An Interview with Don Ed Hardy

When Don Ed Hardy finished art school with a degree in printmaking during the ’60s, he chose to practice a form of art that had intrigued him since he was 10 years old – tattooing.

Becoming a renowned innovator (incorporating American and Japanese visual traditions) and shopkeeper (founding the first Japanese-style private studio in America), as well as a chronicler, Hardy published TattooTime/Hardy Marks Books such as Music and Sea Tattoos.

And Pierced Hearts and True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos.

Along with a few other individuals, he has pushed his medium beyond the common perceptions (like bikers and drunken sailors) to a socially accepted form of individual expression and occasionally, a fashion statement.

During the last ten years, Don Ed Hardy has focused increasingly on painting and has recently decided to no longer use his tattoo guns. Nonetheless, he still provides guidance to the artists in his San Francisco shop, Tattoo City.

His artwork has been featured on clothing, footwear and hats as a result of being licensed to a designer. Furthermore, he has partnered with a company to launch a range of Don Ed Hardy temporary tattoos.

_I gave Hardy a call while he was in San Francisco from his Hawaiian abode.

Our talk was trimmed down for length since, being part of the American tattoo legacy, he is well-informed, happy to impart his knowledge, and, as he openly admits, “can go on and on” like all tattoo artists do. _

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The Believer asked Don Ed Hardy to discuss the unprecedented global popularity of tattooing. Hardy explained that it was a twofold process. On one hand, he had to use formal methods to get people interested in more elaborate and personal tattoos.

At the time, tattoos were mainly associated with the lower orders of society and the bikers were only just beginning to get them. Additionally, the available artwork was not very artistically done. Alongside this, Phil Sparrow (real name Sam Steward) was a major contributor to the rising popularity. He was a writer, part of Gertrude Stein’s circle, and close to Alice Toklas until her death.

BLVR: The writer of Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos, a book that is considered to be a significant contribution to the study of tattooing culture, is none other than him, correct?

DEH recounted the story of an incredible teacher-turned-tattoo artist he had met in the Midwest. He was the first of his kind DEH had encountered and he wanted to show that tattooing was an art form.

At the time, there were only five hundred people in America and eight in Canada with the same profession. He started to gain recognition by painting and giving military personnel unique designs.

His work was heavily influenced by Asian designs, which made it stand out and become popular. Additionally, DEH was mentored by Sailor Jerry in Honolulu. It was not until 1973, when he went to Japan to work with a tattoo master, that he made a big leap forward in his career.

BLVR: Recently, my mother got her initial tattoo. We went to a shop here in Seattle, Madam Lazonga, and what I noticed was that there were more charcoal figure drawings on the walls than tattoo flash.

[Flash is the term utilized by tattoo artists to refer to the designs you perceive on the walls or in display books in tattoo shops–the generic images that can be customized or put on as they appear.]

I was intrigued to know if another part of this is that people with a background in the “fine” arts, including education, interests, and goals, are also getting into tattooing?

DEH: Well, I had a lot of responsibilities while I was finishing up my undergraduate studies, and I was planning to go to graduate school and teach.

Fortunately, my mentor Gordon Cook (an amazing artist and printmaker) advised me to take a different path instead of following the conventional route. When I got to know Sparrow and saw the possibility of making a living out of tattooing, I decided to take the plunge.

Gordon shared his own experiences with me, and that was the moment I knew I could make it.

For those who have recently finished art school or who possess natural artistic talent, there is now a way to work independently and be self-reliant. This is what is driving the popularity of this format in the majority of shops.

Customers are aware that they can enter and ask for a particular design. At one time, customers were limited to the tattoo designs that were available, but now originality is more important.

Before, many of the traditional American tattoo designs were the only option, but the tattooers lacked the artistic ability to create original designs.

An image is presented which displays a man in a suit, wearing a pair of glasses and a tie. He is standing in a room filled with books, shelves, and a desk. The man appears to be deep in thought, and he is surrounded by the atmosphere of knowledge and scholarship.

Milton Zeis, in Illinois, was a tattoo supplier and photographer who sold a mail-order course. Sparrow wrote a lesson for it, but he was of the opinion that it was as good as trying to learn how to swim in the living room.

Tattooing requires a hands-on approach. I got the literature from Zeis when I was between ten and eleven, after I answered an advertisement in the back of Popular Mechanics and they didn’t know my age.

One of the pamphlets contained a quote that said, “If you can write or trace, we’ll teach you to tattoo.” In the 1950s, the options were limited and people weren’t able to be very specific with what they wanted.

So I received a lot of resentment in the tattoo community for revealing more information. Individuals come up to me and say that I messed things up because now customers demand certain things.

I have a lot of respect for the old-school tattooers, as well as the younger ones, and I understand the importance of tradition, but the art needs to evolve.

BLVR: Was your educational background at the San Francisco Art Institute?

DEH: During the years of 1963 to 1967, I was at the Art Institute and attained a diploma in printmaking.

BLVR: What was your experience like while employed at that position?

