Ed Hardy - the godfather of modern tattoo

Published: 27 June, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 179, December, 2009

‘The Godfather Of Modern Tattoo’. That’s a title which has been earned by a character of quite extraordinary vision and a legacy of work stretching decades, and Ed Hardy’s fusion of Japanese sensibilities and characteristics within his creations, coupled with his strive to bring tattooing to the upper echelons of the Fine Art world, have earned him a special place in Tattooing’s Hall Of Fame… 

When did you first see horimono in the flesh, as opposed to in photo books?
Well, it wasn't till I went to Japan, because Japanese tattooing was still completely insular. Y’know, Horihide reached out and actually my great teacher Horiyoshi Nidaime, his father really reached out to Western tattooers. He used to write to Charlie Wagner in NY, who was one of the most famous American tattooers because he was featured in national media, he tattooed on Bowery…he was a terrible tattooer, but he was very with it. Wagner was hoping somehow that he could go to America someday. Some Japanese were interested in making the connection with the West and some tattooers in the great Edo period, when tattooing really got going there, some of those tattooers were brought to NY to do some tattoos so there was some back and forth, so actually seeing horimono, I don't think it was till I went to Japan.


What were your first impressions?
It was incredible, you have so much built up about really seeing what it actually looks like, it was pretty fantastic- and it was a great opportunity too - just the psychic velocity that came off seeing work on the skin, and again super classical work; it was really amazing. The first time I saw Kuronuma's work from the beginning was because of Jerry. The way Jerry got in contact with these guys was a businessman had a son in architecture school, and this businessman was a tattoo fan, totally in the closet of course, and he had a whole piece, a shichibori piece by Horisada - one of the great Tokyo tattooers - and he had Jerry do his other arm with roses, and this guy was really interested in the whole East/West thing, and he had these really super rare photos of Kuronuma sensei's work. He just blew everyone out off the page; he took that Japanese tradition, and gave it an incredible amount of life and fertility that had become kind of stagnant with a lot of the traditional tattooers. I love the traditional stuff, but it's kind of like classic Americana tattooing, I appreciate it for the strength of continuing the thing, but the ones that were able to switch it around like Jerry and Joe Lieber, and some of these other guys, it just adds new life to it.


When you started developing tattooing, how did the people before you feel, the traditionalists?
A lot of people didn't like the fact that I opened it up after it was my intent all along to do what I did with it, to bring it into a commissioned status, where you would develop people’s designs just as though you were an illustrator in any kind of medium. But when I returned from work in Japan (I lived in Japan in 1973, in Gifu) to Horihide's and went to San Francisco, and opened this private studio, the whole premise was one-of-a-kind pieces. It enlarged the possibilities, and changed the whole genre. A lot of tattooers resented that, especially old tattooers; I mean, for a lot of people in the business it really was a folk art.


How much did your art degree help you as a tattoo artist?
Well, it helped a great deal, because I came into tattooing from a fine art background, and was aware of tattooing as a little kid, that's what I wanted to do.

I got my undergraduate degree in printmaking, and tattooing was just another medium, and it was a medium I wanted to develop - that's how I saw it. It's not like I was going to divorce my life from my art sensibility and my art historical sense.

So even at the time you saw tattooing as on the same trajectory as art?

Yeah. I figured it was the most unrealised medium that I had found, and in those days it was so completely not hip, it was really undeveloped, and functioning pretty much as a folk art. Seeing a book of Japanese tattoo work that was published around the mid-1960s, I could see what the possibilities were, and I thought, ‘This is a medium that could be developed beyond the standard Western sailor kind of stuff’, which I like very much, and I learnt to draw when I was ten or eleven years old. I just thought that this is a medium that no one is really exploring; it was the most transgressive medium I could find. Nobody was really interested and no one saw it was an art form.


Were your mentors at art school horrified?
The main one that taught me print making was Gordon Cook, and was again, a blue collar guy, and a great intellectual with a deep art historical sense, and a really profoundly subtle artist. He had great hopes for me, but he urged me not to get caught in the academic system, but when I turned to tattooing, he really felt that I was devaluing him, and his aesthetic, which was extremely eccentric. Printmakers are very eccentric people, and the four years we worked together were really like a father/son thing, and he thought I was just throwing it over.


At what point did you start seeing tattoo art being legitimised in the Fine Arts world and having a place in museums?
It really got no real attention till the early ‘90s in terms of the gallery scene and all that, the art world with a capital A, the Fine Art world, because of the outsider art started coming in. I mean, it's a real ambiguous term, and it originally meant people who weren't schooled and who didn't have any original schooling, or who were institutionalised (or in other words, were in a nut-house) but Francis Bacon never had any formal training and he was one of the greatest painters ever in the 20th century. So, it was a long haul, it's really hard, I don't make a lot of distinctions between things, and categories. Of course it's a commercial art essentially, it's because you are in there you are selling the stuff, it's a commodity in that way, and it's like illustration, you are doing it to order. It's like anything, tattooing can be cool but a lot of it can be schlock, and that's the way it will always be. It's just more sophisticated schlock for the most part these days - the ability of the people, the sophistication of the people and working with the tools has been greatly enhanced.


Conversely, there are some artists you preferred it when it was an exclusive world that was less mainstream - how do you feel about that?
A lot of people are looking back on the nostalgia, but it's like people who are dressing like it's the 1940s and the ‘50s, and the popularity of hipster 1950s illustration like Shag and all these kinds of people, but you don't know what it was like in the ‘50s, it was fucked up!

