Q and A

Don “Ed” Hardy and his art
Image: courtesy: docurama films

The Life in the Line

Tattoo legend and part-time Honolulu resident Ed Hardy talks about tattooing’s place in the art world

The greatest tattoo artist of our time–anointed by our own Hotel Street’s Sailor Jerry–is also a fine artist, book publisher, filmmaker and, thanks to his Ed Hardy line, an unexpected fashion icon. In conjunction with the Tattoo Honolulu exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art, Hardy will be giving a talk at the Doris Duke Theatre on July 6 at 7:30pm before a screening of Emiko Omori’s acclaimed film, Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World. The film also screens at 1pm on July 6 and at 1 and 7:30pm July 5. [Honoluluacademy.org].


Tell us about the film. The video clips ([edhardytattootheworld.com]) are amazing.

The film got more hits from the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) exhibit than any other film, including those by Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. It’s streaming on Netflix.

Given our similar upbringings–you Newport, me Long Beach–where you learned tattooing at the great, old Nu-Pike, I have a confession to make. When I think of tattoos I think of turning 21, standing drunk and undecided in front of a Pike tattoo parlor. Where did you turn 21 and what did you do to celebrate?

Oh, Jesus. I’d gotten married just a couple of weeks before and my wife was a couple months pregnant. It’s a blur. I was working hard to pay the bills.

And now, tattooing is everywhere and you’re the most recognizable name associated with it, as well as being the curator of Sailor Jerry’s legacy.

The whole exponential growth of the tattoo thing has been astonishing. I just wanted to get respect. And I feel we are party to or more or less responsible for that. For instance, we started publishing books about it ([hardymarks.com]). A labor of love. We said if we sold enough books we’d do another one. When we did the first book in 1982, of Jerry’s letters, he and I corresponded like mad for four years. Well, the first book caused big ripples in the tattoo world. We do things we believe in and things that are cool. I’m a great reader and my wife is too.

Any books you’d recommend?

The First Strange Place. It’s about Hawaii in wartime. One chapter is about Hotel Street, the whorehouses, Sailor Jerry, et cetera. It makes an important point: For a couple million soldiers and sailors, the wartime presence of Hawaii, for people who had never been anywhere in their lives, was the first place they’d ever been that was somewhere else on the map.

Southern California, when we were growing up, was also a fertile place. So much going on; not innocent, but not so self-referential as now.

I come out of a legacy of California guys, doing art that is non-elitist. It doesn’t have a great pedigree, but it lights you up. So much of the last half century of art is California-initiated, the car culture, surfing, rock ‘n’ roll–all that sort of populist groundswell really comes up from the bottom. Later it gets precious and made respectable in other echelons. I’m not saying that it can’t be formal and recognized. I’m happy the stuff I loved and believed in is now getting some respect.

That makes me think of Damien Hirsch’s For the Love of God. The moment I saw it (a diamond-studded platinum skull that cost the British artist $22 million to fabricate and was placed on sale for $78 million) I thought of your work.

For the Love of God, to me, is a ripoff. Okay, not that, but it comes straight through me. I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, but that whole realm to me, that art is holy thing, the economic strata, the commodification level, where it’s okay to say, “Goddamn! I got 80 million for this,” it’s not what I do. And it’s not what I think of as art. The critic Dave Hickey nailed it when he said it all kind of went wrong in the ‘70s when they started pushing grad degrees in art. Suddenly if you didn’t have a highly expensive torturous degree then you couldn’t make art. It would be better off to be driven to do it, to find yourself saying, “Goddamn it! I have to do this.”

Like going to the Pike at 13 to hang out, illegally, with the tattoo artists. Eventually you did head off to the Art Institute and the so-called fine arts. Did your paths cross there with Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud?

Thiebaud was at the Art Institute, and I knew Diebenkorn. I was learning classical etching and print techniques, influenced by a wide swath of cultures: Asian, New York School. In 1973, I went to Japan to study with Horihide and learn the Yakuza style. A lot of my work currently is gestural.

Right. And you’ve moved beyond skin, doing some big, room-sized works, like your mural Year of the Dragon. Do you have a sense of posterity, that you are ensuring your work lives on for centuries?

I don’t care about fame or history. I never think about that. Part of the thing I like about tattooing is it’s ephemeral, it’s guaranteed to go away. The painting, I just wanted to do more for myself. I did tattooing for 40 years. I didn’t dislike it. Tattooing is a great life. But moving to Honolulu allowed me to get into my personal art. Then I would go back to San Francisco and tattoo like crazy for a couple of weeks. The thing about art is I’m not depending on the input of a client.

Your fashion line just took over the world a few years ago. Every girl in the country seemed to have a hat, a shirt or a piece of Ed Hardy jewelry. How did that come about?

A French guy in LA was desperate to get the master license. He said, “I’m going to make this a huge global sensation.” “Yeah, right,” we said. But he did it. They’re doing big things in China, Brazil, Australia. It’s all been like the Twilight Zone.

The world has changed so exponentially since I started. It’s just kind of crazy. That’s why it’s good to talk to you and people who come from the times I do. Especially geographically.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve always loved the Weekly. It’s a great paper.