DEH’s work was greatly impacted by Gordon Cook’s aesthetics, which focused on creating realistic landscapes and still life pieces from on-site sketches. He was also inspired by the Asian aesthetic, yet his art didn’t look like Asian artwork.

Giorgio Morandi, an Italian painter and printmaker, was an artist’s artist for his subtle and sophisticated style, although he is not a widely known name. DEH’s art embodied a mindset of being mindful of the everyday, a concept related to Zen.

At seventeen, DEH wanted to be like Edvard Munch and make dark and tormented artwork to match his own state of mind. But meeting Cook changed his perspective and the discipline of paying close attention improved his drawing and perceptual skills.

With the experience of working on fine and tight details, transitioning to tattooing was a natural progression. The challenge of making marks and having them be permanent appealed to DEH, as it reminded him of his interest in tattooing since he was a child.

BLVR: Your tattoo art is well known for blending Western traditions and Eastern motifs, particularly those of Japan. In addition, you are also noted for your incorporation of car and surf culture.

Consequently, your work is an expression of the Californian lifestyle. Do you think it would be the same if you had grown up in any other place?

DEH: My entire being and identity is a result of being raised in the California environment, from my formative years spent in Southern California’s coastal areas, to my relocation to San Francisco at eighteen to be part of the Bay Area’s social and artistic scene, particularly at …

My formative years were greatly affected by the beach culture I was exposed to as a child, the emergence of the hot rod and Kustom Kar culture in the mid-50s, tattooing, West Coast jazz, early rock and roll, and my early exposure to Asia.

My father worked in occupied Japan when I was six, and he sent home Japanese souvenirs like silk robes with embroidered dragons and porcelain pieces.

This prompted me to read Howl, Corso’s Bomb, and other City Lights publications and become interested in Eastern thought and the wildness of the Beats.

The roots culture in California in the 1950s and ’60s has had a deep global impact and replaced many Eurocentric patterns.


BLVR: Can we discuss a certain artwork of yours? In Another Day in Paradise there are multiple sources of inspiration, such as pot-bellied Japanese devils, a version of Hell inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and maybe even an allusion to the label of Little Devil Firecrackers.

This brings up the question of your association with pop art. Would you consider yourself to be in that tradition as well?

DEH noted that the seminal pop painters had not necessarily been imitated, but their popular imagery had been used. This was a reaction to the abstract-expressionism which had been the dominant art-world rule.

The idea was to bring back everyday visuals and show that when emphasised correctly, they could have strong formal qualities. He denounced the idea of elitism and the notion that art was only for those wealthy and intelligent enough to understand it.

He admitted to having a balance between classical education and its place in visual culture. Walter Hopps’ 1962 exhibition, The New Paintings of Common Objects, showcased works by both West and East Coast artists, such as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Ruscha.

This was to demonstrate that the movement was not merely limited to comics or soup cans, and that the artists knew what they were doing, making a real impact on the world.

BLVR: As you were involved in the creative community while getting tattoos, you were also working on some painting, correct?

DEH stated that for the past two decades, he had been solely engaged in the art of tattooing. Starting in 1966 on his back porch, he was instructed by Phil Sparrow and was able to tattoo himself and his friends at Sparrow’s shop.

He continued to practice at his porch and eventually got into it completely, leaving no time for any of his own art. That was until he made the move to Hawaii in 1986 and realized that he could use the time to produce something of his own.

Every year I tried to make a New Year’s resolution to make some art for myself, but I would usually fall back into the routine of work. I was pleased to be that busy, however the energy of being in the tattoo industry absorbed everything else.

I continued to be involved with the art world, having some friends and attending their shows. I also went to some important museum shows. I hadn’t completely abandoned high culture.

When I had been working on tattoos, I sort of felt like I was in a standstill. But when I began to come out of it, I discovered that I had become reliant on people coming to me to get tattoos. I had the tools and the space, but what was I going to do? This really hindered me.

BLVR: The documentary Stoney Knows How , featuring Leonard “Stoney” St. Clair, an old-school tattooist, brings the differences between the two realms that you’ve operated in to light.

Tattooing is not only a commercial art form but also one that is practiced out in the open, and it requires the artist to have not only artistic abilities but also those of a bartender.

I was wondering if that is the case in the East as well, and if you are relishing the seclusion of the studio.

DEH: Yes, of course. Tattooing is a joint effort. It’s a form of commercial art, and it’s a job. Whenever a client comes in, they tell you what they want, and you are responsible for providing them with that. So, when you’re talking about the East, are you referring to Asia?

BLVR’s location of focus is Japan.

Japanese tattooing is traditionally a very private affair, with an artist and a client interacting in a respectful and formal way.

This inspired me to open a shop of my own in San Francisco, where one had to be introduced and then the artist would decide if they wanted to take on the tattoo.

Bob Shaw, a great American tattooer, had a saying: “If you can’t blind ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with bullshit.” I found that carnival-like aspect of tattooing in the West to be attractive, but it’s also tiring since you learn too much about people.


