Ed Hardy Retrospective at de Young Looks Beyond the T-Shirts and Trucker Hats

Installation view of 'Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin,' featuring merchandise from Christian Audigier's Ed Hardy brand. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Ask the average person what they think of when they hear the name Ed Hardy, and you'll get some combination of “trucker hats,” “dragon T-shirts,” and, occasionally, words like “douchey.”

That was at least my experience, conducting an unofficial poll leading up to the opening of Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin at the de Young in San Francisco. But in an act of reclamation for the tattoo godfather, the chapter of Ed Hardy’s life that brought him the greatest amount of international name recognition—the 2004 licensing of his tattoo designs to fashion merchandiser Christian Audigier—gets the least amount of attention in his first museum retrospective, opening July 11 at the de Young.

That’s because the work that preceded that licensing agreement—including Hardy’s childhood drawings, dense etchings made as a printmaking major at the San Francisco Art Institute and designs informed by apprenticeships with tattoo masters in the U.S. and Japan—is far more interesting than tiger-emblazoned rhinestone-studded T-shirts, to say nothing of the later art that the agreement freed him up to make.

Don Ed Hardy, Untitled tattoo designs “36,” 1955.
Don Ed Hardy, Untitled tattoo designs “36,” 1955. (© Don Ed Hardy; Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

It would be a disservice to Hardy, now 74, to confuse him with the early-aughts celebrities who wore the items bearing his name (Audigier’s successful marketing strategy involved gifting clothing to people like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, then making sure they were photographed in it). And yet the name recognition created by the “Ed Hardy by Christian Audigier” heyday proves, in part, the exhibition’s thesis: tattooing is no longer a taboo, on-the-margins-of-society activity, so much so that people paid good money to wear shirts that mimicked full sleeves on both arms.

Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin, organized by curator Karin Breuer, argues for tattooing as a form of fine art, and designates Hardy as the person largely responsible for its now-elevated place in culture. It does so by tracing Hardy’s tattoo-inspired artmaking from childhood to today, filling the museum’s subterranean galleries with images of snakes, roses, sparrows, panthers, flaming skulls and oh-so-many dragons.

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Deeper Than Skin itself rides the crest of a recent local trend. It’s the third San Francisco museum show on tattooing in the past year, following the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Lew the Jew and His Circle: Origins of American Tattoo and the Asian Art Museum’s recently opened Tattoos in Japanese Prints. (Lew the Jew was inspired by a book Hardy published in 2015, and drew much of its exhibited material from his personal collection.)

Installation view of 'Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin' featuring ephemera from Hardy's businesses and flash on an interactive touchscreen. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

In picking Deeper Than Skin as its major summer show, the de Young seems to be banking on the fact that there’s no such thing as too many tattoo exhibitions, raising the stakes on the CJM and Asian Art Museum presentations by incorporating animated projections and touch screens. You, too, can be tattooed by the legendary Ed Hardy at the de Young—if only temporarily, and if only by light.

The premise that audiences need to be convinced that tattooing is art seems to this reviewer a ridiculous one. The exhibition opens with wall text stating more than 30 percent of Americans aged 18 to 39 have tattoos. Hardy and his compatriots’ work has been included in major exhibitions across the globe for decades, many of them categorized not exclusively as tattoo shows, but as fine art shows.

But if anyone still needs to be convinced tattooing is art, Hardy is the one to do it.

Installation view of 'Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin.'
Installation view of 'Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin.' (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Deeper Than Skin starts on a wholly endearing note. At the age of ten, fascinated by a friend’s father’s tattoos, Hardy set up a play “tattoo shop” and painted neighborhood kids with Maybelline eyeliner and watercolor pencils. A handmade license declares Hardy a “tattoo artist in the county of Orange,” his school photo affixed to the top right corner. Sheets of pencil-drawn flash copied from tattooing brochures and shops on the Long Beach Pike surround Hardy’s first piece of press: a 1956 story and photograph in the Newport Harbor Ensign of Hardy and a friend working away on another kid’s back.

It’s a bit mind-boggling to see someone achieve their childhood goals so successfully and with such specificity. Just two galleries away from those first wobbly designs, sheets of actual flash that once hung in the tattoo studios Hardy ran during his decades-long career cover a museum wall.

Opting for a career in tattooing, Hardy stepped off the fine art path his college studies seemed to point him towards, which in 1967 was as much about “dropping out” of the highfalutin art world as it was about rediscovering a youthful obsession. Hardy’s SFAI graduation show became a life thesis: Future Plans shows the artist sitting shirtless on a stool with his fist propped on both thighs, his torso and arms covered in tattoos. (In a satisfying bookend, Deeper Than Skin closes with a contemporary portrait of Hardy in the same pose, this time in an interactive touch-screen display that allows visitors to learn about the origins and creators behind those real-life tattoos.)

Installation view of 'Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin' featuring the etching 'Future Plans,' 1967.
Installation view of 'Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin' featuring the etching 'Future Plans,' 1967. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Hardy’s career is peppered with firsts: he was the first American to study tattooing in Japan, he was the first American to open an appointment-only tattoo studio in 1974, where the business motto was “wear your dreams.” Hardy shifted the model: at Realistic Tattoo Studio, he displayed no flash, working with clients to devise custom pieces that drew from both traditional Western images and Japanese tattoo culture.

If categorizing tattooing as art is about removing it from the context of the parlors and studios where ink meets skin and placing it in exhibition spaces, it’s also about shifting its images from skin to paper, ceramic, and in Hardy’s case, Tyvek surfaces. Over the course of the exhibition, we see Hardy’s practice move smoothly from medium to medium, growing in scale from tight, delicate gestures (etchings and small-scale tattoos sharing much in common) to the sweeping brushstrokes of 2000 Dragons, his 500-foot-long scroll painting made for the new millennium.

In its serpentine, suspended presentation, 2000 Dragons creates the best metaphor for Hardy’s career—one that wends its way into and out of tattooing, continuously pulling from a rich well of imagery once limited to bodily decoration that now knows no material bounds.

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'Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin' is on view at the de Young Museum July 13–Oct. 6. Details here.

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