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Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoosby Ed Hardy
My Life in Tattoos
Today there have been nearly one billion Ed Hardy retail items unleashed on an unsuspecting but highly receptive public. That staggering sum makes no more sense to me than it does to you. Its more than T-shirts, hats, and running shoes. Theyve got everything. For a while, there were seventy sublicenses. A licensee sent us a bitchin iPad cover with a leaping koi. There is red wine, white wine, champagne. My designs appeared on everything you can dress yourself with, on cigarette lighters, or air fresheners, you name it. I asked one of our guys just what the fuck does that have to do with air fresheners? “Nothing,” he said. “People like the designs.”
The big snarling tiger with the crazy green eyes I first painted in 1968, when I was just starting out doing tattoos in Vancouver. I took it from an old-time tattoo design, which Im sure was taken from a circus poster. The “Love Kills Slowly” heart and skull design, something I first drew in 1971 at my shop in San Diego, is the most popular. Its like the Ford insignia of the Ed Hardy line.
Im not a public figure. People dont know what I look like and I dont get out and around a lot. I was riding the subway in New York last year and there was a lady with this totally bling Ed Hardy bag. We were jammed up together. When I got off at my stop, I handed her a card and told her, “Im Ed Hardy and I really appreciate you supporting the brand.” I was in North Carolina for a tattoo convention and the maid came into my room, a young, hip gal with a couple of tattoos. She asked what I was doing in town and I said, “tattoo convention.” She took a look at me in my plaid shirt and cardigan sweater. “Really?” she said.
“Im a tattooer,” I told her. “My names Ed Hardy.”
She whipped out her cell phone. “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” she told me, then shouted into her phone, “Do you know who Im standing here with? Ed Hardy! I love Ed Hardy.”
When he signed me up, Christian Audigier told me they were going to make me a star and I would travel around the world in private jets and limousines and sign autographs for a half hour wherever I went. I told them, in only the nicest possible way, that Id rather they would pay me and leave me alone.
That I became the best-known fashion brand in the world today is beyond laughable. Francesca and I are like the Beverly Hillbillies. All this is so strange to me. Ive had to learn to pay attention. We had to mount a lawsuit to gain back control over the brand, but all that was settled. Today we are partnered with the New York brand management firm Iconix, and things are on a more even keel.
All I ever wanted to do was to make art and be an artist. I didnt want to be judged by the medium of my expression. When I started, nobody thought tattoos were art or that people who did tattoos were artists. Of course, I knew the tattoo shops and the people who tattooed lived in an underground world, but I never thought it wasnt art. When I took this up as a life calling, the so-called world of high art, needless to say, had no idea what to make of tattoo artists. We didnt exist in the world of galleries and museums. I never took that very seriously anyway, except that I didnt want to be viewed as a lesser human being because I didnt paint on canvas. The art world erects these artificial barriers and then gets to say who is an artist and who isnt. With tattoos, you are always going to get that to a degree because its got that loaded thing—its on skin and its messy—all ink and blood. You have to look at peoples bodies, which pushes all sorts of buttons. And they cant resell it, so they dont know what to do with it.
Today there is more tattooing than any time in history. Tattoos go back as far as civilization. The early Egyptian mummies were tattooed. The Pictish people in pre-Anglo-Saxon England, where we get the word “picture,” were all tattooed. Tattoos may have predated cave paintings. I have no idea why people get tattoos. You might as well ask why people make art. The tattoo is a marker of lifes journey. Tattoos are found in all cultures. The Pacific Islands had great tattoo traditions. Sadly, the Judeo-Christian bunch rejected tattoos as pagan markings, which pretty much assured the underground status of the tattoo in the Western world, where its done in sketchy parts of town, by people with strange, noisy machines. When I opened Realistic Tattoo in 1974 in San Francisco, the modern tattoo movement was barely beginning to mass on the horizon.
* * *
I started corresponding with Sailor Jerry, the greatest tattooer of his generation, when I was first working in San Diego in 1969. We traded several letters a week because we had a lot of dead time in shop. We swapped photos of our work, compared notes, delved into aesthetics, techniques, and all aspects of the art of tattooing. We were both pushing epic tattoos, more breakthrough work with an Asian theme. We wrote each other constantly, but we only talked on the phone a couple of times. The first time I put a big tattoo on a woman, Jerry happened to call and ask, “What are you doing?” I told him I was fixing to put a big Japanese design on a good-looking young ladys back, just to bust his balls, because I knew he would be mad with envy.
She was a hippie chick who had been in my shop before. I remembered her when an old friend from my San Francisco Art Institute days called and said he met a girl in a bar who had some tattoos, which was highly unusual in those days. He was one of my few friends from school who showed any interest in tattoos. He was with me the night I got my second tattoo in Oakland and was wearing a couple of my earliest pieces. He was back in San Francisco after a long time living out of town. At the time, he was a total lush, slamming them back at bars with strangers, and ended up one night taking her home with him. She gave him a dose. “God damn it, watch out if she shows up in your place,” he said.
