His Art, Your Sleeve: Ed Hardy’s Life in Tattoos

Young Ed Hardy, 1956 © Ed Hardy
Young Ed Hardy, hard at work (1956) © Ed Hardy

When Ed Hardy began tattooing in the 1960s, tattoos were not the pop culture staple they are today. Tattoos were mostly seen on military men and sideshow devotees, not on business men or college girls. But over the past few decades tattoos have come up from underground. Way up.

Tattoo artists of today are often booked months in advance, and paid in the thousands for their work, which is regarded as art. Ed Hardy not only saw the change happen, but his tattoo designs and the mass marketing of his artwork on everything from t-shirts to air fresheners played a big part in the tattoo art explosion of the early 21st century. Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos, is an intimate, exceptionally insightful look at Hardy's life as an artist whose best work lives on other people’s skin.

Long before his name was on t-shirts, Ed Hardy was a kid growing up in California. He became interested in tattoos at ten years old, and started in on his life’s work immediately. He couldn’t get his hands on a tattoo gun, of course, but he made do and inked up his school friends with colored pencils. Hardy makes clear that tattooing and fine art were always connected in his mind, if not in the minds of others. He pursued his education at the San Francisco Fine Art Institute, even while he was committed to a career in tattooing. At the time, the infamous Sailor Jerry was the godfather of tattooing, and Hardy struck up a correspondence with this icon, sending Jerry his own designs and asking for advice as his career got off the ground.

Hardy relays some harrowing tales about his earliest days as a tattoo artist in 1960s California. Tattoos were still well out of the mainstream, and sailors and hippies were interesting customers -- especially when they weren’t sober. Hardy did have a policy not to tattoo anyone who was intoxicated, and his first experience inking a big back piece on a female customer involves him having to stop the work and cart her, inebriated and incoherent, out of the tattoo shop and to a motel to sleep it off.

But Hardy and his tattoos gain respect as time passes. In the 70s, Hardy is one of the first Western artists to learn the ancient art of Japanese tattooing with Japanese masters. In the 80s, Hardy finds himself tattooing not only on bikers and hippy chicks, but on rock stars and businessmen, newly flush with cash from the boom.

The seriousness with which others take Hardy’s work is a reflection of his own clear-eyed, near-academic devotion to his work. He clearly understands tattooing as something that deserves a place on the spectrum of artistic work. It can range from folk art to fine art, depending on who is behind the needle, but a scholarly understanding of art history is intimately woven in to the personal and cultural history Hardy relays in Wear My Dreams. As a result the book is relevant not only to tattoo devotees, but anyone interested in popular culture, fashion, and art.

And of course, no art book is complete without the images. There are gorgeous illustrations here of some of Hardy’s most iconic work. The images round out the picture painted by Hardy’s words. Studying the tattoo art, Hardy’s evolution as an artist and the influences of Japanese and traditional tattooing are clear.

In the early 2000s, Hardy began licensing his images for use on clothing and other merchandise. He did not realize at the time what a juggernaut his work would prove to be in the fashion world. By the mid 2000s, his art was on t-shirts, hats and shoes. First worn by rockers and movie stars, the market was quickly saturated with Hardy’s signature imagery -- growling tigers, grinning skulls, hearts and daggers, all in vivid, blaring color. With an Ed Hardy shirt on every other barfly, the fickle tide of fashion turned, and today, Ed Hardy t-shirts are considered passé, a marker of questionable taste.

It is unfortunate that Hardy’s name has become associated with the wrong kind of style. Taken on its own, his work is bold and full of energy and Hardy himself is a consummate professional with an abiding vision.  “All I ever wanted to do was to make art and be an artist. I didn’t want to be judged by the medium of my expression,” he writes. Fortunately, Hardy has reasserted control over his brand in recent years. And Wear Your Dreams is a great contribution to the story behind the ink -- the story of an artist who has made his mark on modern bodies in more ways than one.