Iconic Ink: Ed Hardy

Ed Hardy has become one of the most iconic names in both the tattoo and fashion worlds, with many of his tattoos appearing on people around the world, as well as a successful fragrance and clothing line.

Ed Hardy 800

Don Ed Hardy and Dave Yurkew at the 2nd World Tattoo Convention in Reno Nevada, 1977
Image source: via Wikimedia Commons

Playing at Tattoos

Donald Edward Talbot Hardy was born in 1945 in the town of Costa Mesa, California. After his father left when Ed was six years old, he was raised by his mother. She was very attentive and supportive of his dreams and hobbies.

Ed began drawing at a very young age, and became fascinated with tattoos at 10 years old. He and one of his neighbourhood friends would “play tattoo artist,” using Maybelline eye-liner and coloured pencils to place temporary tattoos on one another, as well as other kids from the neighbourhood. The boys would visit the local post office and look at the criminals in the wanted posters mounted on the walls to gain inspiration for their tattoo designs.

Plagued with being severely near-sighted, Ed had to wear very thick glasses as a child and found that his art was an outlet which drew his schoolmates to him in a positive way, and helped him to avoid being bullied.

Watching and Learning at Long Beach

Ed realised that he wanted to be able to make a living with his art, and started going to Nu-Pike amusement park in Long Beach, a 25-minute drive from his home. He and his friends would go down to Nu-Pike whenever they could get a ride and hang out in the tattoo shops there to be around the artists and try and learn a thing or two. The only artist that didn’t kick the boys out was Bert Grimm. He would allow them to sit around his shop and listen to his stories and watch him as he worked.

The permanent nature of tattoos called to Ed, and he was fascinated by the underground image that the art form promoted. He was a self-proclaimed “white bread” kid that hadn’t been exposed to much culture outside of his sheltered middle class world, and tattoos gave him a peak at what was going on in other places. Ed’s father went to work in Japan after leaving, and would send Ed Japanese souvenirs that further pushed him to be fascinated by other lives and cultures outside of Orange County.

A Natural Entrepreneur

In the fifth grade, Ed focused his “career day” project on the life of a tattoo artist, creating a miniature business plan of what his tattoo shop would look like, where it would be, and what services he would offer his customers. Ed included some hand drawn flash art, and even created a tattoo artist business license for himself. This project further encouraged him to become a tattoo artist when he grew up.

Ed’s first shot at making money from his art was by creating hand-crafted t-shirts and sweatshirts that he airbrushed his artwork onto. He would then attempt to sell them on the board-walk of the amusement park. He soon found that this business was doomed to fail, and moved on to pursuing other interests.

Artistry and Surfing

As a teenager, Ed became obsessed with surfing and its culture. He was drawn to the art on the surfboards, as well as the art on the custom hot rods that the surfers seemed to favour. He appreciated them not from a mechanical viewpoint, but an artistic one, taking in the intricate lines and flames painted on the sides of the brightly coloured cars.

Ed began to draw pictures of himself and other surfers as they caught waves, and became interested in the actual artistic process, wanting to improve his skills. He began to study art history in books that he took out from the school library.

His practice paid off when he had some of his work accepted into a Los Angeles art gallery when he was seventeen years old, and Ed was officially bitten by the fine art bug. He went on to study at the Art Institute in San Francisco, where he became interested in the art of etching and was taken under the wing of some of the more prominent artists of that time.

Remembering the Dream

Ed focused on his schooling and art for years, and was about to enter a Master’s Degree program when he happened to run into a childhood friend from his old neighbourhood at a party. The two got to talking, and the friend reminded Ed that he had done a temporary tattoo for him back in the day.

Ed had seemingly forgotten all about his long ago dream of being a tattoo artist, but that chance encounter renewed his fascination with tattoos, and the two men went out that very night to get real tattoos together.

Looking to learn more about the tattoo trade and what it would take to have a successful career in the industry, Ed looked up one of the pre-eminent artists of the time, Phil Sparrow. Phil’s shop was not like any Ed had seen, as it was clean and had an open air feel to it, as well as an intellectual one. Phil wasn’t what Ed considered to be a typical tattoo artist, as he was also a highly educated man and a published author of human psychology books.

Phil showed Ed some books on Japanese tattooing, and told Ed that it was “real art.” This stuck with Ed, and brought back his interest in Japanese culture that started when he was a child receiving souvenir gifts from his father. Ed wanted to learn more about the practice of tattooing, and began an apprenticeship with Phil.

Sailor Jerry’s Influence

Ed also sought encouragement and instruction through the mail from the great tattoo artist, Sailor Jerry Collins. The two men exchanged many letters and designs, and Sailor Jerry was a great influence on Ed’s art and work ethic.

