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SAN FRANCISCO — After getting his BA in printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1967, Ed Hardy planned to go to Yale University, where he had a graduate fellowship in fine arts.
Then he got a tattoo in Oakland from Samuel Stewart, a poet and novelist who was part of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s circle and whose “needle name” was Phil Sparrow. Sparrow showed Hardy a book of Japanese tattoos, known for their intricacy and detail.
That was it for Hardy. He gave up his Yale scholarship and stayed in San Francisco to begin tattooing professionally, getting Stewart to teach him.“In that moment, I knew I’m not going to go to Yale if tattoos can look like this,” said Hardy. “I’m going to do tattoos because I knew I could achieve this.”
Hardy was at a preview at the de Young Museum for the first major museum retrospective of his work, Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin. It feels significant for Hardy to have his work shown at one of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco — when he was a student at SFAI, he would take the bus out to the de Young’s sister museum, Legion of Honor, to look at prints by artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Albrecht Dürer, and Francisco Goya, which are kept in the Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts. In 2017, in acknowledgement of the influence these works had on him, Hardy donated one impression of almost every print he ever made, 152 in total, to the Fine Arts Museums. Now, 40 of those are on display in Deeper Than Skin, some alongside the Achenbach prints that inspired them.
Hardy started drawing when he was just three years old, and his mother always encouraged him, he says, to save his drawings. His fascination for tattoos also began early. Inspired by the tattoos of his best friend’s dad, who had been in the Navy, Hardy and some friends started drawing on other kids with colored pencils dipped in water, and charged them a few cents for each “tattoo.” They outlined the drawings in Maybelline eyeliner, a donation from one boy’s mother.
The de Young show starts with a clipping from a 1958 Newport Harbor Ensign, showing a serious-looking 10-year-old Hardy wearing horn-rimmed glasses and drawing on a little boy’s back.
“The editor of the paper came out one day and said, ‘I hear you guys have a tattoo parlor. Can we take a picture of you for the paper?’” said Hardy standing in front of the clipping. “I said, ‘Yeah of course.’ My first publicity. Playing the angles.”
Hardy grew up in a small town in Southern California, Corona del Mar, which he describes as right-wing and conservative. They had no tattoo shops there, but he and his friends would take the bus up the coast to Long Beach and hang around the ones there.
Hardy grew up just a few blocks from the beach (he drew a lot of ships as a kid), and he spent plenty of time in the water. Some three-dimensional objects (including boogie boards) he decorated are on display. Like his mother, Hardy’s high school art teacher was also supportive of his work, encouraging him to go beyond the surf images he loved.
In 1973 — six years after his pivotal meeting with Samuel Stewart — Hardy became the first American to study tattooing with Japanese master Horihide in a small town in Japan. Then, when he came back after five months, he opened Realistic Tattoo, the first studio in the country offering custom tattoos. An adjacent gallery at the de Young features prints, drawings, and paintings with the themes that Hardy drew on for his tattoos, including tigers, panthers, skeletons, skulls, and a little red devil.
Hardy has also gifted the museum his largest work to date: a 500-foot scroll titled “2000 Dragons,” which he started thinking about in the 70s, but didn’t make until 2000 — a Year of the Dragon in the Chinese zodiac. The scroll snakes throughout a gallery, with clouds, mountains, and the 2,000 dragons, both large and tiny, in color and in black and white. In the gallery, a playlist that Hardy listened to while painting the scroll plays, including music by the Gyuto Monks, Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, and the Beach Boys.
Making the scroll changed the way he works, Hardy says.
“It completely freed me up to make the art in a way I’d never experienced,” Hardy said. “In tattooing you’re focused and can’t make a mistake, but in this thing, I learned to throw paint around.”
After working on the scroll, Hardy began focusing more on fine art — he retired from tattooing in 2008. The museum displays some of his recent paintings from his Immortals series, inspired by classical Chinese artworks of mountain settings.
Although Hardy has stopped tattooing, it’s still integral to his identity. In the final gallery, an interactive screen shows a picture of the bare-chested artist that you can zoom into and see his tattoos in detail: the chrysanthemum, dragon, and Quetzalcoatl (a feathered serpent deity from Mesoamerican culture).
At the preview, Karin Breuer, who organized the exhibit, said she’d gotten an email the previous day from an artist who mentioned how he was looking forward to seeing the show. At the bottom of the email, he’d written “Tattoos = art.”
Hardy has spent a good chunk of his life fighting for tattooing to be elevated to a form of expression, and this exhibition showcases that.
He appeared delighted to see his work on the walls of a museum. “It’s a terrific affirmation, not only for myself, but for a lot of the old bandits and pirates that helped me in the business,” he said, seeming to also acknowledge the irony of his work being recognized in this setting. “They operated outside polite society, outside of the structure that controls what people think of as art.”
Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin continues at the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco) through October 6. Th exhibition is organized by Karin Breuer, curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The exhibition is on view