Hate the Brand, Love the Man: Why Ed Hardy Matters

By Margot MifflinAugust 25, 2013

Hate the Brand, Love the Man: Why Ed Hardy Matters

Wear Your Dreams by Joel Selvin and Don Ed Hardy

DO YOU KNOW HIM AS Ed Hardy, purveyor of clothing for people who make the “rock on” salute in Facebook photos? Or Don Ed Hardy, the most influential and erudite tattooist of the past century? If the former, meet the latter. Almost any tattoo you see or wear today can be attributed — for better or worse — to some aspect of his vision.

Hardy’s memoir, Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos, doesn’t tell the half of it. Co-written with Joel Selvin, the book traces the vectors of his professional life: growing up in Southern California in the 1950s, he mock-tattooed his friends from the age of 10; visited tattoo shops in arcades on the Long Beach Pike as a teen; and  frequented the nascent Los Angeles gallery scene in the early 1960s. Hardy studied at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) during the last splash of the Bay Area figurative art movement, and pursued a passion for printmaking that presaged his formal interest in tattooing.

“I loved artwork that had a specific craft, stringent demands involving tools and techniques that had to be done a certain way,” he writes:

I liked monochromatic art, stuff in black and white and gray tones. I loved the dark shades you could get with the lithos, and I liked the idea that it was a multiple original. I liked the democratic, anti-elitist nature of that. It was a people’s art.

In his last year at SFAI, Hardy gave a lecture on the forgotten folk art of tattooing — also a “people’s art,” which revived his interest in the practice. He got tattooed. He persuaded Oakland artist Phil Sparrow (né Samuel Steward — a former English professor, friend of Gertrude Stein, lover of Thornton Wilder, and collaborator of Alfred Kinsey, but that’s another book) to teach him to tattoo. And when Sparrow showed him Irezumi: Japanese Tattooing (1966), a collection of highly sophisticated full-body Japanese work by Ichiro Morita (Tokyo, 1966), with brief commentary by Donald Richie:, “it flipped a switch.”

“I knew that tattoos didn’t just have to be an eagle and an anchor,” Hardy writes. “I understood that it was spectacularly transgressive. Nobody was doing it […] Yet it seemed to me it could be done so that it was a challenge as a visual art form.”

After he graduated in 1967, Hardy declined a full graduate teaching scholarship at Yale in order to pursue tattooing. He met and worked with the Honolulu-based tattooist Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, who had developed a love of Asian culture during his travels in the navy. Collins was known for synthesizing classic American imagery with the larger scale, finer detail, and greater complexity of Japanese tattooing — and for his innovations with color. He corresponded with Japanese tattooists, and arranged for Hardy to study with Kazuo Oguri in Japan in 1973, making him the first Westerner to work with a traditional Japanese master.

When Hardy returned a year later, he opened Realistic Tattoo in San Francisco, the first appointment-only shop devoted to custom designs. Realistic is the reason tattoo shops today are more like art studios, galleries, or hair salons; the reason name tattooists have waiting lists stretching sometimes years into the future; the reason more people plan out their tattoo collections and research the best artist for a particular job; the reason so many art school graduates are pushing ink; and the reason that despite the ocean of bad skin art sloshing around the globe, the best work is increasingly excellent. Do an online search, for instance, of Duke Riley (Brooklyn), Roxx TwoSpirit (San Francisco), Colin Dale (Copenhagen), Saira Hunjan (London), or Yann Black (Montreal), then sit back and allow your brain to quake.

Hardy’s ambition has always been to bridge the worlds of fine art and tattooing. “I wanted to elevate the art form,” he writes:

Having graduated from art school, I brought […] a sense of art history, a fierce dedication to the medium, and something of a chip on my shoulder toward the rest of the world that failed to hold the art of tattoo in the same regard I did.

Until recently, that was a failed mission. The establishment art world has shown little interest in tattoo as design, fine art, street art, or fashion, for reasons involving money, class bias, and the difficulty of exhibiting human bodies. But the first stirrings of change are evident: last year, the Honolulu Museum of Art mounted a show of ten contemporary Hawaiian tattooists. The Milwaukee Art Museum just opened an exhibit of the work of Amund Dietzel, a legendary Old School Milwaukee tattooist. And this year, museums in Germany (The Museum Villa Rot) and Switzerland (the Gewerbemuseum) have organized tattoo exhibitions.

Although Wear Your Dreams is a beguiling account of Hardy’s journey, it doesn’t convey his monumental impact — not just on tattoo art, but also on the culture and discourse around it. As a memoir, it can’t. And as a famously understated man, Hardy wouldn’t. I recall his reaction when I told him, during an interview in the late 1990s, that a source had suggested he had arranged the death of a competing tattooist who’d died in a bicycle accident in Manhattan. Anyone else would have been outraged. Hardy was perplexed: who could coordinate such a thing from the other side of the country?

