Don Ed Hardy

Artists - Studios - Issue 20

The living legend of tattoo Don Ed Hardy gave an exclusive interview to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine. He talked about his sixty year old relationship with tattoo, his obsession with tattooing since childhood, the importance of formal education, the rapid evolution of tattoo, tattoo's invasion of museum spaces, the famous fashion brand "Ed Hardy", and his adoration for painting.

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

You have changed the root of tattoo and tattooing. How do you feel that?

I feel very positive about it. I am thrilled that the level of competence, the sophistication and artistry of tattooing as an art form has increased beyond of any of us could have dreamed of – even fifteen years ago, which is a sort time to me. So it's amazing to see it. There’s attention from the world and tattooing was so looked down upon when I got into; it was so marginalized. I thought that was wrong so I am very happy to see how things have gone. It is astounding to see the personal artworks of the tattooers - some art it’s made with passion - it's not some sort of investment strategy (laughs).

What was it initially that attracted you towards tattooing?

When I was a child I started learning how to draw tattoo designs. It was sixty-one years ago and I was ten years old - I am seventy-one now. I was just completely drawn into it. I was magnetized to it. My best friends’ father had been in World War II and had tattoos on him - he was a soldier - I thought they were fantastic! I grew up drawing. My mother encouraged my drawing. I’ve been drawing since I was three years old. Art is what I was born to do.

I became obsessed with tattooing. I will start hanging around at tattoo shops and copy the designs. I wanted to become a tattooer, but I was a little kid! I was too young. So I kept making art then I went to Art School and got my undergraduate degree. I was about to go to graduate school but I became reinterested in tattooing and realized it was a medium that hadn’t been comprehended fully. I had a series of fortunate mentors that inspired me. The first one was Phil Sparrow who was a writer and I call him “the first renegade intellectual” that I met in tattooing. He was part of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ circle, a very educated man. He was also a closeted gay guy that left academia to go into tattooing. First day at his shop he showed me a book of traditional Japanese tattoos and it blew my mind. I was like these are incredible! I thought maybe this is something I could do.

When was that?

It was in the 60s. I started tattooing in 1966 some friends form Art School. Soon I decided I was going to open a tattoo shop.

When I growing up (ten – eleven years old) my first big passion for visual art form was tattoos. Then I began surfing - I grew up in a small seaside town - and I was always in the water.  I began board surfing in the 1950s. So that was all I wanted to do for a couple of years; surf and draw surf pictures. 

Then the Beat Generation was happening in the late 1950s and I became very interested in Asian aesthetics, in Buddhism and Taoism and all that through the Beat writers, and that kind of consciousness was a very valuable and important time in America. Things were opening up. 

Did you do an apprenticeship?

No, I didn’t apprentice formally with anyone. I just sort of received some tips. Phil gave some tips; I put on my first tattoos at his shop under his guidance. Then basically I got different people to agree to hire me so I could learn something. Like Zeke Owen who is a great American tattooer who was only five years older than me but he was very grounded. He’s been tattooing since he was a teenager. He was very much into Japanese culture as I was I.

Did your academic background help you to take tattooing to the level you took it?

Absolutely! My formal education was very important to me. I am still having books and pursuing history, I’ve been always into reading and writing, and then got involved with publishing. We’ve published thirty-five books so far.

Are you still publishing books?

Yes, we recently had two books out: one with an old tattooer form New York City form the turn of the 20th century and then another book on my friend Hung Liu who is a fantastic contemporary painter from China. She is about my age and she had a big show in a museum in San Francisco.

I publish things that I am passionate about - to bring to people’s attention.

How do feel that tattoo is now entering museums and is been presented to a much wider audience? 

I think it’s fantastic. I did not get into tattooing to proselytize it. I don’t care if people have tattoos. I don’t know why people get tattoos. It’s just like why do people make art? I think is something profound that for some humans is right for them. When I got into it part of it was like an aim of social justice to say it shouldn't be looked down upon. Tattoo is a mystery. Art is a mystery in its essence. People that want to be tattooed they should get exactly the tattoo they want in the conditions they want. It’s very personal; it’s no one else’s business. 

The level and the quality of tattooing, as well as the sophistication of people in it now, it certainly deserves to be in this kind of venues; to be recognized. Not to tell people you have to get a tattoo, just to say that this is something we like and it’s got tremendous dimensions. Tattoos are defined by the people wearing them, and now that tattooers are sophisticated and enough capable to interpret someone’s dreams, it’s just great. It’s something that is part of our species.

How do you see the commercialization of tattooing nowadays?

It’s crazy. It’s the same way with art. I almost hate using the word art anymore, because when people talk about art they instantly think about the financial pages of the newspaper, the auctions and the commodification. The thing I love about tattooing is that you can’t commodify it because the person is going to die at some point. So tattooing is just seizing the imagination of the world and I think because it got popular, a lot of people were getting tattooed because it was a popular thing to do. I just hope that they still enjoy their tattoos later and I hope they have a sense of humour about themselves because it’s not a hairstyle you might have this decade and then have a different one the next one. Every tattoo it’s going to be there!

In your opinion, why humanity from its very beginning has been modifying the body?

I think is some sort of individuation, of saying this is really who I am, because we all essentially have two eyes, two ears etc. Humans want to set themselves apart and make a statement. They want to reflect the way they feel about the world. Tattoos can have a million uses; I am a tough guy, I am this or I am that. But really tattoo is to celebrate the fact that we are in this world for a finite time - no one knows how long we are going to have. Tattooing is a celebration.

Now it is a very important era for tattoo. I feel like I might as well be a thousand years old because tattoo has changed so much from when I got into it. The world and the world’s perception is absolutely different and I think this is a very positive thing.

