The trajectory of tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy’s career mirrors the shifting history of the tattoo itself. It’s a form that continuously reestablishes its social standing, oscillating between high and low, depending on when and where you look.
In 18th century Japan, the tattoo was meted out as a punishment to criminals. Yet during the latter part of the Edo (1600-1868) period, it co-existed on equal footing with ukiyo-e woodblock prints and was worn by moneyed elites in the U.S. and Europe. Later in the same period, it was appropriated by Japanese gangsters, and then by U.S. servicemen in the 20th century. Now, it’s been rehabilitated. Today, a quarter of Americans between 18 and 50 are tattooed. No one embodies these historic mood swings better than Hardy himself. His sprawling show, The Unruly Art of Don Ed Hardy, which includes 68 objects and a re-creation of a vintage tattoo shack, is as fine a reflection (and reinterpretation) of the tattoo’s colorful past as any you’re likely to find.
By his own count, Hardy, 66, has tattooed many thousands of people in a career that’s spanned more than 40 years up and down the West Coast. He may be the only person ever to have turned down a Yale fellowship to ink sailors. He did it after earning a degree in printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1967. Extending a childhood fascination with the form that began at age 10, Hardy, with tutelage from established masters, translated the etching techniques he learned at SFAI to skin, churning out, as a journeyman, a repertoire of Americana: hearts, flags and eagles and the like. In comparison to what followed, such drawings are to the tattoo what clip art is to graphic design.
Hardy’s big leap was becoming the first American tattooist to apprentice in Japan. There he learned the ukiyo-e-influenced full-body technique that would, over time, establish him as a master. Today, as a fine artist – a practice he returned to full-time only in the last decade — Hardy maintains that he has no signature style. It’s a stunning admission from any artist, particularly one who was awarded an honorary doctorate by SFAI. Fact is, Hardy is an appropriationist who makes no attempt to disguise his borrowings from surf culture, hot-rod art, California funk, hippie-freak “comix”, Dada, Surrealism, Chicano art and Abstract Expressionism. In a 1999 catalog essay for the 45-year survey, Tattooing the Invisible Man, at LA’s Track 16 gallery, Hardy spoke mostly about personal history, technique and philosophy, but said little about content. After viewing the current show, organized by Track 16 director, Laurie Steelink, I understood why: Hardy’s work really does speak for itself. The exhibition features paintings, drawings, etchings and ceramics that overflow with pointed, graphic allusions to sex, violence, mortality and enlightenment. Hardy demonstrates repeatedly how cross-cultural cultural mash-ups can yield works that multiply the impact of their component parts.
The show opens with a series of cast-resin works layered with vintage Hardy acetate tattoo stencils. While their slick surfaces work against the raw sensibility Hardy strives for, certain works stand out. Shattering Tiger, to take but one example, is an exceptional “painting”. In it, triangular shapes converge to build a cubist-like ground and an almost vertiginous aerial view of the big cat, rendered in wavy, broad strokes. Near the animal’s shoulder, Hardy drops representation and allows his brush to spin a series of arabesques that resemble a face. It’s a beautiful moment in a beautiful piece, one that embodies the freedom Hardy sought when he quit tattooing to make personal work.
Stronger still are the works that mix Asian and Mexican motifs. The best combine Hokusai’s famous wave forms with Mexican Day of the Dead iconography. In Popeye’s Last Voyage, the muscle-bound cartoon character is reduced to a skeleton striding across waves. Look closely and you’ll see a stiff penis – a fairly remarkable act for a dead man and perfect example of the “unruly” art of Edo-period artists who subverted the conventions of their day by placing unclothed private parts into their pictures. Hardy pays homage to that tradition in many places, but no where does he do so more sneakily and seductively than on a vase that shows an ungainly naked butt.
In Our Lady of Waterlupe (Pray for Surf), to take another example, Hokusai’s waves spill from the chest of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a triptych whose flanking images are of migrants stranded in the desert. They’re bound by rope and cowering beneath flaming drops of rain. Hardy created the piece in 1988, well before the immigration debate turned nasty; but it could easily be read today as a cautionary tale. Floater, a term used by fishermen for bodies washed ashore, doubles as the title of an equally searing lithograph of a skeleton in a lotus position. The picture, part of a series, brings to mind the corps du dame paintings of Jean Dubuffet, working as if he were a death-obsessed Chicano scratching out designs on obsidian. Haptic King of Sweden, an obscurely titled acrylic painting on Amate paper, recalls a James Ensor self-portrait – one that’s been tattooed with bare-breasted women. From these details, one might surmise that the picture is, in some measure, autobiographical, just as the painting titled Save Your Fair (D.I.Y.) almost certainly is. The latter shows the artist with a crazed expression, pounding a nail into his head.
Buddhists would probably call this enlightenment, and it’s in this realm – of cosmic struggle – that you’ll find Hardy’s richest works. Two that stick in memory are Blue Boy Gets Physical and Conversations with Grampy. The first depicts a tattooed, long-haired half-man, half-beast, set against a geometric maze — raging against an unseen enemy. The second shows a naked woman bent over backwards in the shape of a skull biting its own tongue. Both, Buddhist lore tells us, are about same thing: the unconquerable demon of mortality.
To the cognoscenti, the link between historic Japanese woodbocks and the tattoo will probably not be news; but for those who’ve recently acquired ink as a fashion accessory, this exhibition of the form’s rich lineage, spiked with Hardy’s late-20th century pop culture iconography, will likely be a revelation.
–DAVID M. ROTH
The Unruly Art of Don Ed Hardy, @ SFMOMA Artists Gallery through August 25, 2011.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.