Hardy raised the bar on numerous counts. In 1982, he and his wife, Francesca Passalacqua, founded Tattootime, an irregularly published magabook, conceived as “a high-quality magazine that would reflect well on the intellectual grounding of this new tattoo movement, without being stuffy,” he writes in Wear Your Dreams, neglecting to elaborate. The now defunct five-issue series is not only a goldmine of oral and reported history (I will never forget reading tattooist Bob Shaw’s story about a female scratcher who in 1951 agreed to remove a GI’s tattoo by pouring acid on his chest and letting it burn through a half inch of flesh), but also of a kind of ongoing public distillation of the state of the art through the 1980s and ’90s — a time when there was little design-literate writing about body art.

Some Tattootime articles identified new developments; others mined the history, chronicling trade practices from mixing and applying pigments, to building and balancing machines; most offered a genial insider’s tour of the industry. A 1982 issue called “New Tribalism” covered tattooing in Borneo and Samoa as well as the emerging tribal trends in the United States that became so popular in the 1990s. In it, Hardy describes the plight of the new American artist:

Today’s tattooer is caught in [a] cultural mixup. The designs (value systems) developed and plied as stock in trade over the last hundred years have become inadequate or antiquated to many portions of the society served. The growth of interest in this form of expression by a wider range of people has called for expanded imagery and more specialized stylists.

Hardy and a growing network of like-minded mavericks delivered exactly that.

A piece in the 1991 issue of Tattootime explains:

A big part of the appeal of the Japanese tradition is the abstract look of the background elements that frame and unify the subjects of the mural style body pieces. We have noticed again and again that prime subject content often takes secondary importance over the client’s desire to have it ‘look Japanese’ via the use of what have popularly come to be known as ‘wind bars,’ ‘finger waves,’ etc.

This attention to placement and body-wide composition is a defining characteristic of the current tattoo renaissance. (Yesterday I walked to the bank in my small Hudson River town, and passed a young woman wearing a half sleeve tattoo with lovely Hokusai-like waves splashing down her upper arm. Hello, Ed Hardy!)

Tattootime’s commitment to tracking trends and parsing techniques is largely absent from the scores of tattoo magazines in circulation today, which focus almost exclusively on imagery and the backstories that inspire it, but offer no formal criticism. Tattoo reality shows like NY Ink are nothing but backstory; they hinge on the tedious tales of love and loss, the trauma and drama behind the tattoo, but the vocabulary around the art itself is bankrupt, ranging from the “Cool!” that confirms the choice of design, to the inevitable “Oh my God!” that serves as a critical reaction to the finished piece.

Competition shows do better. I love the few minutes at the end of Best Ink and Ink Master when the judges critique the work of the competing tattooists, expounding (always too briefly) on technical considerations: the shading, highlights, scale, perspective, strength and consistency of line, color combinations, logic of the light source, and adherence to conventions like the proper positioning of a pinup. It’s an education. But the experience is dampened by the judges’ indifference (or blindness?) to the insistently asinine imagery under review: pastel animals, scenes from Star Wars, and on one mind-boggling episode, a Manhattan cityscape made of bacon. If concept were a criterion, everyone would be knocked off the show on the first challenge.

In 1995, Hardy orchestrated the first large scale gallery exhibit of tattoo art, “Pierced Hearts and True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos,” at the Drawing Center in New York, which drew impressive crowds and launched the career of the now well-known artist/tattooist Dr. Lakra, one of the few tattooists to gain purchase in the blue chip art world. Hardy embraced and cultivated pioneering artists like Freddy Negrete, who brought elegant black and gray fine line tattooing from prison to the public, and Leo Zulueta, who popularized neo-tribal tattoo. He supported young artists, including women, as far back as the early 1980s, when California artist Jamie Summers worked in his shop, and New Mexico artist Cynthia Witkin appeared in his magazine. (And, full disclosure: he blurbed my 1997 book Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo.)

Hardy has also been an astute commentator on the sociology of tattoos. In 1989, he told RE/Search magazine, “Tattoos always tell you more about the people looking at them than the person wearing them” a sentiment repeated by a tattooist in Sarah Hall’s brilliant novel, The Electronic Michelangelo: “I'll tell you this, lad: A tattoo says more of a fellow looking at it than it can do of the man who's got it on his back.” He’s thoughtful about tattoos as a kind of visual adjunct to oral histories — “the flashcard for the story.”  He has said, “You can only really know about the tattoo by getting to know the person wearing it. Tattoos are indicators, or little vents to their psyche.”

In the mid 2000s, many Hardy fans, myself included, were confounded by the contagion of Hardy merchandise suddenly flooding stores — as, evidently, was Hardy. In 2004, when he was approached by Christian Audigier, who proposed to license his classic American designs, Hardy researched the French designer and concluded, “This guy is at ground zero of everything that’s wrong with contemporary civilization.” But Hardy signed on, thinking he could make a little money; he never imagined that his name would fuel a $700 million a year business trading in tattoo nostalgia. Audigier promised him global travel, press conferences, and a Bentley, but Hardy, who had no skin in that game, declined: “I just wanted to get paid and to be left alone.”