She did come back down and turned up at the shop, looking to get another tattoo. She picked something off the wall, but was vague about what she wanted and pretty much left it up to me. I had this design on the wall, sort of a Japanese grim reaper in a large, fluttering robe, brandishing a big Japanese ax. On the ax is the kanji (Japanese symbol) for death. I think maybe it was my idea, a good spot for it. I put it on her inner thigh. I didnt mention what was on the ax. I thought this was appropriate—a little warning to those in the know.
A couple of months later, the day Sailor Jerry called, she came back in with a man, a native Japanese. He barely spoke English. He was an architecture student who picked her up hitchhiking in the Haight-Ashbury and she talked him into driving her down to San Diego so she could get a big tattoo. He was more than slightly baffled by the whole thing. In Japan, tattoos are traditionally associated with the yakuza, the criminal underworld, and not something for anyone in polite society. He wore a deer-in-the-headlights expression and who knows what he thought the payoff was. He drove her. He was her patsy.
I pulled the curtain over the front window and locked the door. I had a private area I could close off if I was tattooing, and everything out front was nailed down, so if people were out there looking around, you wouldnt lose anything. But I figured Id better lock the front door. She stripped down (following Jerrys lead, I would tell females not to worry about taking off their clothes—Im just like a doctor) and got everything off. I drew the tattoo on her back. When I started outlining, she began squealing, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” She had multiple tattoos. “You know what this feels like,” I told her.
Who knows what substance she was on? “If I could just have a drink,” she said.
I do not do tattoos on people who have been drinking. I always held to that. You might get a sailor with a couple of beers in him and that would be okay, but I do not work on drunks. I really wanted to do this tattoo, though. After arguing with her a bit and more wiggling, I gave the Japanese guy some money and sent him around the corner for a half-pint. I handed her the bottle and told her to take a swig. She drained it.
Immediately her true inner beauty came out. I was trying to do the tattoo and she was moving around, moving around, and started to get incoherent. I was thinking Jesus Christ. The Japanese guy was terrified. You couldnt tell whether she was trying to beat the shit out of me or fuck me. She was very small. She jumped up and was hanging on to me like a monkey, with all this ink and grease on her back. I was thinking it would be better not to get involved in something like this again.
I had some of the lines on her back, but she finally passed out. Many times in this business, you find yourself in a situation with a person where things are going wrong, but this always stood out in my memory as an especially bad choice on my part. I should have steered clear of this dame from the start. When she passed out, the Japanese gentleman looked even more terrified. “Is she dead?” he asked.
“No, shes just blacked out,” I told him. “Ive got to get her out of here. She cant stay here. Youre going to help.”
It was early in the afternoon. I opened at noon and ran until midnight or later. They had showed up around opening time. Sailors were going to be coming off the ships. I had business coming in. I had to get her out of the shop and he was hopeless. He didnt know what to do.
I told him we had to take her somewhere and called a Travelodge down by the Pacific Coast Highway. We got her clothes on. She was in full drool, out of it. I got her into his car and we drove her down there. It completely looked like we were transporting a body. I went into the motel office and pointed to the car. “My cousin is really ill,” I told the clerk. “Im getting the room for her. Ill pay for it and take her to her room.”
They gave me the keys. We pulled into the back of the parking lot and took her out of the backseat. She was disheveled, reeked of booze. Her vest was riding up and you could see the big bandage on her back. We were shuffling her down the hall when another room door opens and there was a full family—Mom and Pop, Buddy and Sis—out for a clean, wholesome time in San Diego. They did a full freeze as the Japanese guy and the tattooed man dragged this unconscious wretch past their doorway. It was full saucer eyes for all of them.
I did the entire ink drawing for the tattoo on her back and took a photo that I was going to send to Jerry. I got about half the outline down before she started going crazy on me. I took the money out of her vest, left her in the motel room, and advised the guy to be careful about picking up hitchhikers. I guess he drove back to San Francisco. That was my first experience with putting a big tattoo on a woman.
* * *
When I started in the business, ladies didnt get tattoos. The tattooed lady was strictly a sideshow attraction. In fact, when I started, most men who got tattooed were in the military.
I must have put more than ten thousand tattoos on servicemen before I even started with the epic stuff. There is probably somebody wearing an Ed Hardy tattoo in every city in the country.
Tattoos were always more than a way to make a living to me. From the beginning, tattoos were a mission and I was an evangelist. I wanted to expand the possibilities of the medium and I wanted to elevate the art form. Having graduated from art school, I brought with me to the field of tattooing—for better or worse—a sense of art history, a fierce dedication to the medium, and something of a chip on my shoulder toward the rest of the world that failed to hold the art of tattoo in the same regard I did.
When I began tattooing, there were no more than five hundred other tattooers in North America. Tattoos were not a part of polite society. My early clients at Realistic came from the peripheries of society—closet cases, Hells Angels, hippie visionaries—and the whole practice of tattoos oozed from there into the mainstream culture over the next twenty years. Nor was this a process I witnessed from the sidelines. My fingerprints can be found on every major wrinkle in the worldwide movement, from introducing Japanese-style tattoos to the West (or American-style tattoos to Japan) to the new tribalism that returned the tattoo tradition to the South Seas islands for the first time in a hundred years. I watched the entire world get tattooed. I tattooed more than a few of them myself.
Copyright © 2013 by Ed Hardy with Joel Selvin
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