The tattoo print on T-shirts is so pervasive today it’s hard to imagine it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, and the man recognized for helping to bring the renegade art form into the mainstream, Don Ed Hardy, is a sometime Honolulu resident whose attraction to and knowledge of tattoo and Asian art forms is more than skin deep.
He’ll be showing his fine art during the exhibition "Beyond Fashion: The Personal Art of Ed Hardy," opening with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. today. Included will be new layered Lucite paintings combining elements of tattoo and calligraphic forms, as well as some earlier drawings, etchings and scroll paintings. The works will be on view through Nov. 27.
Hardy’s obsession with tattoos started early.
"I drew a lot as a little kid, and one of my best friends’ dad came home from World War II with a tattoo, and I thought that was cool," said Hardy, 65, who grew up in Southern California.
"People in the military coming back from Korea, Japan and Asia had these tattoos with Asian motifs, and I set up a toy tattoo shop where I drew on neighborhood kids. I made up all these flash sheets (design samples) and they would pick the images they liked. At first parents were shocked. They looked real and the kids liked them so much they didn’t want to wash them off."
His work as an 11-year-old caused such a stir, it was documented in the community newspaper, the Newport Harbor Ensign.
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"Beyond Fashion: The personal art of Ed Hardy"
When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. today; continues through Nov. 27
Place: Robyn Buntin of Honolulu, 848 S. Beretania St.
At the San Francisco Art Institute, he took up fine art, majoring in printmaking, but he couldn’t shake his interest in tattooing. His future was set when he met a professor he described as a "renegade intellectual who shared a book of Japanese tattoos."
"I realized how deep and great it could be as a form of expression," he said.
The quality of tattoo art and sanitation at that time left something to be desired, and Hardy made it part of his mission to deliver safety and art "that should be done really well."
In the mid-1960s, Hardy headed to Honolulu to surf and study tattooing with Sailor Jerry Collins before traveling to Japan to work under classical tattoo master Horihide in 1973.
He absorbed all of the mythology and symbolism of Buddhism and Taoism, finding many of the beliefs echoing his own easy-going, live-and-let-live outlook rooted partly in the ostracism often faced by those with tattoos.
"There was a time when, if you had a tattoo, you were considered to be a criminal or a moron. I was like, ‘Hey man, it’s art, it’s a choice, it’s our bodies, and no one else had the right to tell us what to do with our bodies.’
"To me, everything terrible in the world stems from people trying to force their ideas and beliefs on other people," he said.
AFTER YEARS of hands-on success, Hardy worked with a small T-shirt manufacturer in the early 2000s to market his designs on apparel. The clothing business took off from 2003 to 2004, when entrepreneur Christian Audigier licensed the rights to produce the Ed Hardy clothing line based on his bank of 1,300 images.
"It’s been a phenomenon," Hardy said.
He retired two years ago to focus full time on his personal art, something he had been quietly doing all along.
He’s in demand as a curator and speaker on tattoos, woodblock prints and other Asian art forms. He was the subject of Emiko Omori’s documentary film, "Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World," which debuted last year at the Hawaii International Film Festival and will screen in February at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
He said it wasn’t easy to make the transition back to fine art. His breakthrough came at the millennium, the Year of the Dragon, when he decided to paint 2,000 dragons on a 2,000-foot scroll.
"When I started painting again, I tried to avoid anything that looked like a tattoo, but that was stupid. It was a big part of my visual experience and aesthetic, just like classical Asian art from both China and Japan, and Southern California.
"I was kind of like a Rip Van Winkle. I realized my aesthetic and intellect were stunted in some way, stuck in that time I left art school. It was a strange thing to step back into the fine art world, especially when tattooing is more of a commercial art form with an image bank of classic designs."
The quiet of working alone also took some readjustment.
"There’s a psychological dimension to tattooing in that you would hear everyone’s life story. Sometimes it was pleasant, other times I’d find out more about some people than I cared to know."
In the nearly half-century Hardy has spent tattooing, he confesses: "I can’t explain why people get ’em. It’s the same as art. It eludes logic. People are drawn to something or they’re not. With tattoos, it’s so individualistic and you really have to dig the permanence of it.
"It’s not for everybody. It’s not like a haircut that grows out or a T-shirt that you can change."
Even so, he’s still amused at the widespread acceptance of tattoos.
"It’s gone insane," he said of the legions of youths who get tattoos without hesitation. "You can go superdeep in studying the mythology, philosophy and cosmic implications of tattoos. On the other hand, there are people getting blanketed with them as a marker of things they’ve done in their lives. I hope, when they look back, that they have a sense of humor."