story by Lisa Simon
photos by Dana Edmunds
A demon drops into the curl of a monster wave, riding the back of a Chinese dragon. The wave's crest splatters with froth reminiscent of Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa. The bug-eyed devil crouches in the tube, pursing its lips with the radical stoke known only to surfers. Welcome to the world of tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy.
Hardy has inscribed images from a life spent between the West and the East on bodies all over the world. His childhood in a California beach town inspired his Americana of cowboy hats and eagles. His adult forays into San Francisco hipsterdom—including Golden Gate Park's 1967 Summer of Love—led to his experiments with Polynesian-inflected abstract forms. From apprenticing with Japan's most revered tattoo masters came riotous scenes of goddesses and monsters, the lavish tattoos for which he is most famous. No question, Hardy is a master. He seems to have explored every philosophical cranny and ethnic nook available to a tattoo artist.
A glance at his tattooed forearms is a reminder that this art sears flesh with pain and permanence. Hardy seems to sense my instinctive squirm—me, who finds nail polish too long-lasting. Still, the latest arc in the trajectory of Hardy's life is proof that however many of us may squirm, we are still enthralled with the bold, iconic language of tattoos. Fortunately, even the faint-of-heart among us can wear Hardy's images—on the highly transient second skins of T-shirts, hats and dresses. Even pop-star royalty like Queen Latifah and Madonna are sporting vintage Hardy—without suffering the initiation rite of getting a tat.
Hardy is almost detached when he describes how the unexpected hand of commercial success came knocking at his door. A few years ago, he hooked up with a pair of designers who persuaded him to use clothing as a canvas for his tattoo art. Christian Audigier, a Hollywood fashion impresario whom Hardy describes as "some kind of marketing genius," saw some of Hardy's garments, tracked him down and asked him to provide an exclusive bank of 300 images; with these, Audigier promised, he would conquer the fashion vanguard. The conquest went so well that there are now Don Ed Hardy stores from Honolulu to Dubai. Hardy has turned down the occasional invitation from Audigier's people to ride in their jet, go to their parties, cruise in their limos. From the safe distance of this Honolulu coffee shop, he shrugs, "It's nice to get those checks in the mail ... I am thrilled to see people go for tattoo art. But as for getting involved with Hollywood ... well, I want to stick to my regular life."
Few might consider that life regular: Since 1986, Hardy has made the dream commute between the surf scene of Hawai‘i and the art scene of San Francisco, indulging his love of the waves here and his passion for tattooing there during alternating three-week stints. He spends much of his time in his Honolulu art studio with the simpler tools of print-making—paper, pens and pencils. "I woke up here and realized I could paint whatever I wanted," he says, "without someone telling me, ‘You have to paint the dragon's eyes red.'"
As far afield as he's come, there is a straight line of evolution from his idyllic 1950s by-the-sea boyhood to his fame as a tattoo master. At age 11, he had opened his own "tattoo store" in the family living room, where he applied designs to his buddies' skin using special crayolas he bought with money from scavenged pop bottles. When he ordered the only English-language books on tattooing (all four of them), his parents were prescient enough to encourage him.