Ed was surprised at how difficult the art of tattooing was, as he was an accomplished artist and felt that it should be an easy transition, but Ed found that working on skin was not the same as working on wood or paper, and he also realised that there was an emotional component involved as well, as his tattoo subjects were living and breathing people with thoughts and opinions, unlike his previous inanimate mediums. He quickly gained a new-found respect for tattoo artists.

Learning from the First Time

Refusing to give up, Ed stuck with learning his new trade and spent hours studying tattoo machines, looking for the best set up for him and practised as much as he could. Before too long, he was ready to give his first tattoo and Phil insisted that he follow the tattoo world tradition of giving it to himself and being his own first client.

Ed learned quite a bit from that experiment, and realised that he needed to be focusing on creating bolder lines and using more force when he was using the tattoo machine. After even more practice, Ed felt that he was ready to open his first shop, but he decided to do so in Canada, so as not to have to face the people that he knew if he failed in San Francisco.

Setting up in Vancouver

Ed moved to Vancouver and opened up for business. He soon became addicted to the freedom of working for himself, as well as the money that he was making. Ed found that he could make upwards of $200 a day, and that was based on a flat rate of $2 a tattoo. He was thrilled by this discovery, and quickly invited some of his new Canadian friends and fellow tattoo artists over to crack a bottle of champagne and celebrate with him.

Unfortunately, Ed soon went broke from not being more savvy with his business practices and finances, and he returned to California with his tail between his legs, where he decided to emerge himself totally in the tattoo world in an effort to improve his craft and his business sense.

He joined up with Doc Webb, a San Diego tattoo artist that had a booming business thanks to the Navy. Sailors would flood Doc’s shop twice a month on pay days, and Ed was put to work tattooing dozens of them each day. Doc’s wife would accept payment and set the schedule, keeping Ed busy from early evening until well past midnight. Ed soon developed a reputation for being skilled and ethical, and many sailors would come into the shop to visit with him, even when they weren’t getting tattoos.

Japanese Tattooing and Finding a Wife

Tattooing was not only Ed’s business, but it was also his way of life. He even met his wife thanks to his job. She had been in the market for a full back piece tattoo, inspired by a Japanese movie that she had seen at home in New York, but tattooing was illegal there in the 1960s, so she had searched Ed out in San Diego by way of a referral from an underground New York tattoo artist.

Francesca came into Ed’s shop and was impressed by what she saw. She watched him work for many hours, and they became good friends. They shared interests, including Japanese culture and tattooing, and after continuing their friendship for many years, they were married.

Ed continued to become more and more fascinated by Japanese tattooing, and when he had the opportunity to travel to Japan and study under the tattoo artist, Oguri, he jumped on it. He and Francesca moved to Japan and settled into life there.

Back to California

But Ed soon discovered that life and work in Japan were not what he was expecting them to be. Just months after arriving, Ed realised that he would never be able to truly fit in, and his hopes of becoming one with the Japanese people were dashed. He was also being treated more like a servant than a student in the tattoo studio. He and Francesca chose to move back to California before the year was through.

On their return home to San Diego, Ed decided to use what knowledge he had gained about the practice of tattooing from his time in Japan, and he opened a small, exclusive shop off of the street. He rented office space and signed a three-year lease, even though he was nervous to do so. Francesca encouraged him, saying that they should at least give it a shot, and worked as a legal secretary to cover their expenses while Ed got his start. Ed covered the walls with photos of Japanese art and large, intricate tattoos. He offered tattoos by appointment only, and set to work making a name for himself in the tattoo world.

Making a Business of Tattooing

Ed started by offering tattoos to clients at a greatly reduced price to help build his portfolio. He created large, colourful, and detailed tattoos on people and soon developed a reputation for doing good work. Before long, Ed realised that his shop was a success and he was no longer nervous about the lease. He was also honoured with a standalone flash art show in a local gallery, where people came to meet him and see his work.

Soon, the times changed and it wasn’t just bikers and hippies that were coming to Ed for tattoos, but also business people and even celebrities. Ed’s reputation continued to grow, and in the early 2000s, he licensed his images for use on clothes and other merchandise. Ed had no idea how big of a business this was to become, and before he knew it, his designs were on baseball hats and jeans, t-shirts and shoes.

A Truly Mainstream Tattoo Artist

Ed even signed up with famous artist Christian Audigier and was soon creating deals for fragrances for men and women bearing his name and logo, as well. Celebrities soon began to wear Ed Hardy clothes and fragrances, and the brand exploded into the mainstream market, making Ed famous even with those that had never had a tattoo.

As an artist, a tattooist, and a business man, Ed Hardy has had a whirlwind life of ups and downs, but his bold and colourful art speaks for itself. His designs have earned him a permanent place of fame in the world, and his work as a tattoo artist is still greatly respected and admired to this day.

Further reading: