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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

The Life and Fashion of Don Ed Hardy

The journey from a local tattoo artist to a worldwide fashion brand.
Here is a shoe of the Ed Hardy brand showing the unique style that Ed Hardy devoted his life to mastering and which has since gone mainstream. (Photo Credit: karindalziel, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

What comes to mind when you think of the name Don Ed Hardy? Is it the fashionable, Japanese-style tattoos that are hard not to be amazed by, an expensive brand that has become a symbol of modern-day celebrity culture, or perhaps art important to the general culture of the American East Coast? No matter which one of these you associate with Don Ed Hardy, there’s one thing that is inarguable: both the name and the man behind the name has internationally influenced everyday fashion, art, and values. 

While many know about the impact Hardy has had on the world, given his innovation in modern tattooing or his popularization of tattooing in American pop-culture-, ew know about his personal life. To truly understand the beginnings of his unique style and tattooing, it’s important to go back to his early life and see what actually made the man who we know today as Don Ed Hardy.

Here is a photo of the man himself, Don Ed Hardy, at the height of his tattooing career. (Photo Credit: Manfred Kohrs, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Don Ed Hardy was born in the aftermath of World War II, a time in which art was being renewed and looked at through many new lenses. The art world began experimenting with many unfamiliar and strange themes, techniques, and forms. New art movements were being created; artists like Picasso and Dali started introducing abstract expressions to art and from there, what was considered art and how to make art became much more loosely-defined.

As the tattooing subculture grew in post-War Western America, many young artists latched on to this trend of painting on human-canvases, using chairs as their easels, and having needles as their brushes. From the oceans of Corona Del Mar to Iowa, tattooing was increasingly popular everywhere: it had grown from its roots as a side-hobby for veterans who had become tired after World War I into a professional practice that revealed the hidden talents of the American working class. With a changing art world leaning to new forms of expression, it was easy for a young tattooing community to catch the interest of an impressionable Californian Southwestern boy named Don Ed Hardy. 

All in his life he used the local culture of his Californian community as his muse and the motivation for a majority of his art-pieces. As a child, he would always walk through the streets of Newport Beach observing the local stores, people, and diversity, and learning from the values, history, and art of his own community. It seems that his view on art was constructed with these different types of artistic cultures in mind. From his adolescence, Hardy had always been eager to draw and paint. He had developed a liking of traditional Japanese art, and in his youth, he was motivated to become an artist from daily tours in museums displaying works of the Old Masters such as Leonardo da Vinci. 

Hardy’s colorful, varied sketches incorporated these new ways of artistic creation and perspectives; all he needed was a subject to give his art life. Because canvases and many professional supplies were not common to the average child born to an American working class family, he became more interested in using actual humans as his subjects. Hardy searched for artists that would help him learn more and sharpen his skills. 

His first touch of this lifestyle was twenty-five hours from the coast of Long Beach, California to meet who he described to be “the greatest tattooer on the Pike (an infamous port at the area),” Bert Grimm. Grimm’s style of classic Americana tattooing struck a chord inside Hardy. He had found a type of tattooing that reflected upon his own diverse community of hippies, Native Americans, to Hollywood movie stars, but reached into an aesthetic, stylistically beautiful form of art. For a long time, Grimm was Hardy’s role model in the tattooing world, and his style contains many of those same attributes as Grimm’s, even today.

Here is an image of the sailor old school style that Bert Grimm stylized and used. (Photo Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brandon Richardson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite this, Hardy did not stylize his own art until his future career was affected in an extremely important way. After going through many tattoo shops across America, he met his tattooing tutor Phil Sparrow (Samuel Steward); Sparrow and Hardy would work together almost daily. Sparrow revealed a new side of the tattooing community to Hardy. He handed Hardy a book on Japanese tattooing, an art form that would collide with the fashion of Grimm, introducing Hardy to the infamous style that now is almost synonymous with his name. 

For many years, Hardy would continue to perfect his style. He trained with other tattoo artists and traveled to different parts of the world to see other styles, methods, and mentors. From his local tattoo shop in San Francisco, Hardy soon gained recognition and a name in his local Californian community. Given no time, people from around the country were meeting on a line in Tattoo City to ink themselves up with designs ranging from a traditional kimono dragon to a skull of a dead pirate done in Hardy’s style. 

With this fame comes attention and Hardy is no exception. Hardy’s colorful, clean style marks a trademark craftsmanship in the inking world. As Hardy popularized his tattoo shop, his brand caught the public’s interest and he was soon sought after by big capitalist, industrialized companies, causing an angry response not just from Hardy himself, but from most of the tattooing world. His brand – which was a reflection upon his own life as a working-class American – had now changed to being viewed as a self-important, artsy brand that represents anyone but the working class. This was a complete betrayal of most of what Hardy’s art represented to his own community – that is, a representation of individual, trustworthy, humble, hard-working working-class men and women who stood as his muse through his art career, as opposed to being a brand for the bourgeoisie capitalists running these million-dollar companies. The main businesses that wanted this style to be sold, produced, and capitalized were led by the multi-millionaire, money-grabbing Christian Audigier, a famous fashion designer and businessman, known for being a part of companies like Guess, Levi, Fiorucci, XOXO, and Diesel.

Here, Ed Hardy gives his thoughts on modern tattooing at the second World Tattoo Convention. (Photo Credit: Adm1976, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Audigier had seen Hardy’s style and replicated it in his own fashion line named after the artist, with cautious agreement by Hardy himself. This fashion is far-reaching; it includes shirts, jackets, jeans, hats, and even creating shoes. What was once seen as a minor subculture gained mainstream popularity through these brands; however, in spite of this spread of tattoo art, some have viewed this as having turned American tattooing from an independent community of like-minded artists into a soulless way for big money businessmen to get money. Don Ed Hardy himself said that, “Morons dehumanized it,” when asked about the mainstream popularity of his brand.

Despite not liking the brand, Hardy can’t deny that his brand’s impact has led to a rise in influence and creativity in the community itself. His shop gained not just a committed following, but also national recognition as a center of California culture and American art. 

Coming from humble beginnings as a working-class West Coast boy with no formal education in art until college, Don Ed Hardy had proven to be one of the most creative minds of modern America. His art defied simple boundaries of culture; it became a combination of all the different cultures that had affected him in many different ways throughout his life. Even if it had not turned into a brand, his art would have still become a modern classic. In this way, it’s easy to see why the name Don Ed Hardy is not just a brand, but a story of devotion, craftsmanship, and hard work that has paid off. 

To truly understand the beginnings of his unique style and tattooing, it’s important to go back to his early life and see what actually made the man who we know today as Don Ed Hardy.

About the Contributor
Carlos Martinez, Staff Reporter
Carlos Martinez is a Staff Reporter for 'The Science Survey.' He finds the amount of creativity and diversity of ideas in journalistic writing to be most appealing. Outside of school, Carlos likes to exercise and is an avid reader. One of his favorite books is Federico García Lorca’s Yerma. Carlos plans on pursuing a future career in science journalism.