In 'Wear Your Dream,' tattoo artist inks a memoir

During the course of his career, tattoo artist Ed Hardy has seen body art destigmatized and his profession largely decriminalized.
During the course of his career, tattoo artist Ed Hardy has seen body art destigmatized and his profession largely decriminalized. AP

Tattoos no longer are the heraldry of just sailors, prisoners, prostitutes or Japanese gangsters. They are almost as common as cellphones.

The tattoo has been socially destigmatized. Just go to a beach or a gym or watch Jersey Shore. One in five adult Americans has a tattoo. Its legal decriminalization is less well known. From 1961 to 1997, tattooing was a misdemeanor in New York state. (You still can't get tattooed legally in the United Arab Emirates.) No wonder tattoo parlors were down by the docks or wedged between strip joints. Hence the frisson, if you had a tattoo — especially back then, and especially if you took off your clothes to show a permanent body decoration.

The tattoo's journey toward legitimacy has been less than 50 years. It's a long way from the days when "freaks" covered in tattoos were shown at carnivals, and prisoners were tattooed with numbers.

Ed Hardy, 68, who has now hung up his needle, was at work during those dark days, exhuming tattooing from the domain of skulls, anchors and dragons. He's been a financial success, so much so that his images were licensed, to his chagrin, on everything from candles to cigarette lighters to a best-selling perfume. Hardy revisits his improbable career and the tattoo's rise from vagrants to Vogue in Wear Your Dreams with the help of former San Francisco Chronicle pop music critic Joel Selvin.

An authority in an under-appreciated medium is finally putting needle to paper. Hardy is a voluble talker. Wear Your Dreams reads like an "as told to" rock biography, minus the overdoses and groupies, and minus any pretense. Plus lots of undramatic detail about his apartments and raising a child. In case you were wondering, tattooists are people, too.

Hardy views his life humbly as the learning and refining of a craft, albeit a stigmatized one, and succeeding in making a living at it — an easier achievement than making tattoos respectable. His vocation began as a childhood fascination.

"Wear Your Dreams" was on his first business card. We move through the shops of older mentors, like the urbane Phil Sparrow (Samuel Steward) of Oakland, Calif. — a milieu that he chose over a scholarship to Yale. He went eventually to Japan (where elaborate tattoos covered the bodies of gangsters called yakuza) and through alcohol (which he kicked), pot (a longtime love) and surfing (a passion), all while refining picture- making on human skin.

Timing and luck were factors. When Hardy was learning tattooing in Southern California, the emblems of car decoration and surf culture converged with comic book art, just as Mexican and Japanese images found their way into American culture and onto Americans' arms. The tattoo became a flower of evil for hippies. Hardy, who had gotten in early, was the medium's best-known practitioner.

The windfall of ink on skin became a curse. Hardy came to the attention of marketer Christian Audigier, to whom he signed over all reproduction rights in 2004. Soon the once-obscure tattooist was drowning in his own imagery.

Hardy eventually parted company with Audigier — he's now with another firm — but not before his brand was watered down, a misfortune that should give pause to any craftsman who sees dollar signs in his own products. That story merits an entire book.

A lifelong student of art, Hardy thinks, rightly, that his medium — and, by extension, himself — was slighted. The question comes down to the obvious one: But is it art? Like every medium, it certainly can be, in the right hands. Five minutes on the Internet offers plenty of evidence. (The Web will take you worlds beyond the mostly archival pictures in Wear Your Dreams.)

As with all image making, tattooing is a work in progress. Tattooists who've assimilated Hardy's work, plus Japanese virtuosity and much of the infinity of art available, have overtaken Hardy into abstract patterns and hyper-realism and styles that resist characterization.

Hardy surely would welcome company in expanding the visual vocabulary that he found stuck in the tastes of sailors and convicts. It's still a mixed blessing. Now the vast mass of tattooing risks recycling youth consumer honky tonk, the taste of teenagers on the way from Wal-Mart to a Justin Bieber concert — uninspiring even on the loveliest of young bodies.

But tattoos, rampant even when they were illegal, are hard to control. There is no academy, no pompous critic holding court, no rules except health regulations. All the more room for surprises in talented hands encouraged by Hardy to take up the needle.


'Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos'

By Ed Hardy with Joel Selvin

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 293 pp. $26.99.