Tattoo used to be demonized; you were either stupid or sociopathic or antisocial or a bum. Literally when I was a kid if someone had a tattoo people will often say to them either you have been in jail or in the service. That was it! They classified you be your tattoos. 

What about now?

Not so much. There’s still a bit not like in the past. I don’t know how long it will take for that sensibility to die of (laughs). 

Perhaps now that a lot of the young kids are getting tattooed when they have children they will be so used to see tattoos that it will eventually change.

The kids always revolt so maybe they will say my parents are tattooed, that’s so old-fashioned! I don’t want tattoos (laughs). 

It goes in waves. But the most important thing for me again is to seize the right we have to our bodies. This is who we are and no one can tell us what to do with that.

What will you advice a young person who wants to become a tattooer?
I think they’ll have a very tough course with it because there is so much competition now. Frankly, for me it was totally open although I had art ability. There was almost no one doing really well crafted tattoos in a technical sense.  Now they will have to be patient. There are so many tattooers. 

Tattoo is also very challenging. It comes with a great responsibility - you are making a mark to a person - they have to understand that. 

Are you still tattooing?

No, I stopped about seven years ago. I’ve been tattooing for forty-three years and I was able to stop because out of the blue this fashion thing happened; a brand came out with my name (ed. “Ed Hardy”). My work got seen by some people in Los Angeles, and these guys contacted me in order to license them some of my images for shirts. I wasn’t even interested, but they were nice guys. This became a very big worldwide phenomenon. At some point we had seventy sublicensees. 

Did the fact that people all over the world that didn't have a clue about your tattoos were buying your t-shirts bother you at all?

No, I was honoured. I was actually surprised because most what Christian Audigier choose form my image bank were the classic tattoo designs. When I see people wearing an Ed Hardy shirt, I go often and say “thank you for buying that, I am Ed Hardy” and they don’t even know I am a real guy! Then I say something like “I drew that for the sailors in 1972 and it is a tattoo design” and they don’t have an idea. 

It was interesting because it made me realize the velocity and the attraction of classic tattoo flash. For me it was like writing my name as I’ve been drawing it since I was a child. I didn't really realized that it had such an appeal to a lot people who wouldn't want a tattoo but they like it as a graphic image. Because the classic flash is like heraldry of our times, because it’s very primal emotions like love, loyalty, humour and all these things…

So the economic result of all that made me not to have to tattoo for a living. I still have a tattoo studio quite near where I live, my son works there and we have four other people on the crew. My painting studio is also close there. So I am still involved, it's just that my hands aren’t so good anymore, my eyes neither; I am old you know (laughs)! 

So you mainly paint?

Yes, I paint all the time and also making prints such as lithographs. I am working on my personal artwork and showing that. It’s great. I’ve reached a state I don’t have to sit down and do a tattoo, and people are saying, “I’ve waited all this time to get a tattoo by you”, and I say “well I was here, you could have come”!

How do you feel about the new interpretations of the “old” tattoo styles?

I think it is fantastic that people can mix and match things, fuse looks and effects and of course I am very interested in all the abstract tattoos been done because in a lot of my own paintings the abstract elements are more important to me than the story. The inherent content is a painting; you can’t really reduce it to A B C. My personal work is not so symbolic or anything, it’s just something I want people to maybe be surprised by it. 

Contemporary tattooing sometimes blows my mind. The skill level and the pigments and the machines have improved and the entire technical thing is much more advanced and allows people to do things we couldn’t do forty years ago.

What do you think of tattoo conventions? You did some back in the days…

Yeah, the first one I went was in 1977 so I’ve already been tattooing ten years at that point. It was a great chance to meet people. Of course at first there were few hundred people and that was it. Then in 1982 I did the first “informational” tattoo contention on the Queen Mary ship and then we published “Tattoo Time” and I presented the few little short films and videos that were existing about tattooing and gave talks. I gave a talk on cover work tattoos. I tried to give it a bit more academic but in a pop sense too. And that really changed things. We brought people from different parts of the world.

Tattoo conventions are good in a sense that people of similar interests come together to see tattoo work, trade ideas, and attend seminars or workshops. Then again a lot of convention are big circuses. 

Now I mainly go to a tattoo convention in San Francisco cause is near my home. I’ve seen enough of them…

Tattoo work & artwork photographs courtesy of Don Ed Hardy.

Pencil flash '55 - first dragon - 1955.

Ed Hardy - child tattooer.​

Ed Hardy's first publicity - 1956.

San Diego - 1971.

Realistic flyer - 1974.

Montgolfier Brothers Balloon back - 1977.

Chrysanthemum / wave back - 1978.

Wave rib - 1975.

Lizard - 1980.

Figure leaping into space - 1982.

Max Ernst Jukeboxg - 1981.

Return to Sender Goddess - 1981.

Salmon's Leg - 1981. 

Bob Burnett - '78 - '92.

Tribal legs 1982 - left.

Tribal legs 1982 - right.

Tribal legs 1982 - back.

Chinese Legend back.

Zen back - 1991.

Art Goddess - 1990s.

Shoki back - 1992.

Bill - 1991.


White Spirit Fox - 1974. Ink & Watercolor on paper.

Colors that never runk - 1972. Ink & watercolor on board 11 x 14.

Blue Boy Gets Physical intaglio - 1995. Print 24 1/2 x 19 1/4. 

Peleliu, Palau - 1983. Dan Thome photo.

2000 Dragons Acrylic on Tyvek 4 x 500' at Diverse Works, Houston, July 2012. 

2000 Dragons installed - Track 16, Santa Monica 2000.

2000 Dragons Acrylic on Tyvek 4 x 500' Red Rain detail. 

Hardy in S.F. studio 2014. Sharon Marshall photo.

HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine would like kindly to thank Doug Hardy, Aleth and Hey Magazine for the realization of the interview.