BLVR: The common assumption that tattoos are permanent is often challenged due to their tendency to fade, which is a notion that is seen in some of your earlier pieces of art.

For instance, Haptic King of Sweden and Save Your Face (D.I.Y.) both mimic the way tattoos on skin can fade. Moreover, American Beauty from 2002 is another piece that addresses the ideas of permanence and impermanence.

Additionally, you work with acrylics on acid free archival paper, suggesting a quest for something lasting.

DEH has no qualms with the lasting power of art. He often opts to make pieces that look aged because of his fondness for the hazy history that surrounds such work.

Acrylic is used due to its convenience in cleaning. He has no desire to create art for future generations. Even when people criticize him for not using archival supplies, it doesn’t have much of an impact on him. Ultimately, it won’t matter to him, since he won’t be around to see it.

I appreciate that tattoos don’t last forever. You can’t be so boastful about it, because it won’t be like a masterpiece. This tattoo is going to be gone in a few years. It’s unfortunate when they fade away.

I feel sorry for whoever I knew that it happened to, but at the same time, I understand that it’s just the way life goes. People tend to place too much emphasis on permanence and history.

Even though we should respect and learn from it, I’m not doing this for the sake of being remembered.

An image depicted on the screen can be seen with a figure leaning against a wall. The person has their arms crossed and a sad expression on their face. The individual is alone in this moment, and appears to be in a state of contemplation.

BLVR: Something that I found particularly interesting about your recent paintings were the images that were hidden beneath swathes of ribbons. Generally, in tattoos, the ribbon acts as a vehicle for a message, an extra piece of information that is not the main focus.

What your paintings do, by removing the text from the ribbon and making it the main focus, is to suggest a change in your artwork away from the more literal kinds of meaning present in your earlier work.

People often ask what an abstract painting means, but usually it just conveys a visual idea and what is important is seeing it, not explaining it. Is this an accurate assessment? Are you moving towards a less “meaningful” style?

DEH’s goal has been to encapsulate the “meaning” within the artwork itself. He views the “subjects” as a way to draw people in to see the creation. In the Asian tradition, the goal is to show the essence of a subject, regardless of its physical form.

All of this is meant to convey a sense of the unknown, to create a reverberation of the force that drives everything. He saw tattooing as the most untapped and volatile visual medium, an exciting challenge to work with.

It is a business, so the client’s request is taken into account.

The medium’s subject or content is whatever is visible or its signification. When I had the chance to make art for myself instead of working on requests, I could focus on my intuition.

My art is entirely spontaneous without any prior drawing or thinking. I draw from a collection of images that have been accumulating for fifty years, and I incorporate words and phrases together to create new sentences.

In 2006, I began creating art with ribbons, which is linked to my captivation with ribbons and phrases which are associated with Western tattoo culture.

Moreover, I am drawn to the ribbons that are commonly seen in Northern European art from the sixteenth century, such as Durer’s pieces. These ribbons often appear without words, and I investigate them deeply when I first learned etching in the 1960s, combining them with meaningful images.

This form of art is a mystery to me and provides me with an endless supply of possibilities.

In general, tattoos are most commonly seen as a form of folk art.

DEH: Indeed, the famous pieces, the emblematic items. It’s probably better to call it borrowing. Even so, most of them have been taken from elsewhere.

BLVR: Both folk art and high art provide opportunities for appropriation.

Did you have any misgivings when it came to granting permission to use your work in commercial endeavors? Do certain commercial art businesses have a less favorable attitude towards appropriation compared to the folk art or high-art system? Was that something that you pondered?

My Japanese associate noticed an article about my exhibition in Juxtapoz magazine and contacted my Los Angeles partner.

He liked my artwork as it was Eastern-influenced yet very distinct. Christian Audigier was enticed by it and had recently departed from the Von Dutch business.

He was particularly captivated by my vintage tattoo designs that I had painted for sailors and marines four decades before. A lot of people in the tattoo industry are mad at me for it, but I remind them that I am sixty-two and now I can finally receive royalty checks without having to tattoo. As a result, I’m now able to devote a majority of my energy to my own art which I consider my golden retirement.

I heard from someone that they had seen a photograph of Elizabeth Taylor wearing a Don Ed Hardy hat.

DEH: Are you familiar with the [Asian/pop-culture magazine] Giant Robot? Martin Wong, one of the proprietors, recently sent me a message. He had gone to a Burning Spear show and the lead vocalist was wearing an Ed Hardy T-shirt.

People are constantly telling me about sightings—for example, so-and-so on TV, Hulk Hogan. I’m not knowledgeable about fashion or current pop culture. Yet, I did get to meet Queen Latifah at the Ed Hardy shop in LA, which was amazing since I look up to her.

I attempt to keep a certain level of detachment from it.

Christian is entrenched in that field and he said, “We’ll make you a celebrity, and you’ll get to ride in limousines and–” My response was, “No, just leave me alone and mail me the checks and that’ll be enough for me to concentrate on my art, look after my family, and live my life.” ✯

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