Don Ed Hardy in his San Francisco painting studio in 2011. Photo by Emiko Omori

Tattoo Artist Don Ed Hardy on the Evolution of Tattoo Art in America

We met the legendary artist for a chat about his prominent role in the history of tattoo art.

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Jun 5 2015, 5:30pm

Don Ed Hardy in his San Francisco painting studio in 2011. Photo by Emiko Omori

Don Ed Hardy is a legend in the tattoo world. A lifelong artist with formal training outside the tattoo shop, Hardy is known for developing the fine-art potential of a medium that was formerly the domain of street thugs, prisoners, and transient sailors.

Hardy started his tattooing apprenticeship as a teenager and studied with such colorful characters as Sailor Jerry and Phil Sparrow, always with a Beat-influenced emphasis on integrating Japanese art into his practice. In 1982, Hardy and his wife Francesca Passalacqua formed Hardy Marks Publications and have written, edited, and published more than 25 books on alternative art. Hardy still maintains a tattoo shop in California, where his son, Doug, carries on the family skin-marking tradition, but he has since retired from tattooing himself, spending his days on his own non-tattoo artwork.


Watch a video made by VICE's Chris Grosso for Hardy's gallery talks:


Last month, Kings Avenue Tattoo in New York hosted Pictures of the Gone World, a pop-up gallery show of Hardy's tattoo art and paintings. Recently, I met Hardy at the shop. We chatted in the parlor's black leather chairs while his artwork was being installed. He was dressed in a button-down with one of his pink Ed Hardy T-shirts poking out—yes, he's the same Ed Hardy behind the ill-fated clothing collaboration with Von Dutch's Christian Audigier. Several artists from Ed's Tattoo City were hanging out, and a film crew who was shooting a documentary on female tattooers buzzed around us. Hardy and I had a wide-ranging conversation about his prominent role in the transformation of tattoo art from the fringes of society into a mainstream phenomenon.

VICE: Can you tell me about the artwork in this show?
Don Ed Hardy: I always did a lot of art besides tattooing. I was doing art before I was tattooing, and I eventually got back to being able to make my own art that was therapy art that didn't have to be for anyone. Or anyone's tattoo.

What do you mean by therapy art?
It's hard because tattooing is one of my art forms, but it's for somebody else, you know? It's for their idea or their choice. The stuff I do for myself doesn't have to be for anyone.

How much input would you have with your clients when you were tattooing?
A lot. I was the first person to open a studio that was strictly commission work. This was in 1974. I was determined to open a place that would have input from the person wearing the tattoo. A lot of tattooers, they didn't have to do it, or they didn't have the talent or the interest to do it. But it's what I was aiming for. I came out of a fine arts background—I have an undergraduate degree and all that.

'I hated that tattooing was just looked down on as this scumbag thing. I wanted to fight that fight, [to say] that the amount of ink in your skin didn't automatically reduce your brain cells.'

How was business?
My wife had a good job and kept us afloat during the first year when it was really, really slow. But it worked! People started coming in. I knew I could make it work in San Francisco or New York or LA because my feeling in those days was that a certain percentage of the populace would be interested in getting a tattoo. And SF was so alternative anyway. It was my home base, it was where I went to art school. So it made sense.

And after about a year, it really caught on, and it was really word of mouth. Some people had thought about a tattoo, but they didn't want to walk into a shop and get, like, the McDonald's menu that was on the wall, so my shop was different.

You mentioned a certain part of the population who would want a tattoo. Did you have an idea in mind about who would be seeking a tattoo at that time?
I didn't in those days, and of course now it's totally changed. When I started tattooing, there were about 500 tattooers in all of North America. In Canada, there were probably 25 tattooers in the whole country. So now there are 5,000 in LA County, there are 5,000 in Berlin... it was unreal.

Don Ed Hardy in Reno in 1975. Photo by Emiko Omori

How do you feel about that growth in popularity? Tattooing was an outsider art when you started.
I came out of the 60s, and we were just fighting for acceptance or recognition on any level whatever it was, you know, race, gender, everything. I hated that tattooing was just looked down on as this scumbag thing. I wanted to fight that fight, [to say] that the amount of ink in your skin didn't automatically reduce your brain cells. On the other hand, I hope everyone has a sense of humor about it, because so many people get tattoos now. But it's a little weird now that it's so accepted. You know, I love meeting people who don't have tattoos.

