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Tattooist lived through craft's evolution

By David D'Arcy

San Francisco Chronicle

LAST UPDATED: 2:08 a.m. HST, Jul 11, 2013

Tattoos are no longer just the heraldry of sailors, prisoners, prostitutes or Japa­nese gangsters. They are almost as common as cellphones these days.

Like marijuana, the tattoo has been socially destigmatized. Just go to a beach or a gym or watch "Jersey Shore." One in 5 adult Americans has a tattoo.

The tattoo's legal decriminalization is less well known. From 1961 to 1997, tattooing was a misdemeanor in New York state. No wonder tattoo parlors were down by the docks or wedged between strip joints. Hence the frisson, if you had a tattoo — especially back then, and especially if you took off your clothes to show a permanent body decoration.

The tattoo's journey toward legitimacy has been less than 50 years. It's a long way from the days when "freaks" covered in tattoos were shown at carnivals and prisoners were tattooed with numbers.

Ed Hardy, 68, who has now hung up his needle, was at work since those dark days, exhuming tattooing from the domain of skulls, anchors and dragons. He's been a financial success, so successful that his images were licensed, to his chagrin, on everything from candles to cigarette lighters to a best-selling perfume. Hardy revisits his improbable career and the tattoo's rise from vagrants to Vogue in "Wear Your Dreams" with the help of former Chronicle pop music critic Joel Selvin. (Hardy will make an appearance Saturday at Barnes & Noble at Ala Moana Center.)

An authority in an underappreciated medium is finally putting needle to paper. Hardy is a voluble talker. "Wear Your Dreams" reads like an "as told to" rock biography, minus the overdoses, groupies and any pretense, plus lots of undramatic detail about his apartments and raising a child. In case you were wondering, tattooists are people, too.

Hardy views his life humbly as the learning and refining of a craft, albeit a stigmatized one, and succeeding in making a living at it — an easier achievement than making tattoos respectable.

His vocation began as a childhood fascination. "Wear Your Dreams" was on his first business card. We move through the shops of older mentors, like the urbane Phil Sparrow (Samuel Steward) of Oakland — a milieu that he chose over a scholarship to Yale. He eventually went to Japan (where elaborate tattoos covered the bodies of gangsters called yakuza) and through alcohol (which he kicked), pot (a longtime love) and surfing (a passion), all the while refining picture-making on human skin.

Timing and sheer luck were factors. When Hardy, from Corona del Mar, was learning tattooing in Southern California, the emblems of car decoration and surf culture converged with comic book art, just as Mexican and Japa­nese images found their way into American culture and onto Americans' arms. The tattoo became a flower of evil for hippies. Hardy, who had gotten in early, was the medium's best-known practitioner.

The windfall of ink on skin became a curse. Hardy came to the attention of the marketer Christian Audigier, to whom he signed over all reproduction rights in 2004. Soon the once-obscure tattooist was drowning in his own imagery.

Hardy eventually parted company with Audigier — he's now with another firm — but not before his brand was watered down, a misfortune that should give pause to any craftsman who sees dollar signs in his own products. That story merits an entire book. A filmmaker should turn that misadventure into a wild farce.

A lifelong student of art, Hardy feels, rightly, that his medium — and himself, by extension — was slighted. The question comes down to the obvious one: But is it art? Like every medium, it certainly can be, in the right hands. Five minutes on the Internet offers plenty of evidence. (The Web will take you worlds beyond the mostly archival pictures in "Wear Your Dreams.")

Art historians have been looking at body markings for decades now, anthropologists for much longer. And if the pop/porn kitsch of Jeff Koons isn't exalted flash (sample designs on the wall of a tattoo parlor), what is? The intersection with the market is more complicated.

Human skin, which belongs to the tattoo's owner, is hard to preserve (if desired) and, if you want tattooing to be even more stigmatized, try selling that skin in what the art world calls the secondary market. As Hardy puts it, "It is probably the most personal form of art."

The art critic Dave Hickey was more emphatic in "Ed Hardy — Tattoo the World," a 2010 documentary film by Emiko Omori. "It's the last canvas you can work on without having somebody f— with you," he said. "It's a rough democracy."

Like all image-making, tattooing is a work in progress. Tattooists who've assimilated Hardy's work, plus Japa­nese virtuosity and much of the infinity of art available, have overtaken Hardy into abstract patterns and hyper-realism and styles that resist characterization.

Hardy himself would surely welcome company in expanding the visual vocabulary that he found stuck in the tastes of sailors and convicts. It's still a mixed blessing. Now the vast mass of tattooing risks recycling youth consumer honky-tonk, the taste of teenagers on the way from Walmart to a Justin Bieber concert — uninspiring even on the loveliest of young bodies.

But tattoos, rampant even when they were illegal, are hard to control. There is no academy, no pompous critic holding court, no rules except health regulations. All the more room for surprises in talented hands encouraged by Ed Hardy to take up the needle.



>> Where: Barnes & Noble, Ala Moana Center

>> When: 2 p.m. Saturday

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