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From Tattoo Artist to Brand Empire: The Rise of the Ink Mogul

Tattoos have become increasingly popular in the last twenty years, and with them, the tattoo artist responsible for the ink. According to a 2015 Harris Poll, 3 in 10 U.S. adults have tattoos, and nearly half of all millennials are inked. From celebrities like Mylie Cyrus and Rihanna to politicians like Justin Trudeau, it seems like almost anyone can be seen sporting at least one tattoo. The popularization of this subculture has also resulted in cult-like followings surrounding the tattoo artist making the work. Celebrity tattooers like Dr. Woo, Bang Bang, Ami James, and Kat Von D have become household names, and in the process have elevated the craft. This phenomenon has occurred in part because the concept of the celebrity tattoo artist has emerged through reality television, the internet, and social media, exposing a broad new audience to their work.

The rise of social media and reality television has benefitted the tattoo artist on more than one level. It exposes the artist to a wider audience virtually for free and helps to grow their fan base, cultural capital, and tattoo business. This can be seen specifically in the rise of tattoo reality television, often centered around the tattoo artist and their work. The advent of shows like A&E network’s show Inked, which launched in 2005, or Spink TV’s Ink Master, to TLC’s now debunked, but widely popular, Ink franchise, have popularized the presence of tattoo culture. And in turn, the tattoo artist starring in each show has gained overnight fame that’s contributed to their tattoo business success.

Although the landscape of tattooing has reached this level of popularity, there is a larger business component to it. How do you go from being a celebrity tattoo artist to building a brand? When it comes to successful tattoo brands, it is hard to ignore the staying power of Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Kat Von D and Meghan Massacre. These artists have transitioned from being pop culture icons to building a brand empire.

The Original Tattoo Artist Empires: Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy

Within this elite class of tattooers, Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy are two artists who helped develop American tattoo culture from the inside out. Sailor Jerry, aka Norman Keith Collins, would go on to become one of the most prominent tattooers in American history. Born in 1911, in Reno, Nevada, Collins was raised in Northern California and spent his adolescence hopping freight trains. He eventually learned the craft of hand tattooing. In the late 1920s, Collins met Tatts Thomas, who taught him to use a tattoo machine, and Collins eventually transitioned to this way of working.

At age 19, Collins joined the U.S. Navy. Through his training and adventures in sailing, Collins became aware of the world and was exposed to the arts and culture of Southeast Asia. This imagery would come to have a profound effect on his work, as well as his love of the sea. Although Collins eventually left the Navy, he continued to work as a licensed skipper. In the 1930s, Collins settled in Hawaii, where he continued to hone his craft as a tattoo artist and conducted tours of the Hawaiian Islands.

In his forty-year career, Collins would come to have a lasting impression on U.S. tattooing practices. He was also one of the first tattoo artists to advocate for single needle use, developing his own inks, and a personalized method for cleaning his tools. His legacy lives on in the in the various flash images he created, tattoos and other pieces of art that would come to define him. The now-famous documentary Hori Smoku explores aspects of Collins’ life as a tattoo artist, and tattoo culture in general, while featuring various interviews with tattooers that Collins worked with and mentored, such as Ed Hardy, Mike Malone, and Zeke Owens.


tattoo brand
Models work the runway wearing Ed Hardy designs licensed by Christian Audigier.

The documentary helps showcase the reach of Collins’ work, however, it’s the creation of the Sailor Jerry Ltd brand that solidified the power of his work. His transition from tattoo artist legend to business mogul is also very different from other artists.  Formed in 1999, tattoo artist legends Ed Hardy and Mike Malone partnered with Philadelphia-based creative agency Quaker City Mercantile to form Sailor Jerry Ltd. Through the creation of this official brand, which owns Collins’ letters, tattoo art, and flash, a multitude of items have emerged that capture the spirit of the artist’s work. The brand has also expanded the types of products it produces,  which range from apparel, sneakers, liquors, playing cards, and other items.

When it comes to developing a successful tattoo brand, authenticity is key. Staying authentic to Norman Collins and his passions is essential for Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum,” says Josh Hayes, a senior brand manager for Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum brand. “We honor Collins and his art by partnering and recognizing tattoo artists that are authentic to the brand. We seek opportunities to elevate the art of tattooing and showcase its rich history. ”

The brand eventually expanded to include a line of spiced rum featuring the classic Sailor Jerry hula girl as the label. As the contents of the bottle decrease, more pinup girls appear on the label. In 2010, the rum made its international debut in the UK. The brand continues to remain popular and also continues to support the next generation of tattoo artists through its “Artist Series.” Although Collins has passed away, his legacy lives on his products.

