My paintings, drawings and prints are partially inspired by primary images from traditional American tattooing of the first half of the twentieth century. Skulls, ribbons, snarling panthers, roses, cartoon characters such as Stinky the skunk, the Rose of No Man’s Land (WW1 Red Cross nurse), screaming eagles, daggers, the Rock of Ages and other religious motifs, pinups, ships and anchors, flags, hearts, and patriotic emblems. At their best, these basic emblematic forms—sometimes crude but always decisive—were executed with an economy of line and bold shading. The works utilize the direct and irreversible materials of traditional painted tattoo flash (design sheets): watercolor and ink —or the equally “one way” process of etched copper.

I was first mesmerized by the world of tattooing at the age of ten, and began obsessively drawing tattoo flash then. Each codified form had its own rigidly conventionalized style. Accompanied by often enigmatic phrases, every design was a little drama unto itself. The overall effect was abstracted, menacing, puzzling and hypnotic. I have drawn, tattooed, and studied these raw power units for fifty years.

For many years my tattoo style was also based on intense study of Asian art traditions, particularly Japan’s ukiyoe culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Formal aspects of my compositions are permanently affected by more than twenty years’ immersion in these traditions. When I began getting back to painting and drawing for myself in 1987, the old designs of my American heritage instantly resurfaced. This was coupled with a closer scrutiny of my favorite Western artists and traditions, both historic and contemporary. Many of these tended to be eccentric and hermetic. Now I am shuffling iconography from East and West and surprising myself with what comes out.

“I am interested in the kind of weird beauty that is simultaneously dumb, funny, frightening and seductive.

With this vocabulary of forms…the relationships and suggestions that occur between colors and shapes when they run out, stream of consciousness, onto the surface…a new language of enigmatic allegories develops. Some of the look reflects the disturbing nature of tattooing itself, the blurry patina of aged tattoos that have been in the skin many decades, of design sheets yellowing on old tattoo parlor walls— a faded world almost extinct today with the diffused face of high power, popularized fad tattooing that is part of our instantaneous high tech global image glut.

Nostalgia is not the intent; rather, to be a conduit for the essential mystery of an indelible commitment to particular shapes and sentiments that have been layered, codified and distilled over time. I am interested in the kind of weird beauty that is simultaneously dumb, funny, frightening and seductive.

Don Ed Hardy, San Francisco 2016


Don Ed Hardy recalls his time at the San Francisco Art Institute and his art interests. Read his interview in Juxapoz Magazine. Watch Hardy at work in this video by Michael John Evans.