Don Ed Hardy

Don Ed Hardy changed modern American tattooing. He inspired fellow artists and tattoo collectors to move beyond the tattoo “menu” on shop walls and pursue custom, personalized art. Taking the lessons he learned from greats like Sailor Jerry Collins and Horihide of Japan, he created richly colored and intricate large-scale work that fused the aesthetics of Asian tattooing with traditional Americana. This powerful imagery thrilled fashion marketing mogul Christian Audigier, who put the Hardy name on everything from trucker hats to condoms. After 40 years of tattooing, the California native was able to retire with a sizable nest egg and fully return to painting, ceramics, and other mediums. Of course, Hardy remains connected to tattooing, largely through his Tattoo City studio in San Francisco, his publishing outfit, Hardy Marks Publications, and the occasional tattoo souvenir for a lucky fan.

INKED: When we noted online that we’d be interviewing you, Bowery Stan Moskowitz wrote to say “Only Ed knows Ed.” That makes a good starting point, particularly in light of the new DVD release of Ed Hardy: Tattoo The World. Does the documentary’s director, Emiko Omori, know you too?

Ed Hardy: Emiko Omori was really interested in telling a story that would extend the “Oh yeah, Ed Hardy the tattoo artist” thing, because I have a whole lot of facets to my life, which is probably what Stanley was saying [when he wrote], “Only Ed knows Ed.” He’s a kick in the pants. [Laughs.] I was in art way before I started tattooing, and she wanted to show the whole allover story, and I was up for that.

Emiko has been filming your work over a long period of time.

We’re really old friends and this just kind of happened. I had found out she did photography and video, and I asked her to document a wraparound leg tattoo I was doing on a guy from New Jersey who got a whole Japanese scene on his leg. I thought it would be very cool to have a moving photo of it instead of me taking pictures and trying to put it all together. Then she got turned on to the whole thing of moving images of tattoos that move, and it kind of segued into the film Tattoo City. I think she wrapped it up around 1979 or something like that, and it was a 30-minute piece. That was the beginning of it, and she just kept going and documenting me.

What’s the most important thing you want people to take away from this story?

I think the key thing, above and beyond any kind of subject is— it’s corny to say it—but if you really have a dream, kids… For me, in the mid-’50s, the dream was tattooing. It was so not cool then. It was such a marginalized thing, and I was just driven to do it. When I got into it coming out of art school, it still was totally looked down upon, and I just thought it had a lot of great potential, primarily as a medium, and I wanted to pursue that. That’s an important thing for people to know. But I know the playing field is so completely different now. People are always coming up to me saying, “Oh, I have a nephew or niece or whatever, who wants to be a tattooer, what’s your advice?” And I say, “Well, they probably shouldn’t do it. It’s so crowded. It’s not a sure thing. But if they are really driven to do it, maybe it will work.” There was an interview with Bob Dylan, maybe about a couple of years ago, and someone asked him, “If you were 18 and going to get into music today, what would you say to people?” And he said, “I would never do it.” Because he got into music at a time when it was right. I got into tattooing at a time when it was right.

Do you think the whole popularity of tattooing will dissipate?

No, I don’t think it will ever go away. My standard points are: I don’t know why people get tattooed. I don’t think there’s a good answer. It’s like, Why do you like art? It’s just something that’s a total mystery. That’s part of the attraction. I think that for whatever reason, it’s an impulse for our species—not for everyone, but certain people are just, Bam!

Almost like a tattoo gene?

That’s exactly it. Knowing how science has advanced over the centuries, maybe they’ll figure it out, and at some point go, “Yes, this is what it is.” But right now, the best we can do, and what we all have done, is emphasize the positive aspects and put it into a better social context. That’s much more important than who is the best tattooer. We have to look at the bigger picture. Of course, that’s important too—people striving to further the art and do stuff that’s going to be more interesting.

In the documentary, it’s said that your Realistic Tattoo Studio sparked an art movement. Could you discuss that a bit more?

I think it did. My whole deal, getting into tattooing in a nutshell, was to do something really different with it, offer people something that was way beyond the standard recipe on the walls of shops. It was all pretty much one flavor with some variants, but more or less folk art. That’s why, instead of going to graduate school and teaching art, I wanted to do that. After a number of years tattooing the street, tattooing in Vancouver and Seattle and then San Diego for four years, I went to Japan and experienced that firsthand working in a private studio. Although when I got there I realized that basically, they have their menu too; this place serves Japanese food. But it broadened my perspective. I came back and thought I could probably make it work in San Francisco or L.A. or New York because there was a large enough population base in those places of people with enough alternative perspectives on life that they would maybe be interested in tattoos that were unique. So in 1974 we built this private studio in San Francisco, with the urging of my wife, Francesca, and it quickly took off. I began building a base of people, really by word of mouth of like-minded people. Because of the Bay Area’s great tradition of bohemianism and eccentricity and alternate lifestyles and outlooks, it was a real fertile place for it. I was also getting a number of tattooers as clients from around the world pretty quickly—people who were often doing good work themselves and certainly interested in doing it. It was like they took the seeds of it and went, “Whoa, maybe I can go home and do this in my turf.” … It kind of spawned things and took off that way. In that sense, I think it was an art movement—a conceptual way of doing commissioned work instead of offering something cut-and-dried off the wall.

