Ed Hardy at Realistic Tattoo Studio, San Francisco

Wear Your Dreams: The Story of Ed Hardy

Simply scroll through Instagram today and you’ll be presented with a colourful grid of expertly rendered tattoos. The breadth of quality custom tattooing has never been greater: a far cry from a not-too-distant past where tattooing was firmly reserved for the fringes of society. Catering largely to sailors, bikers and convicts, ‘tough stickers’ were chosen from flash sheets taped to the walls. Serious artists and collectors were a scarce rarity.

Enter Don Ed Hardy. In 1967, promising fine art graduate Ed had been offered a prestigious position at Yale but encounters with local tattoo legends in his youth had captured his imagination: instead, Ed wished to pursue his bold vision of tattooing as a legitimate art-form. 

In the years that followed, Ed Hardy would change the landscape of modern tattooing forever. The London Tattoo Convention looks back on Ed’s outstanding career ahead of his exclusive UK appearance this summer. 

The year was 1956 and an 11-year-old Don Ed Hardy had set up shop in his den. Adorning the neighbourhood kids with coloured make-up pencil ‘tattoos’, Ed was already a budding artist.

Growing up in Long Beach, Hardy was raised solely by his mother after a parental separation. His father, absent for much of his youth, had relocated to Japan but regularly sent back artefacts and trinkets which sparked an early interest in Asian art for Ed.

By age 10, Ed had caught his first glimpse of the tattoo scene, cycling down to The Pike with friends to hang out and smoke cigarettes at Bert Grimm’s legendary World Famous Tattoo. Absorbing the unique atmosphere of the tattoo shop, these characters would grip his imagination for years to come.

Ed Hardy childhood newspaper feature
‘Little Merchants’ – Don Ed Hardy and friends set up shop

It wasn’t until he was 16 that Ed was finally ready to pursue art in a serious sense. Following a period of interest in surfing, Ed knuckled down at art school and found himself drawn to printmaking. He was disengaged from the artistic trends of the time – performance and conceptual art – and instead drew inspiration from the old masters. He graduated with a BFA in printmaking and was offered a sought-after position at Yale. 

However, an experience at Phil Sparrow’s tattoo studio in Oakland had planted other ideas in Ed’s mind. Sparrow, a former academic, was one of the best tattooists in the area. Whilst under the needle, Sparrow presented Ed with a book, Irezumi: Japanese Tattooing. Seeing the masterful Japanese bodysuits for the first time was a revelation, furthering Ed’s conviction that tattooing could be a true art-form as yet brimming with unexplored possibilities.

‘Irezumi – Japanese Tattooing’, the 1966 book by Ichiro Morita that would inspire Ed Hardy

Making the bold decision to turn down his fellowship at Yale, Ed began to get to grips with tattooing, initially working under Phil Sparrow’s watchful eye. Later, Ed would make contact with Sailor Jerry Collins, the pioneering tattooer working in Hawaii. Sailor Jerry was already a revered figure in the field. His contacts would prove invaluable to Ed – as Jerry’s protege, Ed was able to be in communication with the best in the business at a time when tattooing was shrouded in secrecy.

Jerry had previously travelled with the US Navy. His time at sea had taken him to Southeast Asia and had in turn provided him with a new lexicon of imagery to incorporate into his flash. Ed Hardy had always held a fascination for Asian art and Jerry’s connection with Japanese master tattoo artist Horihide (aka Kazuo Oguri) led to a life-changing learning opportunity.

In 1970, Ed journeyed to Japan to live and work alongside Horihide studying the art of Irezumi – a large-scale, fully custom style of tattooing – becoming the first non-Asian tattooer to ever do so.

Sailor Jerry's Asian-inspired tattoo flash
Sailor Jerry’s Asian-inspired tattoo flash

Ed Hardy returned to the US in 1976, with grand plans to open his own fully custom studio ‘Realistic Tattoo’ – the first shop of its kind in America. 

