His uncles told him, "Bernie, when you get to Hawaii, you need to look up Sailor Jerry and get a tattoo."
So Bernie Thompson, originally from Brattleboro, Vt., but a 30-year resident of Batavia, found Sailor Jerry and after a little effort, got his first tattoo.
Some 45 years later, the panther on his right arm is a little faded, but as far as Mark Fanara sees it, "it's the same arm Sailor Jerry worked on."
And that's pretty cool.
"The first time I worked on his arm, I was almost a little intimidated," said Fanara, who owns High Voltage Tattoo on Main Street, Batavia.
As far as Fanara knows, Thompson is the only person he's ever met, let alone given a tattoo to, who has the work of the legendary artist on his body.
Born Norman Collins in California in 1911 (he died in 1973), Sailor Jerry eventually settled in Hawaii where he skippered a schooner, played saxophone and gave young sailors tattoos. Eventually his fame spread the world over and he is considered the most transformative tattoo artist of the 20th Century.
"He's an American tattoo legend," Fanara said.
Thompson joined the Navy out of high school and because a friend of the family was a local recruiter, he was able to get himself sent to San Diego for basic training.
He was at the Navel Training Base in October, November and December of 1967.
He figured if he was going into the Navy in the winter, training in San Diego was preferable to the Great Lakes.
"And wouldn't you know it," he said. "It snowed while I was there. (It did in fact snow in San Diego in 1967). I was 6 years old. I barely remember it, but I do know it happened."
Thompson had two uncles in the Navy. One was a captain and the other had a few tattoos completed by Sailor Jerry, including a mural on his back which Thompson said he always admired.
As soon as he hit port in Hawaii in 1968, Thompson went to Sailor Jerry's shop.
Collins immediately asked for Thompson's permission slip.
It turns out, and Thompson didn't know it, that a seaman in 1968 needed written permission from his commander to get a tattoo.
Two days later, Thompson was back in Sailor Jerry's shop with his permission slip.
After looking through Sailor Jerry flash, Thompson settled on a panther, but he said Collins drew in some variations to make the tattoo unique. There is no other panther tattoo by Sailor Jerry that has the quite the same design or color.
It was Thompson's first tattoo.
Sailor Jerry told him, Thompson said, "If this is going to be your first, I can tell you it won’t be your last. I can guarantee you that.'"
Today, Thompson has 17 tattoos and Fanara is the seventh tattoo artist to ink him.
One of the most memorable was the 90-year-old Chinese man who gave Thompson a tattoo with bamboo in a parlor over an opium den in Hong Kong.
Getting a tattoo with bamboo was his uncle's suggestion.
"I could have killed him when I got home on leave," Thompson said. "It was one of the most painful ordeals I’ve ever been through."
Today, the 63-year-old Thompson was in High Voltage to have Fanara cover over one of his youthful tats, a pinup girl on his right forearm (see photo supplied by Fanara below).
In the coming months, Fanara will cover over one of his other tattoos and then complete a mural on his back started by a tattoo artist who has left Batavia.
Thompson said he discovered Fanara after stopping into his old shop on Ellicott Street some years ago.
The Red Sox had just won the 2004 World Series, but Thompson had been in an induced coma at Strong Memorial Hospital for the entire playoff and world series run. He wanted a tattoo to commemorate the victory, though.
Fanara, Bernie said, reminds him the most of Sailor Jerry because of his artistic touch and his professionalism.
"I came in and I was talking to Mark," Thompson recalled. "I said, 'I’m not sure my doctor wants me to get one yet because of the blood situation.' He said, 'That’s good.' This is where he reminded me of Sailor Jerry. He said, 'I wouldn’t tattoo you anyhow unless you had a slip,' and it dawned on me, slip, Navy, needed it. So I came back six, seven months later, we put (on) the Red Sox tattoo."
Previously: Tattoos gain acceptance as body art, statements of individuality