Sailor Jerry is perhaps one of the foremost examples of the impact a tattoo artist can have on a brand.  “Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins’ artwork is the original flash art. It is Collins’ art that has inspired the works of similar artists like Ed Hardy and Kat Von D,” Hayes adds. “Ed Hardy was actually Norman Collins’ protégé. Collins’ tattoo art is known for its bold colors and line work. It is a true, American brand and all imagery used by Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum is from Collins’ original collection.”

Although Sailor Jerry has been a successful brand that Ed Hardy did have a hand in, it is Hardy who has truly made it to the next level with a tattoo business and brand. Today, Don “Ed” Hardy t-shirts, perfume, school supplies, and other kinds of apparel can be found in many stores across the country. Hardy licensed his brand in the early 2000s, several years ahead of Sailor Jerry. He eventually made the savvy move to license his work to French designer Christian Audigier, which helped expand his brand even further.

Prior to Hardy’s branding success, he was the protégée of Sailor Jerry. Hardy attended the San Francisco Art Institute where he graduated with a BFA in printmaking and eventually befriended and worked under Collins. In 1973, because of his relationship with Collins, Hardy was able to travel to Japan and study tattooing under Horihide, a master of Japanese-style tattoos. Since then, Hardy began to incorporate Japanese iconography into his designs, a practice now inextricably associated with his work.

In 1982, before the creation of the Hardy tattoo brand, he and his wife formed Hardy Marks Publication. Together, they published a five-book series entitled Tattootime. Since then, Hardy has gone on to publish over twenty books about tattoo art and beyond. In 2009, Iconicx Brand Group bought a 50% interest in Hardy Way LLC, the owner of the brand and its trademarks, forever cementing Hardy’s evolution as a tattoo brand empire.

Female Artists Forming Tattoo Brand Empires

When it comes to successful female-run tattoo brands, Kat Von D and Meghan Massacre are at the top of the list. While Hardy in many ways created a template for a successful tattoo brand, Von and Massacre blew the doors off of it. Von D and Massacre have also come to fame in the pinnacle of reality television. Von D was introduced to viewers through the TLC show Miami Ink. Eventually, producers realized her star power as a tattoo artist and produced a spin-off of the show, LA Ink, in which Von D was the star.

LA Ink served as a launching pad for the tattoo brand that would become Kat Von D. To date, she has had two New York Times bestselling books, a successful makeup line with Sephora, and a line of clothing. Additionally, Von D still runs a successful tattoo business in L.A., where the show was originally filmed, and also features different kinds of apparel. Von D also has a huge social media following, which has only added to her success as a tattoo artist and mogul.

Prior to her commercial success, Von D was a successful tattoo artist making a name for herself in the tattoo industry and breaking down barriers for women. Von D, who is of Mexican heritage, has also helped open the door for other tattooers to follow in her footsteps. Although LA Ink stopped filming, she continues to enjoy success through the larger tattoo brand she has created for herself.

tattoo artist
Tattoo artist Kat Von D quickly built a mutli-faceted brand after appearing on reality television. Photo courtesy of Chïllï jan.

Another artist who transitioned from tattoo reality television star to entrepreneur is Meghan Massacre. Massacre first appeared in TLC’s New York Ink as tattoo artist Ami James’ protégée. Operating out of the trendy NYC SoHo neighborhood tattoo shop the Wooster Street Social Club, James and his motley crew of tattooers delighted fans with their work. Massacre showed a lot of promise as a young artist and came into her own over the two seasons of the show. In addition to building up her tattoo skills and clientele, Massacre also worked as an alternative model.

With the cancellation of the show after three seasons in 2013, Massacre has since moved on to open her own shop in West Village called Grit N Glory, which is also the name of her tattoo brand. The tattoo shop and boutique offer a range of items for both men and women, including jewelry and clothes, and even homeware products such as candles and tea cups.

Massacre has smartly followed in the steps of Von D who has gone from a well-known tattoo artist to a budding pop culture icon and has branched out in the process. Like Von D, she also has a large social following which has only added to her success.

Artists like Massacre and Von D paid their dues and in the process, have built brand empires. Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy also came up in a different era and eventually saw a larger brand need that could be fulfilled. As the industry continues to grow and the tattoo artist continues to find fame, it’s likely more and more successful tattoo brand empires will emerge in the process.


About the author

Anni Irish

Anni Irish’s work focuses on the representation of bodies, fetishism, and the social history of tattooing in America. Irish currently holds a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University, an MA in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College, and an MA in Performance Studies from New York University. Irish has been a contributing writer to various websites and magazines including Teen Vogue, The Village Voice, and Brooklyn Magazine, among others. She is currently developing a manuscript on American female tattooing practices. Irish was born and raised in Manchester, CT and resides in Brooklyn, NY with her 9-year-old mini lop rabbit, Isabella.

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