Of course it’s cool graphically, of course a lot of the styles are cool, and I've been dressing the same way since 1959, just ‘cos it's what I'm comfortable with, but the reality is; there was a whole load of macho overload in tattooing - it was just bound to happen. A lot of these guys want to be bad boys. I used to be that way and have the whole romance about it; 'I'm really street’, ‘I'm really one of the crowd', it's like the mafia or something. It was cash money, and a different world. People didn't know what you were doing - Jerry was obsessive about not letting people in, it was part of the extreme secrecy of the whole thing and that was good, but you are not going to bring that back. The down side is, it's not that fun to be looked down on that much socially and to have that kind of discrimination. It's always going to be that way, you are always going to be judged by the way you look. You see someone who is covered in tattoos, and it's like; don't expect people to accept you for the beautiful person that you are inside, they are going to judge you for your tattoos. Each generation goes through that, where they resent the people that come after them and that's only normal.


What are your preferred motifs within your artistic endeavours?
I seem to go into default things; the standard dragon and tiger, and the western tattoo themes of what I learnt to draw when I was ten. I still have all this flash that I did in pencil and crayon when I was a little kid. When I got back to doing my art, which my move to Hawaii allowed (I came here in '86), I thought, ‘Maybe I can have time for my personal art’, and I just avoided anything that would remotely be like a tattoo image, ‘cos it was like, 'Oh no, no, then it's like what I do for a living'. But after a year, or a year and a half, I realised that that is just stupid, and (tattoo iconography) is part of my primary visual vocabulary. I do a lot of that stuff; I mix in a lot of classic Americana tattoo designs, and mix everything up, and I do a lot of work that has abstract elements.


When you came back from Japan and were tattooing a lot of prolific, Japanese-influenced work, what was the general reaction from the clientele side?

A lot of people liked it. I was trying to do that even when I was tattooing military in San Diego; my first shop in Vancouver in 1968, I featured dragons and all that kind of stuff. I was trying to do bigger work on sailors, and start getting people that were collectors, and started getting people that want to come in every pay and get a small piece. If you could sense that enthusiasm, I would try and try and get them to get something larger and more challenging, not to sell a bigger tattoo, but ‘cos this guy is going to get peppered up with a bunch of small stuff and later say, "Can we integrate this into something?" There was so little being done; I would feature Japanese photos and photos of Sailor Jerry's work, and there was about four of us in the US that were trying to do Japanese-inspired work. So, people liked it - people like things that are exotic – and by and large they get tattooed with things that are exotic to them.


How did you meet Sailor Jerry?
I had a referral from Zeke, who I worked with in Seattle. I was tattooed by a guy, Hong Kong Tom Yeomans, who tattooed in Long Beach, and at Bert Grimm's shop where I hung out when I was a little kid. I saw photos of Jerry's work, and it was phenomenal, way beyond anyone else. He was extremely secretive, I wanted to meet Jerry and I understood he was extremely distrustful and paranoid, kept to himself, and he communicated with a lot of people, but communicated with people he chose to, by letter. Zeke was on good terms with Jerry and worked with him in Hawaii, not in his shop but down in Chinatown, and so I had written an initial letter to Jerry, when I was in Canada, because I used a reference to Tom Yeoman, who Jerry hated, so Zee let me know that Jerry was not on good terms with Yeoman, and I wrote a letter of apology to him when I got to San Diego. I was on the north west, in Vancouver in my own shop and Seattle, just for a few months. I wrote Jerry and sent him photos of my work, and he wrote back immediately, and I explained what the mix up was, that I was trying to do right by tattooing and how much I admired his work. We immediately hit off with a very enthusiastic correspondence at the beginning of 1969, for 4 years until his death, and I came over to work with him a bit, so that is what the connection was. But he led the pack for everyone, he really broke the ground, and he was in touch with traditional Japanese tattoo artists.


What was a singular piece of advice you got that was particularly memorable to you?
I can't think really think of any one-liners that Jerry had. I mean, I would have loved it if I had tape-recorded him - he was so paranoid that it was extreme. Y'know, it was dodgy dealing with him, and I was a total pot head, total liberal, and I thought, 'If he finds this out, I'm out', so I just shut my mouth when he started ranting about stuff, but he had that spirit about studying these great examples and was very deeply self-taught about Asian art and aesthetics, especially from the Chinese point of view. 


Do you think young artists today realise the responsibility of being a tattoo artist?
I hope that they do, certainly the quality of the work by so many people is absolutely outstanding. When I do see a tattoo magazine, and the little bit of conventions that I do, the work level is beyond the moon. 


publishing and tattootime

We started Tattootime in ‘82. There weren't any books on tattooing - I think there had been maybe 4 books in English in the entire 20th century at that point, none of it had been from people within tattooing. So, I thought it would be important to have the facts out about what fuels this thing and make it more known to people, because educating people is the most important thing. Making books are the most inanimate things in my life; that is what it's about, so by doing that, it triggered a whole lot of stuff. 

The first book that we did, that New Tribalism thing that kicked off that whole thing about black graphic tattooing, I was astounded how quickly that happened, and that was when I began to realise we should just be doing tattoos one-on-one and getting people to take the ideas back and think about them, but really get a viewpoint out there. It’s very important, and so my wife and I put together some books on things we thought were cool, and hoped we would sell enough to get the next book. It was a real struggle, like I would be in London on Charing Cross, where all the cool books stores were, and they would just go, "Tattooing? Get out of here!"

The same thing in Kinokuniya in San Fransisco, and now there is a huge shelf, every book on San dai me, everything tat the Taki's brought out. And then the whole thing again, about the gradual education - we are not forcing it on you, we are not proselytizing, just don't demonise this thing. Don't think that the more ink you get in your skin, the more your IQ drops, it's not a totally antisocial thing. I think a lot of people are antisocial, it's just that education part is really big, and that, I am really happy to see.


Interview: Maki Photography: Cory Lum, Various


Skin Deep 179 1 December 2009 179