They're the weirdos now.
Yeah. Like, "Oh my god, you don't have a tattoo?!" I was obsessed when I was a kid. My whole life was about wanting to be a tattooer.

I saw a picture of you drawing "tattoos" onto your friends as a kid. Can you tell me how you started doing that?
My best friend's dad had been in WWII, and he had a bunch of tattoos. One thing I thought was so poetic was that he had [a tattoo of] the name of his favorite song, "Stardust," a huge song by Hoagy Carmichael in the 1940s. And even at ten years old I thought, that's really far out! So I just saw these tattoos on this guy, and his son Lenny and I said, "Oh, we can start a little toy tattoo shop, you know, start drawing on neighborhood kids."


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Did you charge?
Well, I tried to. I was charging like three cents. But nobody ever paid. We just wanted to tattoo because we wanted the practice.

When was your first time in a real tattoo shop?
There was a tattoo shop 20 miles north of where I lived, in Long Beach on the Pike, and there was this one guy, actually a really famous tattooer, named Bert Grimm. Amusement parks had bars and cooch shows and all this crazy stuff. This was before Disneyland, before theme parks. It was like the late 19th century still. In those innocent times, our parents would actually let us take the bus—we'd get on the Greyhound—and somebody would buy a pack of Marlboros and we'd go up and hang out all day in the tattoo shop and smoke and form our ducktails.

Wait—when you were how old?
Little kid—ten, 11. So it was cool, it was a whole other world, you know? I got to be 12. I thought, Well, you know, I dig the tattoo thing, and Grimm said, "Well, when you're 15, I'll teach you to tattoo." So I learned how to draw, but then I drifted off to other things. I started stand-up surfing and my life went a different direction. And then I got really serious about art when I turned 16 and realized it was my destiny.

Don Ed Hardy at Kings Avenue Tattoo. Photo by the author

You studied with both Sailor Jerry and Hirohide, is that right?
Yeah, that's right. Sailor Jerry, when I got into tattooing, was the premiere tattooer, the most talented guy in the world, and tattooing was so secret. I mean, people didn't advertise—you had to know somebody. I just chanced it and wrote him and sent him some pictures of my work. And then Jerry started writing me, and Jerry was the first of many renegade intellectuals in the business that I met. He didn't have any formal schooling, but he was really brilliant and profound. So I connected with Jerry, went over to see him, flew to Hollywood in '68.

Through Jerry, I connected with Hirohide in Japan, and had a really avid correspondence with him, and we all met at Jerry's Christmas of '72 and we all got tattooed by Hirohide. He brought his handtools and did some outline tattoos on us. I asked him if I could work with him if I came to Japan. He said OK—I think he just said it because he was telling me what I wanted to hear. So I got all geared up and six months later I moved to Japan.

'When I started tattooing, there were about 500 tattooers in all of North America. Now there are 5,000 in LA County.'

Anyway, I [moved to] Japan and then talked to Jerry's widow and found out he had died—he died about three weeks after I went [to Japan]. I was first in line to buy his shop from his wife, but I said, "No, I'm going to stay in Japan," because I got into tattooing wanting to do Japanese-style work.

The two other guys who were in line to take over his shop, one of them was Michael Malone. He ended up buying the Sailor Jerry shop and taught my son Doug. Malone vowed that if Doug ever wanted to get in the business or if Jerry's son would get in the business (he's about Doug's age), he would love to teach them. I told Doug, and he said, "Oh, do you think he really means it?" [Laughs] And it was like in one of those movies: You don't wanna join the mob, son!

Don Ed Hardy in the 'Newport Harbor Ensign' in 1956

Were you worried about it?
It shocked me because I didn't let him get tattooed when he was underage. I said, "You're not getting a tattoo when you're 15. You'll have all this Star Wars crap on you." So I made him wait until his 18th birthday.