Along those lines, would you say tattooing itself is a fine art?

Lyle Tuttle gave an interview recently in a newspaper, and I loved this statement he made: “Listen, it’s a practice. I’m tired of hearing it being called an art. It’s a practice because a lot of it is just crap.” I have a hard time with those categories of what is a fine art, and I do have a built-in chip on my shoulder from art school. I got my degree in printmaking. Printmakers and those into ceramics were looked down upon by people who were like sculptors and painters. Any kind of elitist thing, which is a natural human tendency, just stinks. The work has to stand up on its own merits. Tattooing can be a fine art. It can be sublime, moving, inspirational, or funny—all the qualities that any kind of art could be in the right hands. It also has that supercharge that nothing else has. A person looking at a tattoo is not looking at a mute painting. Some people even think they can start touching it.
Oh, hey! One of my favorite stories of Mike Malone, my great brother in the business—a very funny cat—is about a woman who came into China Sea Tattoo, the Honolulu shop he took over from [Sailor] Jerry when he died. The woman was in there talking to someone else and then just reached up and pulled Mike’s sleeve up to see his tattoo. He turned around, didn’t even lose a second, and pulled down her tube top. She flipped out and is going, “I just wanted to see it,” and he said, “Yeah, me too!” There’s that electricity, that particular kind of thing that you don’t have with inanimate art.

Do you think today, especially with all the competition, it helps to have an art background before tattooing?

I certainly think, for me personally, that it really helped. But I wouldn’t say you have to to be a good tattooer. Certainly the great art impulse must come from within, really. As corny as it sounds, I really think it’s better to be driven to do art because you have to. There’s no one course that’s better than another, but I think the passion has to be there for it to really count.

Is a traditional apprenticeship necessary?

I know almost no one who went through a traditional apprenticeship. The usual way of people my age was you pestered somebody until they told you something. That’s what I did. I had gone to Bert Grimm’s and he wouldn’t tell me anything because I was still little—I was 10—and he told me to come back around when I was 15. I bothered Phil Sparrow. And then I met Tom Yeomans, a great tattooer who worked with Jerry. People started helping me and I bullshitted my way into it. I know there are real traditional apprenticeships, but a lot of times I hear people go so off the deep end with the great masters, especially the Japanese. They want to be the great Hori or sensei and they put their “you’re my apprentice” on and they’re just strutting around. They take themselves way too seriously.

What was it that led to your retirement from tattooing?

It’s sort of a two-point thing. I had bad trouble with arthritis, and I had both of my hips replaced several years ago for a variety of reasons. My hands were going—just the wear and tear of it all. I tattooed for over 40 years, and then the single graceful thing that happened—with this whole brand thing falling on my head—was that I didn’t have to depend on tattooing as an income. And that’s what kicked it off. It also reconnected me with my personal art, and that was a revelation.

Tell us more about your personal art.

I’m starting to work more abstractly, ever since I did that big dragon scroll in the year 2000—a 2,000-square-foot painting with 2,000 dragons on it. It freed me up completely. As soon as I finished that thing at the end of that summer in 2000, I started doing these very abstract paintings. I now paint with my whole body, not just the digits of my fingers as I would with a tattoo or etching. So my artwork just goes all different kinds of ways now. I don’t have an agenda with it.

It’s interesting how the Ed Hardy brand and unexpected commodification of tattooing has freed you up to do fine art. It seems at odds with commercialism in some way.

Before Christian Audigier, I was approached by two guys who had a cool business; their whole thing with clothing was introducing an Asian feeling to their casual garments. They actually responded to an article about a painting show that Bob Roberts and I had at Track 16 in Santa Monica. I don’t remember if it was 2003 or 2004, but they had seen the paintings and dug the Asian references in them. So I got into it, and that’s how it started. Then Christian saw it and just went ape shit. He said, “I must have this license!” He’s really from a different world. [Laughs.] He said that he’ll make this huge thing, and of course I was like, Right, take me to the moon. And then it went. But he did have that genius eye to recognize that people would respond to it strongly. Really, all the stuff we were using was essentially classic flash. A lot of the images I originated, and a lot were reused from old classics. It was just like that bold, beautiful, well-painted, heavy shaded, Sailor Jerry aesthetic thing. Everything that makes classic tattoos cool or makes them appealing to a wide body of people. Then of course I started getting shit from all kinds of people. I loved hearing it.

What kind of shit?

Well, “Hardy’s really sold out.” I’m like, “What do you think this is, the Sistine Chapel? Relax.” Get some humor about it—as long as things are being presented right. We had some problems when my designs got screwed with for a while and some legal things about that. Essentially, it is just a facet of my art, and I’m proud of all the flash and all the classic tattoos I did.

What would you like to leave as your legacy?

How would you like to be remembered? I think tattooing is the main thing. I think I did the most distinctive thing with that because I amplified its potential. If you find something that really speaks to you and you can make some kind of contribution to the world in some positive way, move forward with that.

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