NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2007

Don Ed Hardy

[TATTOO ARTIST/PAINTER]

“SO IN THE ’50S, IT WAS: THAT’S THE PANTHER HEAD, THAT’S THE SIZE IT IS, THAT’S THE DIRECTION IT FACES, AND IF YOU DON’T WANT IT, TOO BAD.”
Education of a tattoo artist:
Mail-order tattoo lessons
Japanese tattoo masters
The Pasadena Museum of Art
Gregory Corso

When Don Ed Hardy left art school with a degree in printmaking in the ’60s, he decided not to pursue a career in the academic art world but to practice a form of art that had fascinated him from the age of ten: tattooing. Since then, he has made a name as an innovator (with his fusion of the American and Japanese visual traditions), a shopkeeper (founding the first Japanese-style private studio in America), and a chronicler, with his groundbreaking TattooTime/Hardy Marks Books, with titles such as Music and Sea Tattoos and Pierced Hearts and True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos. Along with a few other pioneers, Hardy has pushed his medium past the stereotypes (the biker, the drunken sailor) to a socially accepted form of personal expression and, sometimes, a fashion accessory.

In the last decade or so, Hardy has concentrated more and more on painting, and recently hung up his tattoo guns—though he continues to mentor the artists at his San Francisco shop, Tattoo City. At the same time, he’s licensed his work to a designer who has put his images on T-shirts, shoes, and caps. He’s even partnered with a company to start a line of Don Ed Hardy temporary tattoos.

I spoke to Hardy by phone while he was visiting San Francisco from his Hawaiian home. The conversation has been edited for space because, as Hardy has been a witness to so much of American tattoo history, he knows his stuff, loves to share it, and, as he readily admits, in the grand tradition of the tattoo artist, he can “bullshit endlessly.”

—Matthew Simmons

*

THE BELIEVER: Let’s talk about a specific piece of work. Among the multiple references in your painting Another Day in Paradise are pot-bellied Japanese devils, Westernized Hell (the Dante’s Inferno-esque burning city), and possibly even a nod to the label for Little Devil Firecrackers. All this makes me wonder about your relationship to pop art. Do you think you are in that tradition as well?

DON ED HARDY: Yes, not so much specifically mimicking the methods of the seminal pop painters, but in using popular imagery. Those guys in New York were reacting to the dominant art-world rule of abstract-expressionism and wanted to get back to some kind of quotidian visuals that, in their own way, when you emphasized it right, possessed powerful formal visual qualities. Mainly it was in opposition to the snotty cant that grows up around any art movement, the preciousness and elitism that is necessary to build and sustain a high-end economic market. The old “we’re rich enough and smart enough to understand this stuff and therefore better than you.” Well, fuck that. I’m not a populist so much, or an opponent to “high culture” and intellectual pursuits in general, but I resent the abusive appropriation of art when it becomes the commodified lapdog of the “ruling classes.”

Also, in terms of pop sensibility, my whole life has been a balance between classical formal education—both in terms of the tools of a medium and the history and philosophy of art—and its resonance in the visual culture of our daily lives. In about 1962, the great curator Walter Hopps, then director of the Pasadena Museum of Art, put on a show he titled The New Paintings of Common Objects. It combined works by West and East Coast artists, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, [Joe] Goode, [Llyn] Foulkes, et al. That show title more accurately reflected what that whole movement encompassed, it wasn’t just about comics or soup cans. Those guys all knew what they were doing and it rocked the world.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Matthew Simmons is The Man Who Couldn’t Blog, the interviews editor at Hobart, and a student in Warren Wilson College’s MFA program. He lives in Seattle with his cat Emmett, and is writing a book of short stories about Upper Michigan.

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