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The de Young opens the first museum retrospective for renowned tattoo icon Ed Hardy
Installation photography of "Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin". Image Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin is the first museum retrospective of Ed Hardy, the renowned tattoo artist known for fueling the late 20th-century boom in the practice of tattoo. Featuring more than 300 objects ranging from paintings and sketches (including drawings Hardy created as a 10-year-old) to prints and three-dimensional works, the exhibition tracks the evolution of tattooing from its “outsider” status through Hardy’s work and influence.

Growing up in Southern California, Hardy was fascinated by the tattoos that he observed on the fathers of his neighborhood friends (mostly servicemen who had served in World War II). During this time Hardy haunted the tattoo parlors on Long Beach Pike, where he learned to draw tattoo designs for his “kiddie tattoo shop.” As a printmaking student at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-1960s, Hardy began to study the intricacies of prints by artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt, and Goya at the Legion of Honor’s Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts, the department responsible for the Fine Arts Museums’ collection of more than 115,000 works on paper. At the Achenbach he mined for inspiration for his own work.

In 1966, while getting one of his first tattoos from the legendary Phil Sparrow in Oakland, Hardy was introduced to a book on Japanese tattooing, which reignited his love for the medium and inspired his future career. Turning down a graduate fellowship in fine arts from Yale University, Hardy instead decided to begin tattooing professionally. At a time when those who had tattoos were disparaged, Hardy’s goal was to revolutionize the practice as an important artistic medium. Since then, Hardy has become one of the most important tattooers of the 20th century, popularizing the fringe medium by integrating historical styles of art and tattoo from all over the world, and expanding the boundaries of what art, in all its forms, can be.

“Ed Hardy reinvented the very nature of the tattoo inspired in large part by his early exposure to the masterworks in our collection,” says Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “His impact has transformed the tattoo industry and we are delighted to provide the opportunity for wider audiences to explore his tremendous achievement both on and off the body."

In 2017, to honor the Achenbach’s holdings and the impact that it had on his work, Ed Hardy donated to the Fine Arts Museums one impression of almost every print he ever made, a combined 152 in total. Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin features around 40 of these prints, in addition to paintings, drawings, and three-dimensional works from the artist’s personal collection.

Key objects on view include Hardy’s monumental 2000 Dragons, a 500-foot-long scroll on which he painted 2,000 dragons. Hardy conceived the idea in 1976, waiting 24 years to bring the piece to fruition to honor the millennial year 2000, as well as the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese zodiac. Other key objects include a series of large-scale works called Eyecons, made in collaboration with Trillium Graphics in Brisbane, California. Eyecons feature Hardy’s iconic imagery on three-dimensional objects including disks, panels, and even boogie boards—a nod to Hardy’s childhood growing up in Southern California. Viewers can also expect to see prints that Hardy created as a student at SFAI, juxtaposed with the master prints from the Achenbach that inspired them, as well as tattoo flash (sample tattoo designs), preparatory drawings, and paintings that showcase the themes of Hardy’s tattoo imagery integrating with his fine art practice.

“While Ed is widely known as an iconic tattoo artist, we’re excited that visitors will see another side of him and become more familiar with works from his own artistic practice,” says Karin Breuer, curator in charge of the Achenbach. “Since retiring from active tattooing in 2008, he’s created a significant body of art in a range of styles and imagery, each piece incorporating elements of conventional tattooing with traditional fine art.”

Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin is organized by Karin Breuer, curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The exhibition is on view at the de Young museum starting July 13, 2019.

Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin begins with a selection of drawings from the 1950s, when the young artist first became fascinated with tattooing. Photographs and sketched tattoo designs by then-ten-year-old Hardy opens the exhibition, accompanied by a timeline outlining the history of tattooing in the US in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As Hardy grew older, he left his interest in tattooing behind to pursue the fine arts, later graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) with a degree in printmaking. While Hardy was a student at SFAI, a professor urged him to visit the Legion of Honor’s Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, where former curator Gunter Troche introduced Hardy to the prints of Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Francisco Goya. Hardy’s recurring encounters with old master prints had a profound effect on his work and later inspired his generous gift of 152 works to the Achenbach Foundation in 2017. Several prints that Hardy created as a student at SFAI are on view, juxtaposed with some of the very prints that inspired them.

After graduating in 1967 Hardy was introduced by tattooer Phil Sparrow to a book on Japanese tattooing, which reignited his love for the medium, and he turned down a graduate fellowship from Yale University to begin tattooing professionally. Hardy gained valuable experience in the course of working at tattoo studios in Vancouver (British Columbia), Seattle, and San Diego. An impressive selection of his tattoo “flash” (sample tattoo designs) from those years (1967–1971) occupy an entire gallery wall, accompanied by an interactive touchscreen allowing visitors to enlarge the works to see details. This section also features a short clip from the film Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World by Emiko Omori.

In late 1973, Hardy left for Gifu, a small city in central Japan, to study under master tattooer Horihide as his first American student. After five months Hardy returned to the US inspired to continue producing versions of the Japanese repertoire in his own signature style.

In 1974 Hardy opened Realistic Tattoo in San Francisco, which became the first tattoo studio in the United States to offer custom tattoos based on clients’ wishes and needs. The fourth gallery in the exhibition, titled “Wear Your Dreams,” features preparatory designs for tattoos created by Hardy at Realistic Tattoo, some via animations projected on a contoured body form on the corresponding parts of the body where the tattoos were physically applied. Photographs of bodies tattooed by Hardy are showcased alongside the remarkable designs that were used to create them.

An adjacent gallery features prints, drawings, and paintings with tattoo-based themes that appear in Hardy’s work beginning in the late 1980s, including tigers, panthers, the Hot Stuff (little red devil) cartoon, the Rose of No Man’s Land (a WWI homage to Red Cross nurses on the battlefield), skeletons, skulls, and the traditional American tattoo image of the Butterfly Woman.

A small jewel-box gallery follows, featuring Hardy’s hand-painted porcelain vases as well as Ghosts, a series of unique wall-hung porcelains that were made at the Risogama kiln in Arita, Japan. These works share the gallery with Eyecons, resin-coated paintings on panels and disks that were created at Trillium Graphics (Brisbane, California) in 2008.

A highlight of the exhibition, and also Hardy’s largest artwork to date, is a 500-foot-long scroll conceived by the artist to celebrate the millennium year, which was also the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese zodiac. Brought to fruition over 52 intermittent days in the year 2000, the scroll was recently donated by Hardy to the Fine Arts Museums. The aptly named 2000 Dragons is accompanied by select recordings of some of the music Hardy listened to while painting the scroll, including tracks by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the Clash.

A nearby gallery presents a selection of eight large paintings from Hardy’s Immortals that, like 2000 Dragons, are painted on Tyvek in loose calligraphic brushwork.

The final gallery, “Life of a Tattooer,” includes Rose, a jacquard tapestry (Magnolia Editions) from 2015, and recent paintings and drawings that bring the exhibition to the present day. Also featured are Hardy’s reworkings of his famous 1967 self-portrait etching, Future Plans. The piece was reimagined by the artist many times in 2009, each taking a different tattoo-related form: a roaring tiger head (El Tigre), a gorilla (Monkey Man II), a masted sailing ship with anchors (Ship Head), and several others. Arranged around a photo of the bare-chested Hardy taken in 2009 (used as an interactive feature to explore Hardy’s own tattoos), the portrait series brings the exhibition to a close.

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