Don Ed Hardy – his name is recognized by just about everyone. His designs are everywhere, displayed prominently on t-shirts hanging in just about every shop across America. While most know Ed Hardy as a brand of brightly colored, highly-decorated t-shirts, Ed Hardy’s biggest contribution to American History did not come with a Wash Instruction tag.
Don Ed Hardy is a name long intertwined with the history of tattooing. Born in 1945, this California native always possessed a strong love of art and a skill set that surpassed his peers. As a youth, he attended the San Francisco Art Institute, where he earned a degree – a Bachelor of Fine Arts – in print making.
Hardy’s love of tattooing began at an early age. As his memoir, Wear your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos, explains – in detail – Hardy began mock-tattooing his friends around age ten and frequented local tattoo shops during his formative teen years. In the 1960s, Hardy began attending gallery shows, making his rounds on the art circuits. During his attendance at the SanFran Art Institute, Hardy re-kindled his love for the forgotten art of tattooing during his course studies, even given a formal lecture on the ancient practice and its ffolklore
Shortly after this talk, Hardy got tattooed. Deciding tattooing was his call, he sought out famed artist Phil Sparrow (real name – Samuel Steward). After much conversation, Hardy convinced Sparrow to take him under his wing and teach him the taboo art form. Sparrow is credited for introducing Hardy to the practice of Irezumi, the ancient Japanese method of tattoo, after showing the young Hardy a printed collection depicting the full-body artwork. According to Hardy’s memoir, the book, Irezumi: Japanese Tattooing, printed in 1966, actually “flipped a switch.”
At the time, the current tattoo trends were mostly patriotic, being crafted for sailors and military men. They were typically symbols of American pride and hope, such as an eagle, flag, or anchor. Seeing the vibrant colors and details of these massive, yet ancient works, Hardy knew he had found his calling. “Nobody was doing it […] yet it seemed to me it could be done so that it was a challenge as a visual art form,” Hardy writes in the pages of his memoir, recalling the light bulb idea that was to forever change the spin of the tattoo industry.
Although offered a full graduate scholarship to none other than Yale University, Hardy walked away from his studies – diving headfirst into tattooing in 1967, directly after graduating from the SanFran Art Institute. He managed to partner with yet another tattoo legend, Sailor Jerry (real name – Norman Collins) and began apprenticing for him. Sailor Jerry was another visionary in the tattoo industry, mixing flavors he uncovered during his naval travels into his own work – creating a blend of cultures, history, and styles unseen by American eyes at the time. The Hawaiian based artist had connections with several Japanese artists and agreed to arrange for Hardy to spend time under their tutelage.
In 1973, Hardy made history for the first time, by being the first Western tattoo artist to study the practice of Irezumi, directly from a traditional master, named Kazuo Oguri, in Japan.
After a year of intense training and study, Hardy returned to the States and launched his very own tattoo parlor – Realistic Tattoo, located in San Francisco. This shop was the second imprint Hardy left in history, as it was the first shop of its kind; offering only custom artwork on an appointment only basis.
Thanks to Hardy’s love of detailed art and customary designs, Realistic Tattoo changed the face of tattooing forever. It is because of his appointment only process – which forced customers to spend time thinking of their design, to plan it out in excess detail – that led to the form of parlors seen today. Hardy single-handedly transformed the tattoo industry, taking it out of the slums and bad company and bringing it out into the light; designing a shop that functioned more like the uptown art galleries he loved so much in his early adulthood.
Next time you see an Ed Hardy shirt, ball cap, or designer handbag; remind yourself that this man, this legend, is responsible for the art you’re bearing on your skin today. If not for Hardy, tattoos could still quite possibly be limited to flash art in a small parlor on an alley street. They could still be reserved for sailors and drunkards – those who had spur of the moment decisions that led to a common design being inked on their skin forever. Now, thanks to this legendary artist, we have crafted designs, vibrant colors, and intensive details that make each one of us a walking piece of art. Thank you, Ed Hardy for your service to the tattoo industry.