Take Me Down to Tattoo City - Ed Hardy

Published: 23 June, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 200, June, 2011

On the tattoo scene he’s famous for bringing the Asian style to America and doing epic tattoos, but to the rest of the world he’s a name on a shirt. Ed Hardy is probably the most well-known tattooist in the world, even though most of his admirers might not even know he is a just that. A tattoo artist...

Ed Hardy doesn’t tattoo anymore. Three years ago he decided to quit and so the career of one of the most influential tattoo artists of our time came to an end. He still owns the shop he opened up 34 years ago, though. Ed Hardy’s Tattoo City is up and running in the trendy North Beach in San Francisco. 

“I stopped because my hands were going bad. I’ve had arthritis for years and I’ve had both my hips replaced. We used to talk about the guy at the end of the bar that used to be good. We always shuddered! Would that be our fate, you know? As a tattoo artist, you’re prime in a certain period and it was always embarrassing when someone went beyond that. They didn’t know how to do anything else. 

“Tattooing kicks your ass physically and psychologically. I don’t hate tattooing, but I figured I’d had my 40 years and that’s enough. I don’t really miss it, or sometimes I do, as a medium, because there are some things that are so unique about tattooing, but I don’t miss it enough to start again. Now I try to find time for my personal art. I never had time for that since I started tattooing right out of art school.”

The reason Ed Hardy, or Donald Edward Talbot Hardy actually – the initials spelling DETH, something he of course found very amusing upon discovery – got into tattooing was to emulate Japanese tattooing.

“I knew all the western stuff because I used to hang out in tattoo shops from when I was ten. I learned to draw all the classic things and I’ve actually saved every flash I ever made from when I was ten and had a tattoo shop in my Mom’s house. I had a very classical art education and when I got re-interested in tattooing I saw book of Japanese tattooing that just blew my mind. At the time it was only like four tattoo artists in the US that were interested in that stuff. We used to have these sailors coming in every pay day getting a new tattoo, so we told them: ‘Hey, you can knit these together. Why don’t you plan ahead?’”

He started working in San Diego in 1969, after having spent a year in Vancouver, Canada and Seattle.

“I had my own shop in Vancouver for less than a year but I was terrible at tattooing. I could have gone to graduate school and I had a fellowship to Yale set up, but I figured I could outdraw all these tattoo artists. I just didn’t realise how hard the machines were to use.” 

Six, seven years into his career he opened up the first real custom shop in the US, Realistic Tattoo in San Francisco. In 1977, after having spent six months learning from a Japanese master in Japan, he opened up Tattoo City. Back then it was located in the Mission Area. Five years later he and his wife started America's first tattoo magazine, Tattoo Time.

“I’m a huge book guy so my wife and I started publishing books and then this magazine. It astounded me how much it kicked the whole thing open. When people read about something from an inside perspective, not just sensationalistic, that made a huge impact. We tried to get bookstores to sell our books but they nearly threw us out, like the big Japanese book store here in San Francisco. They wouldn’t take our books then and now they have a section just for tattooing.”

How times have changed since the early days of his career. Tattoos have become an every day thing for Average Joe’s, and no one knows that more than this tattoo veteran. In 2004 a guy named Christian Audigier started making Ed Hardy a household name when he licensed the rights to the Ed Hardy clothing line.

“It’s been insane. It fell on me totally out of the blue. Two guys who did casual clothing with a little bit of Japanese influences saw an article about an art show I did and they wanted to use my designs. I didn’t want to do it at first but they had a good business plan, so I licensed out some of these classic designs that I’d painted thousands of in the 60’s and 70’s. 

“After two years they went to fashion conventions. It was getting popular and Christian, who’s a designer, saw it and got the master license. The first time we got together, he said this was going to go worldwide and I was like ‘right...  dream on!’ I thought it was absurd but he was a genius. I don’t even know how he did it. The first year he had no advertising but he had connections to stars so suddenly Madonna and all these stars would show up wearing trucker caps and shirts that said ‘Ed Hardy’.”

“Busta Rhymes was the first one,” his son Doug, who now works at his Dad’s shop, adds. “He did a whole music video with Ed Hardy clothes around the same time that Christian was opening up the first shop on Melrose, in Hollywood.”  

“It’s like a global phenomenon,” Ed continues. “Friends of mine send me pictures from these out of the way places and I just got back from India where I saw some Ed Hardy things. So, when people ask me what it’s like, I say it’s surreal!”

“I love walking down the street and seeing the tiger that my Dad drew when I was little,” Doug says. 

Today the clothing designs are done both by Ed and Doug. Oddly enough they’re all old school and not the style he once became famous for:

“I started by giving them 1,200 designs and I did 300 more during the first years. Nowadays we do like four sets of things for each year to keep things going. Most of the designs are from back when I worked at the street shop in San Diego. I released some of my other Asian influenced stuff, but I think they’re more interested in keeping that street tattoo look.”

And that’s the look Doug has been going for. 

“Dad’s studio in San Diego was next to an arcade so I could go down and see him tattoo all these sailors and they would give me a funny look, like what is this kid doing in here? Having grown up around sailor shops I have an absolute passion for the Americana style, like girls and skulls. I’ve obviously been influenced from my father’s art work because as a kid we’d always draw together, but my stuff doesn’t look like his.”  

The success of the clothing line has, as success normally does, produced sour grapes among some fellow tattooists, but in the words of Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon, Ed Hardy seems to 'be too old for this shit'.

“I got a lot of flak from younger tattooists that thought that I’d sold out, but I mean, this isn’t the Sistine Chapel, these are tattoos. For Christ’s sake, it’s a populist art, it’s folk art and I’m really into populist art forms and people having art in their lives that they can dig, whether they wear it on their skin or a shirt or buy a rock poster. It’s all art and if it makes people happier and brighten their lives up, then that’s cool.” 

A documentary called “Ed Hardy: Tattoo The World” was made in 2009 by former customer Emiko Omori. It has now found distributors in the US. Whether it will make it to Europe remains to be seen.

Ed Hardy Art for Life

Over the past forty years Hardy has revolutionized tattooing while also bringing fresh energy to the classical mediums of painting, printmaking and ceramics through his worldwide exhibitions. His technical brilliance and mesmerizing imagery have created an indelible style on skin and in the worlds of fashion and contemporary art. Hardy's sense of design is at once startling, seductive, frightening, and enchanting, transcending categories of time and culture, high and low. This book is readily available at all good stores and certainly worth checking out.

Classic Ed Hardy Quotes

"It's not the journey into space for man, but the space in his head that was first filled with the dream that took him there."

“A tattoo is an affirmation: that this body is yours to have and to enjoy while you're here. Nobody else can control what you do with it.”

Tattoo City

700 Lombard St. 
San Francisco
CA 94133 

Open 7 days a week Mon–Sat 12-8 pm Sunday 12-7 pm

Phone: 415-345-9437
Fax: 415-345-1813


Text & Photography: Simon Lundh