Date of Award

Fall 2008

Document Type

Thesis - Restricted

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Garner, Ana

Second Advisor

Goldzwig, Steven

Third Advisor

Menck, Linda


As tattoos migrate from the margins of society to more visible and acceptable venues, there exists the need to study this cultural artifact in a comprehensive manner. While studies have examined the meaning of the tattoo as a readable text and as an act in Eastern cultures, discussion of the tattoo in the West has consistently focused on the tattoo as an act of deviance. This thesis breaks that pattern by engaging in an analysis of the tattoo design work, commonly known as 'flash,' of Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins. Recognized as a highly influential figure in the American tattoo industry, Sailor Jerry's work is analyzed with tools of art history, formalism and contextual ism, and semiotic theory to examine the content of his designs from the 1940s to the 1960s. In doing so, I illuminate the way compositional features of the designs highlight contextually pertinent symbolism in the imagery. The meaning derived from these combinations of formal, contextual, and symbolic features leads me to assert that Sailor Jerry 's designs communicate messages that speak directly to the times in which they were created by upholding significant cultural traditions and, ironically, reflecting the progressive cultural ideologies pervading the United States after World War II. This thesis, therefore, shows the value of looking at the tattoo as more than a deviant act by focusing on the content of tattooed imagery and identifying meaning in the work.



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