A few weeks later, wearing a gray cardigan and a $10 Timex watch, he strolled into the first Ed Hardy store in Los Angeles, where he was greeted like a “square, old man,” took one look at the blingy sales staff, and realized, “These were not my people […] I began to see where this was going.” Indeed, an embarrassment of Ed Hardy shower curtains, tanning lotions, baby clothes, and golf carts would soon color his world.

Paradoxically, the Hardy brand made a man so deserving of recognition famous for all the wrong reasons. It trades in his early work — precisely the tradition-bound Americana he wanted to transmute into something more expansive and artistic. In Wear Your Dreams, he writes:

I think I understand what Christian saw in the designs. They were meant to be emblematic, like heraldry. They’re bold — the whole point of classic Western tattoo designs is that they read clearly on the skin. Heavy shading, dark and light values, and an instantly recognizable silhouette of the shape.

Whether a dagger, a heart, or a panther, he explains, “these things are distillations of human interests and hopes. And they represent. This stands for me […] in some small but important way.”

But emblems designed to hug bodies look terrible on hoodies — and worse on trucker hats. Stripped of context, the tattoos read like signboards. The franchise exploited a medium rooted in individual expression, slicked it up with glitter and studs, and replicated it endlessly, making it everything a tattoo is not.

Many people loathed it, but many people, including celebrities, bought it. Hating Ed Hardy became a national pastime, as indicated by the many Hardy entries in the Urban Dictionary:

A status signifier amongst BMER/BENZ driving club kids who still live at home. Cougar MILFS can be seen wearing it on bonding trips to the mall with their sociopath offspring.

A way for all douche bags all over the world to say "I'm an individual."

Worn almost exclusively by college frat boy douchebags, Guidos, and other steroid addicted muscle heads.

In 2009, the web site “Stuff White People Like” posted an entry called “Hating Ed Hardy,” quipping:

Ed Hardy [clothing] is so hated by white people that it cannot be worn ironically. This is no small feat. As it stands, the only other entries in this category are Nazi Uniforms, Ku Klux Klan Robes, and self-tanner.

Two years later, Audigier sold the Ed Hardy brand, and Hardy regained some control of the designs. But the damage was done. Unlike Lou Reed, who long ago began licensing his music for car ads, or Damien Hirst, whose merchandising has included $2,000 skateboard decks and Louis Vuitton luggage, Hardy saw his brand eclipse his artistic legacy.

Many people think Hardy is a fictional character like Betty Crocker, or a historical figure like Captain Morgan, or a surf culture somebody — like Von Dutch, aka Kenny Howard, the custom car pinstriper whose daughters sold his nickname in 1999 after his death, uncorking another wildly successful brand — courtesy of Audigier. Few know him as an artist and a cultural game-changer. And that includes many tattooists: a vast number of young artists who spin their wheels in the narrow cul-de-sac of Day of the Dead motifs and tribal retreads could learn something from the man who in his formative years inhaled art history, who read the Beats and soaked up cool jazz, and whose idea of fun was spending an afternoon in a museum with fellow pioneer Mike Malone covertly photographing the Utagawa Kuniyoshi prints that “became the key reference base for us to transform Western tattooing.”  

If the Hardy franchise made him both famous and infamous — linking this lover of craft to crass and artless “product,” it likewise freed the artist, economically, to return to his printmaking. Tattooing is not only technically difficult — requiring, as it does, drawing with a heavy, finicky machine on an unruly canvas stretched across a customer who will both dictate the design and wear it forever — it is also physically taxing. Hardy has had trouble with his hips (both have been replaced) and hands due to arthritis. He recently told Inked magazine:

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 […] It also reconnected me with my personal art, and that was a revelation.

He stopped tattooing in 2008, and has since been making and showing his prints, as well as mentoring tattooists in his San Francisco shop.

The Ed Hardy story is best understood as a California parable of single-minded self-invention. When he was a kid, he writes, “With my bad-boy surfer friends who didn’t know or care anything about art, I was alone.” Born into the surfer and custom car subcultures; attuned to the sunshine and noir binary of Southern California (“I was drawn to dark stuff”); galvanized by the Ferus Gallery artists, several of whom were taken with the surface beauty of auto bodies; schooled at the famously bohemian SFAI, which flouted the distinction between fine art and applied art; and in step with California Conceptualism in its embrace of unconventional, often ephemeral (sometimes corporeal) mediums, Hardy reclaimed a 5,000 year old art and  revived it as a postmodern practice. By liberating Western tattooing from its entrenched folk lexicon, he not only broke open its aesthetic possibilities, but also presented this “people’s art” as a direct challenge to the commodity driven, hyperinflated art market.

“My whole life,” he once told The Believer, "has been a balance between classical formal education — both in terms of the tools of a medium and the history and philosophy of art — and its resonance in the visual culture of our daily lives.

For this, we can forgive him the golf carts. 


Mifflin is the author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo.

LARB Contributor

Margot Mifflin is a professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York and at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. She’s the author of Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood (Counterpoint Press).


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