Whenever something is in the mainstream media/zeitgeist about tattooing I get asked by my customers about it. Lately the questions have been about Don Ed Hardy, almost every single persons begins by assuming that I dont like the fashion for the ed hardy label clothes. Apparently a lot of tattooers have been running their mouths about how the popularity of Don Ed Hardy clothing is somehow bad for tattooing or simply an example of “selling out”. In the spirit of generosity I am going to assume that tattooers holding these views are simply ignorant of the history of modern tattooing and their (and Don’s) place in it. The customers being ignorant i can understand, after all, their knowledge of tattooing generally begins and ends with their own involvement in it, but for a tattooer to be so devoid of historical context is simply, in my opinion, laziness in the extreme.
So, for whatever its worth, here is my opinion on the phenomenon of Don Ed Hardy clothes.
Don began tattooing in the early days of tattooing first leap into the modern. A corespondent and confidant of Sailor Jerry, Don was one of the prime movers of the first movement to make tattooing something more than a barbaric diversion for hookers and sailors. Both Jerry and Don ( and some others like Mike Malone, Cliff Raven, Greg Irons, etc.) looked at Japanese tattooing with a practiced eye and saw the ability of Japanese style work to be incorporated into traditional American tattooing. They began the first tentative steps by modern western artists to do Japanese style tattoos and to do all tattoos with awareness of their fit on the body and effect of layers of background. Most new tattooers in North America at this time were falling into ‘fineline’ tattooing, the bold graphic of the past was being replaced by fuzzy single-needle wizards and dragons, ‘traditional’ tattooing had all but died out by the 1980’s.
When Jerry died in the early 1970’s Don passed on the chance to buy his Hawaiian shop to pursue a dream of going to Japan to tattoo. This was at a time when tattooing was extremely underground in japan and probably no other western artists had attempted to go to the homeland of horimono (Traditional Japanese body suit) tattooing. To his surprise, the kids of Japan didn’t want koi body suits or dragon sleeves, they wanted panthers, eagles, skulls, and ships! Where the traditional tattoo had all but died out in the west, it was being celebrated by a culture whose last direct exposure to US tattooing had been in the 1940’s during the occupation by US troops post world war 2. It was one of those moments that,in retrospect, seemed destined to happen. Don having cultivated friendships with old timer tattoos had the knowledge and vocabulary of traditional tattooing but his artistic ability and interest in Asian art let him take the same old traditional tattoos and turn them into more exciting, graphically strong pieces.
Back in the states Don became convinced that tattooing was a legitimate form of art and with proper representation as an art could gain the respect of the world. Using his own time and money he began publishing a series of “magazines” ( books really ) called “Tattootime”. Each issue focused on a particular theme, and showcased only the best and most artistic work of the time. They hit the tattoo world like a bomb, overnight the old faded greywash skulls and wizards began to be looked on as the half-assed shit they were and the return of bold work with solid graphic foundation was begun. At the same time Don was attending the earliest tattoo conventions, spreading the word and convincing museums and art galleries to feature tattoos long and neglected history and imagery as having genuine artistic merit.
As the 1980’s drew to a close, Ed’s shop was the home or launching pad for numerous talented people whose vision would have made them unwelcome at almost any other shop at that time. Guys like Freddy Corbin and Dan Higgs, whose work is still listed as the primary influence of dozens of tattooers were given a place to take their artistic muscles and flex them for tattooing benefit. Don was also publishing under his Hardy Marks Publishing series, a continuous flow of books, one after another featuring both the newest cutting edge art and historical artists both in tattooing and those that led to its current state.
Don also began to show up in art galleries and museums, other tattooers had made the jump but none seemed to wear their tattoo roots so proudly and so prominently in their work as Don. He was never ashamed to be a tattooer even when tattooing was considered to be shameful. He never doubted that tattooing was art and that it could be ever better than its detractors would have you believe.
To this day he continues to publish and attend events. He occasionally tattoos but has taken to his “fine” art career full time. His Publishing house continues to put out books and his collections of Sailor Jerrys art are a staple of every tattoo shop (published, by the way, a full decade before the Sailor Jerry line of clothing made him ‘cool’ with the kids). He has done the amazing job of pushing tattooing forward into truly artistic worlds while at the same time keeping the history and archive of tattooings once denigrated past alive for the rest of us to learn from. No one alive has done more for tattooing.
No one alive has done more for tattooing.
So, Christian Audiger comes along and say to Don, we can make money for you selling your art work. The same art work Don has been selling for years as tattoos, t-shirts, and books. In an interview Don describes how Christian offered to make him a “rock star” with limos and helicopters and club openings. Dons reply was, “you can keep all that, just send me the checks”. I get the impression that he is already famous with the folks he wants to be famous with, tattooers.
All of us who do tattoos are commercial artists. We all sell our art. We put it on clothes and we put it on skin. Damn few (if any) of us have done 1/100th what Don has done for tattooing. Yet some tattooers, in their ignorance, feel like they can throw stones because Dons t-shirts sell for hundreds of dollars and we only sell ours for $20. Its hypocrisy of the highest order, but more insulting than that is the idea that a guy who has busted his ass for tattooing for 40+ years getsshit on by people whose entire ability to be modern tattooers is directly linked to Dons waving the banner for tattooing before they were even born.
I cant afford Dons clothes. Its fine with me, frankly I think lots of it is gaudy, but I smile every time i see a rapper or model wearing a Don Ed Hardy item. It doesn’t matter to me at all that they may or may not know who he is or care about tattooing, they are putting money into the pocket of modern tattooings godfather. maybe one of us will be able to retire without falling out of the chair with a tattoo machine in our arthritic hand, maybe Don will have a cushy few decades to enjoy all he has pushed for the rest of us.
It couldn’t happen to a better guy.