Ever since Don Ed Hardy was a boy, he has been making tattoos. At the age of 10, Hardy opened a toy tattoo shop out of his mom’s house and drew designs on the neighborhood kids using colored pencils and eyeliner. Since then he has done literally hundreds of thousands of tattoos. The Spark episode “Needlework” joins one of the world’s best-known tattoo artists as he looks back on a lifetime of putting ink to skin, a journey that has taken him from the tattoo parlor to the gallery and back again.
Hardy is internationally recognized as a pioneer in tattooing, having been among the first to cross Western and Japanese tattoo styles. Western tattoos are typically single, isolated emblems; Japanese tattoos often integrate a number of images in a single design that might cover a person’s entire torso. Hardy first became interested in Japanese tattooing in the early 1950s — his father had taken an engineering job in Tokyo and began sending him Japanese artifacts and clothes as well as books of Japanese art.
In the mid-1960s, Hardy attended the San Francisco Art Institute, where he completed a B.F.A. in printmaking. He was offered a scholarship to Yale in the M.F.A. program, but decided instead to pursue tattooing full time. He sharpened his technical skills working in a series of shops in sailor districts along the West Coast and forged contacts with accomplished older artists, such as the legendary Honolulu tattooist Sailor Jerry Collins.
In 1973, Hardy became the first non-Asian to gain access to the Japanese tattooing subculture when he was invited to study with renowned classical tattoo master Horihide. He returned to California after six months and began doing tattoos by appointment, working collaboratively with his customers to develop large-scale designs. Later, in San Francisco’s North Beach, he opened Tattoo City, which has since become a mecca for tattoo enthusiasts.
Hardy has helped to transform tattooing in America, bringing to it a greater sophistication, depth and sense of experimentation. What had been a marginal practice when Hardy began making tattoos in the 1960s, something relegated to drunken sailors, is now a widespread, even mainstream phenomenon. The number of tattoo artists in North America has risen from about 500 when Hardy began his career to about 50,000 now.
Although Hardy mainly did only tattoos for about 20 years, lately he’s been doing other forms of art. To celebrate the new millennium — a dragon year in the Chinese zodiac — Hardy produced a 500-foot-long painting on paper featuring 2,000 dragons. The piece took him seven months to complete and opened him up to producing more gallery work. For Hardy, painting and tattooing are not separate activities; rather, they inform one another. With all his artwork, Hardy attempts to create a world of mystery, humor and weird beauty that eludes categorization.
Meet artists who are putting aside their brushes for needles.