When did you get your first tattoo?
I did these little ones on my hand, and I had some initials and stuff and things like that that I poked.

Wait, you did that to yourself? [Points to the markings on his left hand]
Mmm hmm, with some needle and thread—I wasn't even doing a design, I was poking around. And then I was like, "Well, this might stay there forever." I was having to keep my hand over my other hand so as not to show my mother. She couldn't believe it.

Don Ed Hardy's hand. Photo by the author

What about your first professional tattoo?
My first one I got about a year before I got my bachelor's degree. I looked in the phone book and saw this guy Phil Sparrow was in Oakland. I'd seen him in the tattoo courses I'd gotten as a kid. I said [to my fellow art-school students], "He's a famous tattoo artist. We should drive over the Bay and get him to tattoo us." He wasn't open, and we ended up getting tattoos at some other guy's shop, because at that point we were all fired up. And so I got a little rose up on my arm. The next day I went with another buddy, and Phil Sparrow still wasn't open, and so I got another tattoo from another guy. The third day I went over, I made sure to go over when I knew Sparrow was open, and I walked in and saw him. His shop was set up more like an art gallery. Everything was in frames, it was red and black, he didn't have a "dummy rail"...

'The problem with tattooing is there's great potential for ego abuse. It's great to find a tattooer that is talented enough and sensitive enough to make the piece the way you want it.'

A dummy rail?
Yeah, the rail all the dummies leaned on to watch the tattooing. It was a carnival, you know? So Sparrow had this great thing, music playing, and I thought, This guy's not just from the street. He showed me the book of Japanese artists' stuff. I got a tattoo from him, and I started thinking, I really want to do this, and he tried to discourage me. He said, "You're on your way to getting a degree, you're going to teach art, you have an infant son..." He said, "It's a deep dark world, and it's a dying art form."

A dying art form, huh?
I just bugged him until he helped me. I said, "I know where to buy the equipment, and I'll just screw up my art school friends if you don't help me with this! So the first work I put on was tutelage in his shop. And he said [sarcastically], "Yeah, Ed's gonna be the Jesus Christ of tattooing." And I said, "Just wait."

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I think you proved him wrong about it being a dying art form.
But he was so cool. It was a fantastic life he had. He wrote all kinds of books under all these different pseudonyms. He was a fantastic author. He wrote really hardcore gay porn that was published in Denmark in those days, and he wrote these mysteries with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. He was connected to all these famous American and European writers. He really helped me because he gave me this sense you could be in tattooing and you didn't have to degenerate into some street thug. You could keep an intellectual life going, and do this.

You mentioned that Phil Sparrow had classical music playing in his studio. Do you listen to music at all when you're working?
In the tattoo shop, I just had whatever kind of pop music was on. When I paint, I can't listen to music I don't already know because when I paint, when I do my personal art—you have to get in the zone, you know? You have to get in a trance. And so I love the repeat button. Sometimes I'll listen to a track 30 times. And it's all stuff I've heard a million times.

Don Ed Hardy in New York City in 2015. Photo by the author

What do you think is the essential difference in the form between tattoos and painting?
It's just the way you put it together, because essentially with tattooing, you can't use light pigments over dark pigments. So, technically, there's a certain method to the thing. There's no difference to me in terms of imagery and stuff.

When I started doing my own art again, it was a thrilling sense of freedom. I began doing stuff where I would blank out and not have any idea what I was going to do. [I went] from doing thousands of things you absolutely had to plot out in advance, and you couldn't really stop in the middle of them and think about them for a while.

I'd always wanted to work more freely. A lot of my work is really abstract now. It certainly has more painterly qualities.

If you were to give advice for people getting into tattoo arts now, what would you say?
They have to find somebody really talented and intelligent to work with. Somebody who knows what they're doing, that has the right attitude about it. The problem with tattooing is there's great potential for ego abuse. It's great to find a tattooer that is talented enough and sensitive enough to make the piece the way you want it.

How did you avoid getting that kind of god complex?
Because from the start, from way, way back, my whole deal was being a transmitter of the things that other people taught me. I was fortunate to encounter great people and then basically pester them until they helped me. I knew to pester them—you have to pester them! You have to push.

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