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Posted on March 8, 2011

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Here’s to the Silver Sea

Tradition and Tattoos Collide During Sailor Jerry’s 100th Birthday Celebration in Hawaii
By Carrie Tucker    
photos by mikey inouye

“Snowpocalypse!” screamed the headlines as the Northeast geared up for its second winter storm in two weeks. Never mind that “snowpocalypse” is the worst word mash since “Brangelina” and should never, ever be used again—how’s about that prediction? Twelve inches, on the same day my flight’s supposed to leave for Hawaii. N.Y.C.’s mayor, Mike Bloomberg, having taken a Dog-the-Bounty-Hunter-sized hit (let’s just jump right in with some Hawaiian references) for his nonchalant attitude during the first blizzard, was already sending snowplows out in force. Meteorologists spread panic through the Tri-state, school and flight cancellations abounded...and this was before the damn storm even started.
But all the panic and stress dissipated the second I touched down in Honolulu. The 50th state was the only one in the nation not experiencing any snowfall, but the wet, earthy smell of Oahu’s recent heavy rain still hung in the warm air. The hills were neon green and fresh. A Polynesian woman walked around with a thatched cart offering sweet-smelling leis. Everyone was smiling and saying, “Aloha!” and “Mahalo!” and it was all so, almost embarrassingly…nice.
I’d soon learn this is the local M.O. Hawaii is a magical mystery land where time seems to stop for a little while and all the residents make you feel at home. My previous vague notions of a substandard scene and lack of inspiring community would be washed away like Greg Brady surfing the waves of Waikiki after Bobby found that stupid evil idol.

