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!