On a red-lit corner in Soho, between a sex shop and an abandoned building, there is a narrow doorway. Go up the dark, scruffy stairs and through a door and you’ll be in one of the best dive bars in London: Hotel Street. So named after the infamous Honolulu red light district where Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins founded his tattoo shop. The bar is part art gallery, part clothes shop, part music venue and part artsy cinema. If you like…well, ANYTHING, you’ll love this place. Do it soon though, because it’s only there for a short ‘n sweet little while. I’ll certainly be back for more.
Likely as not, you’ll be greeted by a vision with victory rolls in a Hawaiian print dress. This is Betty, a Sailor Jerry aficionado from Ohio, ‘where they love corn’. Betty can tell you Sailor Jerry’s entire history in full colour and with many witty anecdotes, as though she’d actually been there herself.
One particular gem goes a little something like this: Sailor Jerry had a pet monkey called Romeo that lived in his tattoo studio. One day the monkey managed to drink an entire bottle of black Pelikan tattoo ink. Sailor Jerry was understandably pissed off and when a sailor walked into the shop in his immaculate white dress uniform, he told him to take the monkey. At that moment, Romeo jumped on to the sailor and proceeded to um…EVACUATE the black ink all over the white uniform. In a rage, Sailor Jerry grabbed the monkey and tattooed ‘Aloha’ on its bottom, strategically placed around the ‘o’ of his…well, his arsehole. Great story – Betty told it better.
Ask her to take you upstairs to the gallery, where you’ll see Sailor Jerry’s original hand-inked tattoo flash that used to be displayed in his shop. There are acetate stencils that touched many a sailor (through which graphite was rubbed to mark the design on the skin), and most of the designs have the prices next to them – $2, $3 – so deliciously archaic and frozen in time.
Both Shaun and I found our visit to the gallery quite emotional. If you go to the Tate and look at a 500 year old portrait there’s no connection, no sense of reality. But if you’ve grown up hearing a person’s name and gradually learning more and more about the attached history, then looking at art they touched with their own hands is a deeply emotional thing. Indeed, Betty told us ‘I’ve seen two big tattooed men cry’; men who have original Sailor Jerry tattoos, inked by the legend himself.
And the man behind the magic was more than just an artist – he was a ground-breaking trailblazer. Not only did he give sailors a sense of home, a memory of faraway sweethearts or a spirit-lifting piece of ribald humour – he also had a radio show in Honolulu on which he often read poetry to the sailor’s wives back home. Most importantly, he was one of the first tattoo artists to insist on sterilising all his equipment – a massive change in tattoo hygiene. Everyone who talks about Sailor Jerry does so with warmth in their voice and real respect in every syllable.
So, what did we drink? Hotel Street Rule Number 1: do NOT order a Sailor Jerry’s and coke. You owe it to yourself to try the delicious cocktails on offer, and they come in seriously cute cups that I really wanted to keep but forgot to steal because I drank too much rum. Oops. Now before you start going on about the recipe changing let me give you some insider info. The only thing that’s changed is that the rum now has less sugar in it, making it easier to mix. If anything, it’s more like real grown up alcohol. So unless you want to look like a big girl, just pipe down and drink your rum. First, order a Mule. This is ginger beer, lime juice, bitters and – of course – Sailor Jerry’s rum. It’s spicy and refreshing and tastes like summer. This was a completely different experience from the cloying, sticky-sweet drink I remember from Wetherspooon’s when I was a teenager. Try it – you’ll love it.
Next you should have a Vanilla Mojito. I don’t think I really need to explain myself further on that one. When you’ve returned to Earth after your spiritual experience, try the Sailor Jerry’s Daiquiri. It’s one of the lushest things I’ve ever tasted – though I was in quite a dishevelled state by then. I must just warn you – if you drink with the Hotel Street crowd, be prepared to take a sip of something and find your mouth is on fire with Tabasco. Yeah, I fell for that. Doh.
In summation, we had a freakin’ EPIC night at Hotel Street – delicious drinks, hilarious and knowledgeable hosts, and a few memories that were strong enough to survive my rum amnesia. Big, huge, MASSIVE thank you to the Sailor Jerry’s gang – EmmaLi, Betty, Josh et al. It was a crazy night full of history, cowboy boots, cocktails and poo stories. And I’ve never said that before.
Hotel Street are putting on a variety of awesome gigs and screenings over the next few months, the dates for which you can check on the Hotel Street website.
Check out some of Sailor Jerry’s eternally respected tattoo flash on the HOWL Ink Pinterest gallery. Boobs ahoy!