I was welcomed to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (aka the Pink Palace of the Pacific), one of the first hotels established in Waikiki, by the Sailor Jerry crew. They were in town to celebrate what would have been the godfather of tattoo art Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins’ 100th birthday. The series of events would eventually lead up to a secret show with local indie-synth-poppers GRLFRNDS opening for Black Lips at Mercury Bar in a back alley of Honolulu’s famed Chinatown. You know, the place where the phrase “stewed, screwed and tattooed” originated? You don’t know?    
Before we go any further, kids, a little history lesson: Tattoos are an integral part of Hawaiian culture, as much as pineapples and poke. Chinatown and its main drag, Hotel Street, is a hardboiled, seedy Americana now being reinvigorated, but still overlooked by Joe and Jane Tourist. During WWII, sailors would pass through Hawaii on their way to or from battle. They’d been on the water for months, just them and 500 smelly seamen, and were eager to get off…the boat, get off the boat! So they’d hit the docks in Honolulu and decamp to sordid Hotel Street, where young, scared kids would become young, drunk men through this rite of passage: Grab a shot of whiskey, hit the local brothel, then stop by Tom & Jerry’s shop to commemorate it all with one of Sailor Jerry’s bold-lined, colorful tattoos that would become the basis for Western tattoo art. This was the real Hawaii, we were told: The place that fed Jerry’s fascination with Asian culture, that kept him, a dyed-in-the-wool patriot, connected with the Navy—the place he fell in love with and never left. As someone thrust a ginormous Mai Tai into my hand, I was beginning to get the idea.  
First stop: dinner at the oldest hotel in Honolulu, Waikiki’s Moana Surfrider. Built in 1901, the hotel’s huge open-air patio surrounded alien-looking Banyan trees with their leathery leaves and aerial prop roots, and the flowers were so bright they glowed in the dark. Or maybe it was the jetlag. Black Lips, who’d just flown in themselves from one of the worst snowstorms in Atlanta’s history, joined us and would eventually refer to Hawaii as their best destination in a really long time. We indulged in platters of lobster and a whole fish standing on end, Wagyû steaks and champagne mixed with rum—no doubt a traditional Hawaiian beverage, right, Don Ho?—before shuffling back down the beach to the Pink Palace to get some rest for the next night’s festivities.
The morning of Sailor Jerry’s birthday celebration began at La Mariana Restaurant & Bar, the last original tiki bar in Honolulu. It sits right on the water and, like the Moana, is built around the Banyans. Low ceilings, gobs of furniture and mismatched tiki decorations might sound claustrophobic, but it comes across more homey than oppressive, like your great-grandma’s living room. Well, if your great-grandma was founder Annette Nahinu, who married a silent film star and opened a sweet tiki bar. Many platters of ahi sashimi and Mai Tais later, it was on to Chinatown, the infamous Hotel Street and the promise of old-school tattoos.
So how has the once-decadent Chinatown aged, and who does it attract nowadays? The same crowd as Bourbon Street and the Sunset Strip, spots where tourists go to check out music because it’s “world-famous”? Think again. Cute indie kids mixed with sunbaked locals, music—via local bands and DJs—spilled out of every other doorway; kids greeted the club doormen and each other by name as they strolled by. Excitement is palpable, apparent in every person you talk to about the Honolulu scene. Forget “Tiny Bubbles”—bands like dance-y rockers The Jump Offs, Lemonheads-esque Painted Highways, ethereal lo-fi Clones of the Queen, and GRLFRNDS have recently recorded albums with L.A. producer Manny Nieto (Health, Darker My Love) and opened for acts like Modest Mouse, MGMT and Matt & Kim. Great shows happen at Nextdoor, like the RVCA-hosted live graffiti with David Choe and Mice Parade, with nary a grass skirt nor ukulele in sight.  
After a visit to Sailor Jerry’s former shop (for historical purposes; we were promised souvenir inkings later), the film director and documentarian Erich Weiss suggested we hit the dingy Smith’s Union Bar. Weiss spent over four years making Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry: The Life and Times of Norman Keith Collins and companion book Homeward Bound, so even though he lives in Philly, Weiss’ recommendations are solid. As the oldest bar in Honolulu, Smith’s Union recalls the shady Hotel Street from the ’40s; there were rumors of dodgy bathrooms and fleabites, and immediately upon arrival, an older gentleman with a big Sailor Jerry-esque anchor tattooed on his forearm offered me five dollars to program the jukebox. Was this a test? Were they going to pelt me with coconuts if I failed? What was this alternate paradise where free jukebox credits, Mai Tais and old-school tattoos flowed like, well, Mai Tais?
Over at Mercury Bar, GRLFRNDS was getting the birthday party started nicely with its dance-friendly rock. The teensy club was indeed in a back alley and the whole thing felt like a secret living room show, the kind you feel lucky to stumble upon; the kind that, back on the mainland, is carefully cultivated and always pretentious. But this was chaotic and spontaneous; the ceiling was sweating, the walls were sweating and the kids clutching plastic cups of rum were sweating to Black Lips’ appropriately swampy, garage-y vintage set.  Dancing, jumping on the banquettes and shots ensued.  
So is it like this every night on Hotel Street? “It’s actually more fun, if you can believe it,” said Christa Wittmier, local blogger and columnist for “Honolulu’s Nightlife Diaries” and Honolulu Weekly. “Before Chinatown, all we had were ultra-lounges and super underground stuff. Not one place in Chinatown expects guys to wear a collared shirt or whatever, it’s all about the creativity of the performers or the DJs or the art.” Seems like a good time to be a band in Honolulu.
But let’s get back to those promised Sailor Jerry tattoos. Eager for inspiration, I asked Black Lips singer and bassist Jared Swilley for the lowdown on some of his own ink. The Germs logo on his ankle was self-inflicted at the age of 14. “In the state of Georgia you have to be 18 to get it done by a pro,” he explained. “I used a safety pin, India ink and a little piece of wood to hit the pin with. My second tattoo is really stupid and there’s a star in it and it reminds me of tribal crap. I think I’m gonna burn it or use a cheese grater to get it off.” Hardcore, dude!
“I got my third tattoo in Berlin,” Swilley continued. “My dear friend King Khan bought it for me. It says ‘Kukamongas’ and has two maracas. Kukamongas is kind of a gang of musicians that all have the same tattoo. There are about 30 others. I was the first and still the only American to receive one.”
Though I was at this point suitably invigorated and eyeing a giant Sailor Jerry snake and dagger design, it’s probably for the best that our tattoo artists for the evening wound up over-served and couldn’t come through.
The next day, I woke in a pool of Mai Tais and was carted off to a beach house in Waimanalo for a traditional yet rare Hawaiian luau hosted by the Sailor Jerry crew. While the word “luau” has come to mean “drunken party with hula dancers and coconuts,” it originated as the name of a dish made of taro, and evolved into a catch-all for “feast.” Kahumanu, our kahuna (or Hawaiian priest) for the evening, blew his conch shell to start the meal and offered up a traditional Hawaiian blessing. Kahumanu would be spotted later walking around the luau with what looked suspiciously like a Coors Light and a cell phone. But for now, he was leading us on a mystical food journey, starting with poke (melt-in-your-mouth raw ahi tuna) and ending with haupia (an addictive coconut gelatin dessert served in wobbly squares).  
In between, we experienced the magic of poi, an unattractive yet tasty purple paste made from pounded taro. It’s a staple of the Hawaiian diet, and the older it gets, the more sour it gets. I don’t know if that’s good or not. There was plenty of lomi lomi (cold diced salmon with tomatoes and onion), steamed opakapaka (pink snapper) Chinese-style, and Hawaiian BBQ chicken. But the star of the show was the roast pig, or pua’a, served off a bed of banana leaves. The Black Lips dudes shared the pua’a ears and tail.  “Crispy!” they declared.  
The evening ended with a bonfire on the beach and an impromptu Black Lips set of acoustic country covers. A neighbor, the wife of a pro-surfer, ambled over with her dogs to join in the fun. Someone jumped in the ocean fully clothed, and others followed. Back in New York, it was 20 degrees. People were not willingly jumping into piles of dirty snow. At that moment, as the ocean sloshed and warm wind blew, as bottles were passed and Willie Nelson songs were sung, “home” had nothing to do with the address on my I.D. Sailor Jerry had the right idea, after all. Aloha, suckers—
see you in Hawaii. F