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de Young museum’s “Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin” Elevates Tattooing to High Art

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Installation photography of “Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin”. Image Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Now on display through October 6, the de Young museum presents Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin, a retrospective of the life and career of California native and Bay Area resident Ed Hardy, one of the most respected tattoo artists in the world.

Born Donald Edward Talbott Hardy in 1945, in Des Moines, Iowa Hardy moved to Costa Mesa in Orange County the following year. He developed an interest in drawing at an early age. As a young artist in 1966, Hardy announced his belief that tattooing should be elevated from its outside, subculture status. He felt that tattoos should represent the dreams of those who wore them. He once ran a private, by appointment only tattoo studio who’s slogan was “Wear Your Dreams”. Clientele included rock musicians, Hell’s Angels, actors, filmmakers, doctors and business people. While some of these clients wanted tattoos of Asian styled dragons and deities, others wanted tattoos which referenced their aspirations, occupations or home locales. Seen in the exhibition is one such tattoo, a toreador and a bull for a female bullfighter. Another client wanted a tattoo of Joan Of Arc–“The Maid of Orleans”–this person was a New Orleans resident.

Don Ed Hardy (American, b. 1945) “El Tigre,” 2009. Acrylic on digital print, 16 x 13 1/8 in. Collection of the Artist © Don Ed Hardy Image courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

At the start of the exhibition there’s a fun bit of public participation: projected photos of tattoos submitted by exhibition attendees. Imagery includes a little girl (someone’s daughter?), flowers, and a rather intense looking Satan. Interested parties who wish to submit photos of their own tattoos for consideration can share their tattoo by using the hashtag #ArtoftheTattoo.

The exhibit opens with a timeline from 1800-1945 and honors various tattoo artists who preceded Hardy, some of whom inspired him. Some interesting history is imparted, such as the fact that President Andrew Jackson may have had a tomahawk tattooed on his thigh, and that President Teddy Roosevelt was the first president verified to have a tattoo. In 1898, 80% of men in the US Navy are reported to have tattoos.

Installation photography of “Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin”. Image Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The exhibit also reveals a little bit about Hardy’s life, such as that as a teen he explored various art forms like Beat Culture and West Coast jazz. When Hardy attended the San Francisco Art Institute, a professor introduced Hardy to the works of Rembrandt, Francisco Goya and Edvard Munch, featured in the Achenbach Collection of Graphic Arts at the de Young’s sister museum, the Legion of Honor. Hardy started young–on display is his first tattoo license, dated 1955, and a 1950s photo of Hardy applying a tattoo. There are some of his early tattoo sketches: hearts, crosses, snakes and butterflies. Some of his early works are a bit primitive, but they display a burgeoning talent.

Don Ed Hardy (American, b. 1945) Untitled tattoo designs “36,” 1955 Graphite on ruled paper 8 1/2 x 11 in. (21.6 x 27.9 cm) Collection of the artist © Don Ed Hardy Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The majority of the exhibition displays Hardy’s work from across his career. Once he developed his style, his work is intensely brilliant. There are hundreds of colorful, three dimensional images on display. Some of the standout images include the San Francisco skyline, surrounded by fire, thorns, skulls and a bird. It’s an intense image, and it shows the passion which Hardy has for his work.

Perhaps the most impressive item in the exhibition is 2000 Dragons, a giant scroll drawn by Hardy which takes up an entire room– all 500 ft! The dragon images on the scroll are stunningly beautiful and again displays Hardy’s passion and profound love for his work, created and inspired by the year 2000, which is the year of the dragon in the Chinese Zodiac.

Hardy’s 2000 Dragons scroll. Installation photography of “Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin”. Image Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Now 74 years old, Hardy is retired from active tattooing and spends his time focused on his fine art practice, as well as mentoring young artists. His tattoo studio remains open and is run by his son.

If you have a tattoo, or if you’re fascinated by the art and history of tattooing, then don’t walk, run to see Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin. The exhibition is $28 per person, with discounts for children and students, and if you’re a de Young member, it’s free.” You’ll come away with a deep appreciation of Hardy’s accomplishments, and of the art of tattooing itself. The exhibition truly goes beneath the surface of a great artist’s work.

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David-Elijah Nahmod

David-Elijah Nahmod

I, David-Elijah Nahmod am a Queer, American/Israeli dual national of Syrian descent who has lived in New York City and Tel Aviv.
Currently in San Francisco, my eclectic writing career includes LGBT publications (news and entertainment) and monster magazines. In 2012 I was voted Film Reviewer of the Year at the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Film Awards.
Look for me in Bay Area Reporter,, South Florida Gay News, Echo Magazine, Outfront, Scary Monsters Magazine, Videoscope, and, of course, Broke Ass Stuart, (I'm so broke it's SCARY!)
Now, let's watch a horror movie!

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