Tattoo The World - Ed Hardy

Published: 03 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 220, January, 2013

This January sees the long-awaited release of Tattoo The World, the inside story of how one tattooist became the pop culture phenomenon that is Ed Hardy. Skin Deep goes under the skin of the man behind the signature…

In the 1950s, most young boys dreamed of being firemen or truck drivers… astronauts hadn’t been invented yet.

But ten-year-old Donald Edward Talbott Hardy’s dreams were filled with the blues and blacks of jailhouse tattoos and the liquorice-inked visions of sailors from faraway shores.

50 years on, and the Californian-born artist has 70 stores worldwide and his own fragrance that, for a time, outsold Chanel Number 5 in Macy’s. However, the novelty of seeing his tattoo designs emblazoned over everything from beanies to breath mints is never getting old.

“It’s like the Twilight Zone. That’s how it feels. I go up to a lot of people who are wearing some piece of gear with my work on and I just thank them for wearing the thing… but you know, a lot of people don’t even know the designs were tattoos. That surprises me because I sort of took it for granted, but it’s great because it means that people can appreciate the images just on the strength of their graphic power. ”

In these enlightened times, no one would question the beauty and potency of tattooing at its very best, but when Ed first started tagging school friends with eyeliner tattoos, they were the stuff of fairground freakshows and wanted posters. “When I got into it, it had been so demonised. There was this thought that if a person had that much ink in their skin, then their brain cells had deteriorated along with it.”

Growing up in the ’50s as the only child of a single mom, Ed says he always felt like an outsider. But to that young boy, swaddled in the oh so tight wrappings of white, Protestant America, tattoos offered a glimpse of something electrifying. A world unhooked from the machine, where the barriers of time, culture, and ethnicity melted away. A world free from “the control systems of the state and church”. A world he wanted in on.

“Tattooing resonates with people on a really primal level. I know it’s an overused word, but there’s something about tattooing that is just right for people. The older forms, like the tribal forms, and for that matter the Western tattoos, the eagles and anchors, ships and hearts are, for me, like little heraldic poems. I think that they serve a function in a society that’s largely lost a belief system they can depend on. Pretty much since World War II, when the world changed and we entered the Atomic Era, people have lost anything like a significant banner for who they are, to put it simply. And people really like those things. Part of the appeal of tattoos might just be as simple as liking the way it looks on the skin, but it’s also what it stands for.”

Making Marks

Ed’s early fascination with tattooing quickly evolved into full-blown love affair with the art world and an almost obsessive compulsion to make marks. “I think that people making art,” Ed says, “should be those that can’t not make it. Those who are really just drawn to it. It’s something they have to do, to get out. I know that sounds romantic, but it’s the way I feel.”

That urge to ‘get it out’ took Ed to art college where, despite his obvious talents, he still felt like the outsider looking in. “There’s a hollowness, duplicity and stupidity to the art world that, I think, is contrary to the essential impulse of making art. It’s predicated by investment and pomposity, and auction prices. It’s being treated as a commodity. I mean, that’s alright, especially if the artist is still living and is getting some of it, but it’s just the posturing and all the things that can get attached to it which, for me, isn’t really art. It’s entered a realm that I’m not at all comfortable with.”

Going against the grain, Ed turned his back on conceptual art in favour of etching and print making whose indelible qualities – it’s a one-shot deal with no take backsies – share much with tattooing. “I’ve always been attracted to mediums that required a lot of knowledge, attention and mastery, ” he explains. “I’m not so big on conceptual art. That was one of the things that turned me away from getting a graduate degree, because they didn’t resonate with me at all. Art doesn’t have to have as many subtle layers as a Rembrandt, but it does add something, for me, if you really know what you’re doing with the tools you’re using.”

However Hardy was no William Burroughs, with a million dollar trust fund to support his artistic yearnings. His dreams have always had to be grounded in the realities of earning a living, and after college, his thoughts turned back to tattooing as a way he could potentially feed both body and soul. But is tattooing art or craft?

“I really think that Lyle Tuttle had the best response to that in a recent interview: it’s a practice. I mean, it’s so hard dealing with the boundaries. Tattoos can have as much depth, nuance and capacity to stir and inspire people as any medium, but there are definitely craft aspects to it. Yeah, it’s a practice I think, and like any practice, it can be done well or badly.”

The Shock of the New

The first time that Ed picked up a tattoo machine was in Phil Sparrow’s shop in Oakland, California. Sparrow was a poet, novelist, and university professor who’d shrugged off the shackles of academia to become one of the most respected tattooists of his era. Ed admits now that, despite his four years of study, nothing could have prepared him for the shock of the new.

“I was looking at it purely as a visual art and not thinking about the technical thing that made it possible, so it freaked me out basically. I did this small piece on my ankle and I instantly thought ‘what am I getting into here?’ And that went on for quite a while because it deflated my hubris, for lack of a better word. I probably had a more sophisticated and extensive awareness of art history to bring to tattooing, but to realise it with the tools that were used was just another universe.”

The first ink he put on, was on his own skin, and it was an experience that took him right back to his days as an awe-struck boy, hanging out at Bert Grimm’s studio on Long Beach, watching the man who defined the classic American tattoo at work.

“Early on, because I was so full of myself, I worshipped the Japanese stuff. Although I liked classical Western tattooing – American and British – I turned away from that for many years and only later came to appreciate it and also to appreciate things that weren’t ‘picture perfect’. But I’ve always loved a lot of folk art. It’s something about the piece having a passion to it, you know? And a real honesty. Although Japanese work really was the decider for me to get into tattooing – because the complexity and the formal aspects of it made it a challenge. I really loved, and still do love, classic tattooing from that golden age at the turn of the 20th century, before it all became kind of codified. So the first tattoo that I did on myself, I adapted from a Victorian design of a woman’s profile coming out of a rose. It looks very late 19th century, which was when some of the great early tattooers like Sutherland MacDonald, Tom Berg and some of the other people who brought the art along, were working.”

The Ice Man Cometh

Ed speaks, with a slow, West coast accent that, to the British ear at least, seems as American as mom’s apple pie. Yet, Hardy has always been intensely interested and receptive to different cultures and artistic influences.

“That’s been part of my life since I was a little kid. Some artists get locked into one way of working. In terms of tattooers, they get known for a particular look and that’s perhaps what they’re good at, and it lights them up and they want to pursue it and perfect it, and their clients are drawn to that. I was always kind of a Jack of all Trades. There are old blues songs from the ’20s and ’30s saying ‘I’ll be the iceman till the iceman comes’, and I thought maybe I’m not going to do that as great as someone could, but no one else is doing it, so I’ll try it. I’ll do my best with it. And one of the great positive things about determining when I came back from Japan, that I would do only commission tattoos, was that it expanded into ways that I would have never have thought. It pushed my boundaries and limits.”

This collaboration between artist and ‘canvas’ has always been a vital part of the mix, but it’s a delicate dance. Has Ed ever been asked to do a tattoo he regretted?

“I don’t really regret any tattoos because, you know, I’ve tried my best, all the way along. I can regret certain things… ‘oh if I could have gotten the colour in better’ or perhaps done something different with the design, you know, just informal things, but it was what it was at the time. There’s that aspect to it when you sit down and you do it. That was one of the great attractions to me of the medium. Once it’s done, it’s done.

“But I never did racist things. I never did things that were totally anti-social. Sometimes you have to kind of save people from themselves, or at least edit a little bit what they want to do. However, I resent seeing tattooers push their ego and go beyond informed advice. Once tattooing started really taking off, I’d say in the ’80s, a lot of guys got a rock star mentality. People wanted to feel that they’d got the best possible tattoo and they’d lavish praise on the tattooer until they started to think ‘I am pretty great’. That feeds a bad aspect of people’s drives.”

Ox Cars And Jets

40 years of grappling with the pointy end of a tattoo machine has left a physical legacy and these days Ed prefers brush and pen, to needle and ink. However he remains a keen observer of the tattoo scene.

“I quit tattooing three or four years ago and it was great. I don’t dislike it, but I got to do far more than my share. And the things that I see now – I’m always looking for apt metaphors – but it’s like we were driving round in ox carts with wooden wheels roughly hacked out and nowadays everyone’s using jets.”

The tattoo world has indeed changed, and big part of that is down to Ed himself. In places like the UK, tattoos are no longer the blue bruised marks of some seamy, underground scene. Your mum probably has one. But how does he feel about the ultimate perishability of his work? That one day it will all be just dust in the wind? Or is that intrinsic to the art?

“It’s absolutely intrinsic to tattooing and one of the things that intrigued me about it in the beginning was that it is a ‘process art’ – they change. Once it’s tattooed on you, you look at it before the bandage goes on and ‘all right, great, it looks like that’, but when it heals it looks different and it continues to change. I always really liked and still like, very much, seeing older tattoos. In fact, I’m more interested now in seeing a tattoo on some duffer who got it in the navy 40 years ago and all that personal history that goes with it. I know that one can fly off at great length about tattoos – and I’ve been guilty of pompous speculation and philosophising about it myself – but sometimes they’re worth that.”

Ed Hardy has paid his dues, and today, the Hardy brand has become part of mainstream consciousness. So does he feel like less of an outsider now?

“I guess I do. Although it’s weird to see my signature all over the place. That wasn’t anything I went after. It just sort of fell on my head and I’m extremely grateful. I just hope that people can maintain a sense of humour about the whole thing, because as much as I can go off on some labyrinth of hot air about the meaning of tattoos and all that, they’re just tattoos. You have to have a sense of humour about it all. You’re much better off in life if you can accept the fact that you’re mortal and it’s all going to end. I’m personally not looking for some big pay off on a gold cloud when I’ve dropped, but a lot of people are getting overly serious about my work. They’re just tattoos. It’s not like I’ve invented something that’s going to save humanity; although perhaps it’s making her have more fun as she goes along.”

Ed’s being modest of course, but then, one of the charming things about the man whose name is a household brand is that, inside, he’s still very much that ten-year-old boy looking to tattoo the world.

Tattoo the World

It’s strange the power little words can have. For instance, Ed Hardy often talks about art, but never applies the word ‘artist’ to himself. But then the man whose name now adorns a million dollar lifestyle brand is refreshingly free of bull.

Ed Hardy: Tattoo The World comes from award-winning filmmaker, Emiko Omori, who wowed Sundance back in 1999 with her documentary about Japanese-Americans interned during World War II (Rabbit in the Moon). With Tattoo The World, Omori tackles a subject much less harrowing (unless, that is, you’ve got a low pain threshold) but equally close to her heart. The director is one of Hardy’s devoted customers and her beautifully crafted film is part documentary, part love letter. Not just to the man himself, but to that world where ink hits skin and something sublime happens.

From the star-struck young boy who hung out in tattoo parlours, to the realities of the night shift in a San Diego shop inking sailors, Tattoo The World is an intimate portrait of the man behind the trademark. And that man is a revelation. Hardy’s success has been hard won and built on the back of decades of unrelenting graft. However he remains passionate and proselytic about the art that inspires and informs his work.

Although peppered with beautiful imagery and insightful interviews, Tattoo The World won’t teach you how to become the next Ed Hardy. There’s little here about technique or practice. But the journey through Hardy’s life and the characters who’ve inhabited it, is a journey through tattoo history itself, and that can’t be half bad. For old school tattooists, the DVD also includes over an hour of bonus features including the unmissable Ed Hardy and Lyle Tuttle: A Couple of Tattoo Geezers Reminisce. For those who are curious about Hardy’s more recent non-tattoo work, the feature on his Millennial dragon scroll will leave you, frankly, a little awe-struck. Created to mark the Year of the Dragon in 2000, the 2,000-square-foot dragon scroll, featured 2,000 dragon images, from one-inch ancient Chinese bronze forms, to 30-foot-long creatures writhing amongst bloated rain clouds and epic waves. Boy can this man draw.

Put simply, Tattoo The World is that rare thing; a documentary that actually tells you something you didn’t already know about a man you thought you already knew all about. Ed Hardy: Tattoo The World is available on DVD from January 14 through Axiom Films.


Text: Paula Hammond; Photography: Ed Hardy