthday. But he is in serious retirement, [as] he is dead.
Do you think that you have “made it” in this profession yet? If you don’t believe so, what do you think would happen for that moment to occur?
I’m sure someone will let me know when I “make it”. It’s usually followed by someone asking me for money.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
It’s always important. Do I think people in the tattoo world will want to see this movie- yes, of course. But I think its themes do resonate outside that world and Media matters all around…right?
If this film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?
The one a block from my mom’s house.
What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local goo-gooplex?
Do you like explosions? Cool, because this movie doesn’t have any.
No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?
Be real nice to that rich uncle. Or like most people, get experience and keep working…albeit dog food commercials or student films, whatever…always be learning.
And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
Check my myspace page… just kidding…too many to list.
This film is one of the many features that will be screening at SxSW this year from March 7th to 15th. For more information on this film, its screening times and for more information on SxSW, point your browser to the official website. – Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2418
originally posted: 03/01/08 18:28:33