Ed Hardy ‘never dreamed’ he would get so famous

A new exhibit at the de Young details the trajectory of the artist's work.

As he stood inside the deYoung Museum, Ed Hardy wore a blue blazer, pink Oxford button-down shirt, and dark pants. He coiffed his graying hair in a short, wavy style. From one angle, you couldn’t see the tattoo cresting near his neck, so Hardy could have passed for an art-going tech executive. Or a wealthy de Young benefactor — which he basically is, having given the museum a trove of valuable works, including a 500-foot-long scroll full of dragons, and impressions of more than 150 prints.

The scroll and a smattering of those prints — along with hundreds of other works — are on display in “Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin,” the first museum retrospective for an artist who is known around the world for the eye-opening designs he’s created for decades. In 1974, Hardy designed a stomach tattoo that featured a bearded, cross-legged, Japanese magician holding a sword in his mouth while surrounded by clouds, water, and a menacing dragon a scene that paid homage to the iconic 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Who else was doing that kind of tattoo in the early 1970s? Who else was bringing a fine-art sensibility to an art form that, while gaining popularity, was still derided in some circles as a practice of the working and lower classes, rebellious musicians, and others who liked to flout social norms?

In 2019, tattooing is a social norm, and so ingrained in popular culture that major presidential candidates have either marked themselves with a temporary tattoo (Kirsten Gillibrand) or inspired supporters to get tattoos of their likeness (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke). “Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin” makes the case that Hardy was a central figure in tattooing’s popularization, calling him “the father of modern tattoo culture” and claiming that, “Before Hardy, there was no such thing as tattoo art.” Whether that’s the case or not, tattoo’s popularization boomeranged back to Hardy in a big way 15 years ago, when fashion designer Christian Audigier took Hardy’s tattoo designs and put them on everything imaginable, from T-shirts to shoes to perfume. Hardy’s creations were a hit, and still are (see all the Hardy shirts, jigsaw puzzles, and other items for sale in the de Young’s store). And the exhibit notes that Hardy was able to retire from active tattooing in 2008.

Hardy is 74 now, and as he sat down for the exhibit’s press preview with Thomas Campbell, who’s director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and with museum curator Karin Breuer, a word that quickly emerged was “legend.” For tattoo aficionados, that’s what Hardy is. But “Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin” is aimed at a general audience, so it presents a narrative arc that will appeal to those who don’t know anything about Hardy’s career, including the twists and turns that set Hardy up for tattooing at a very young age. At age 10, Hardy began tattooing friends with watercolor pencils and Maybelline eyeliner, and soon established his own, faux tattoo studio in his den — influenced by the tattoos he saw on World War II veterans, and by bona fide tattoo parlors in Long Beach, which were close to his childhood home in Corona Del Mar. The exhibit opens with copies of Hardy’s tattoo designs as a 10-year-old — like of eagles, skulls, and snakes, which are damn good — and a giant reproduction of a 1956 newspaper feature that showed the 11-year-old Hardy tattooing a friend’s back. Hardy began drawing at age 4, but when he first saw tattoos on his friend’s father, “it was a gosh-darn bolt from the blue,” Hardy has said. “I knew I wanted to do this. And I went for it. Everything I ever did was another step on that path.”

The path included going to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he studied printmaking because of its similarity to tattooing. It was in San Francisco that Hardy closely connected tattooing with fine art, visiting the Legion of Honor’s Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, which has an extensive collection of prints, drawings, and artists’ books. Hardy saw works by Albrecht Dürer, Giorgio Morandi, and Rembrandt, and “Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin” juxtaposes Hardy’s art from this period with works by that Dutch Master. You can see the influence. You can see the reverence that Hardy has for historical painting, and the reverence he has for the intricate skill of making fine art. But all this was a prelude for the life-changing question that Hardy faced in 1967, when he’d began studying tattooing with Phil Sparrow (real name: Samuel Steward), a former Loyola University English professor who’d set up a shop in Oakland and became a tattooist for the Hells Angels. The choice was between admission into the Yale School of Art’s master of fine arts program and pursuing tattooing as a viable profession. Yale was the prestigious choice. Tattooing was the one Hardy made. And the centerpiece of “Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin” is his 1967 etching called Future Plans — a self-portrait of Hardy in a full body sleeve of tattoos. His arms, chest, and stomach are covered in them — though, in reality, Hardy had just a few on his arms.

Hardy was all in. And over the next decade, he would accomplish a number of “firsts,” including being the first Western tattoo artist to study with a master tattooist in Japan (1973) and being the first tattooist to open a U.S. studio, San Francisco’s Realistic Tattoo, that customized patrons’ ideas for tattoos (1974). Hardy’s first professional tattoo commission, the exhibition says, was for a drug addict who wanted a Bugs Bunny tattoo on his stomach. Not exactly fine art, but a fine start for Hardy, who would go on to put his artwork on every body part imaginable — plus objects that weren’t traditionally a home for Hardy’s art designs, like the boogie boards that are on prominent display.

“Tattoo artist” is a misleading label to apply to Hardy, because he’s so much more than that, and has branched out to so many other mediums. Still, it’s Hardy’s tattoo work that is his foundation, and though he left active tattooing more than a decade ago, his own body remains covered the way he envisioned in 1967. The exhibit ends with an interactive display that examines and explains Hardy’s tattoos. Hardy is in the buff, posing in sunglasses and dark pants but otherwise showing off his skin from neck to navel. Faces. Flowers. Wording. A spider. It’s all there like a forest across Hardy’s body. As he toured his exhibit with journalists, Hardy stopped at this juncture, looked at the display and his bare-chested photo from 2009, and then — when SF Weekly asked his view of tattooing’s new, vaunted place in the culture — admitted he was surprised.

“There’s no logic to getting a tattoo,” Hardy said, “but it’s something that, as a species, we seem to like and [to] identify what we’re doing in our path in this body. It was so looked down on. It was so demonized. I’m just glad to see that it’s OK to do, and that people realize it’s an expression that they have the right to do. It’s nobody else’s business.”

No, it’s not. And nobody has to know you even have a tattoo — if it’s not a face tattoo or visible neck tattoo, you can wear clothing that covers it up, like U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt did with the family crest that he had tattooed on his chest. But Hardy and others like showing off their tattoos. The art form doesn’t have to be a hidden pleasure any more. And “Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin” makes explicit that Hardy’s tattooing (and that of others) have had a connection to fine art from almost the beginning of tattoo’s newfound popularity. That the exhibit is  happening in the same bottom-floor space that just featured an assembly of Monet masterpieces is a testament to just how far tattooing — and Hardy — have come.

“I never dreamed,” Hardy said when answering SF Weekly’s question, “it would get to this level globally.”

“Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin” Through Oct. 6 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive (Golden Gate Park), S.F. $13-$28, 415-750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org

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