The tattoos Ed Hardy made here were like nothing anybody had seen before; his varied influences from travelling, tattooing and art school gave him a vision few else could bring to the table. Ed’s reputation flourished. Experimental designs became iconic signatures; panthers morphed into roses, classic Western flash designs assumed new forms and Japanese influences abounded in Ed’s unique portfolio. 

Over the years, Ed invited others to work alongside him – Bob Roberts, Freddy Negrete, and Filip Leu all made appearances at Realistic and Bill Salmon cut his teeth under Ed’s guidance. In the late 1970’s Ed opened a second studio, ‘Tattoo City’, which showcased the growing trend of fine-line black and grey tattooing at the time.

Ed Hardy at Realistic Tattoo Studio, San Francisco
Ed Hardy at Realistic Tattoo Studio, San Francisco

In 1982, Ed joined forces with tattooers Ed Nolte and Ernie Carafa (known collectively as ‘Triple E’ Productions) to host a tattoo convention aboard the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. ‘The Tattoo Expo ’82’ was a roaring success and marked a pivotal moment in tattoo culture, attracting fans from all over the world to meet artists such as Cliff Raven and Mike Malone*. 

That same year, Ed Hardy together with his wife Francesca Passalacqua formed Hardy Marks Publications and released America’s first tattoo magazine, ‘Tattootime’. The magazines were for the serious enthusiast, packed full of information and interviews with the most progressive tattooers of the period. The publications were exceptionally well-received, further cementing Ed’s position as the most important figure in modern American tattooing. The company would go on to release over 25 books relating to tattoo art and culture.

*Mike Malone was another protege of Sailor Jerry’s. Before Jerry passed away, he insisted his China Sea studio must only continue under the control of one of his successors, or to burn it to the ground. Malone took over China Sea and Ed built his own Bay Area empire with Realistic and Tattoo City.

Ed Hardy panther-rose morph backpiece
Ed Hardy panther-rose morph backpiece

By the 90’s, tattooing was changing fast – the art form was becoming more popular with a new wave of customers from all walks of life. Recognising this shift, Tattoo City was reborn as a space for quality, accessible custom tattooing. Every artist working for Ed was chosen for their shared values and skill; the studio grew from strength to strength.

Our story would not be complete without mentioning the eponymous clothing line which made Ed Hardy a household name in the early 2000’s. Fashion designer Christian Audigier (of ‘Von Dutch’ fame) was one of the most successful licensees of Hardy’s assets, creating an extensive fashion line which rapidly gained popularity. At its peak, the ‘Ed Hardy’ clothing stores could be found in cities around the world and had grossed more than $700 million by 2009. But the success was short-lived; Audigier’s marketing tactics of dressing celebrities in clothing to be ‘papped’ by the press backfired when a reviled reality-TV star was seen to be wearing the brand. Hardy attributed Audigier’s marketing tactics to the demise of the brand’s status and, following a legal battle, regained control of the name in 2010.

'Surf Or Die' lithograph by Ed Hardy
‘Surf Or Die’ lithograph by Ed Hardy

Now in his seventies, Ed Hardy has retired from tattooing (his son Doug Hardy continues to ply the family trade at Tattoo City). Ed continues to create as a fine artist with a huge body of work in the form of paintings, ceramics and printmaking. His works are a further extension of his tattoo style, featuring imagery inspired by Western and Japanese motifs, beat culture and his love of surfing. Ed’s works have been featured in major exhibitions, including an enormous solo retrospective at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, in 2019; a huge honour for the man who once spent hours examining artwork as a student in that very same space.

Ed Hardy’s contribution to tattooing has been immeasurable. Fronting a tattoo renaissance, his forward-thinking approach opened the doors for a new generation of artists to explore the craft to its fullest. 

This summer, The London Tattoo Convention are honoured to welcome Ed Hardy with an exclusive display of early tattoo designs alongside recent painted works. Join us at Tobacco Dock, 31st July – 2nd August 2020 to catch the exhibition. 


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