In the dense and crowded world of art, it’s difficult to imagine a single artist making as big an impact on any medium as tattoo artist Ed Hardy, who through a long and varied career, made his mark on the flesh of the art world.
That colorful career is the centerpiece of a major exhibition opening this week in San Francisco’s de Young Museum called Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin, which launches from images of Hardy’s first tattoo designs created when he was just 10 years old growing up in Southern California to his post-tattooing career as a fine artist.
"I started drawing them on neighborhood kids," Hardy said in his studio in San Francisco’s North Beach. "I thought this is what I want to do when I get big enough."
Influenced by classic military tattoos, Hardy took the art to new places through his lifelong fascination with Japanese tattooing and images. He eschewed attending grad school at Yale in favor of a career in tattooing and enjoyed a celebrated 40-year run at his San Francisco shop Tattoo City before retiring from tattooing eight years ago.
Along the way he revolutionized the profession, not by imposing his designs on customers but rather encouraging them to bring in their own ideas, which allowed him to aim toward a higher art form through his tattooing.
"My intention was to turn it into a bespoke thing where people could come in with their ideas," Hardy said.
The de Young exhibit rightly focuses on Hardy’s tattoo career, the thousands of designs he created, his childhood forays into art and his own tattooed body, but it also endeavors to represent Hardy’s career since retiring, which gave way to an equally prolific body of paintings, prints and objects like custom painted Boogie Boards.
"I think his passion for art as his life, or as a driving force in his life, has made him a very special artist," said exhibit curator Karin Breuer.
Even in the counterculture field of tattooing, Hardy constantly erased walls between tattooing and the world of fine art. In 1999, then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown nominated Hardy to serve on the city’s Cultural Arts Commission, a rare place of prominence for a tattoo artist.
Hardy’s images went global when he licensed them to a clothing company, which turned them into standard department store fare.
Bruer said the show is aimed at further expanding the public’s appreciation for tattooing as a higher art form.
"We also wanted to kind of break down those barriers that people might have mentally, culturally with tattooing as an art form," Breuer said.
The de Young gallery buzzed with activity this week as workers put final touches to the show, which includes more than 300 pieces, including a 500-foot scroll Hardy covered with 2,000 dragons.
A large wall was decorated with thousands of tattoos he created. Paintings sat on walls across from images of people Hardy had tattooed. Another display projected the image of a tattoo onto visitors’ arms, the lines slowly filling in without the pain of a needle. Another room displayed large tapestries bearing Hardy’s images.
On Monday, Hardy walked slowly through the exhibit, taking in the rooms as one would a scrap book of their life, pausing to marvel at the elaborate floor-to-ceiling displays created by the museum. It gave Hardy pause to consider his life in art that began as a child.
"I just can’t believe it worked, you know," Hardy said with a chuckle. "I can’t believe I got away with it."
The exhibit at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum opens July 13 and runs through October 6.