Visitors look through merchandise for sale during a media preview of "Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin." AP
When people hear the name Ed Hardy, they likely think of the flashy, tiger- and skull-emblazoned clothing that rocketed to popularity in the 2000s, appearing on the likes of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and cast members from the reality TV show "Jersey Shore."
But few know him as a prolific fine artist.
"The clothing was one little blip on his whole career, which was staggering," said Mary Joy Scott, a tattoo artist who apprenticed under Hardy and works at the San Francisco shop he founded, Tattoo City.
Five miles (8 kilometers) southwest of Tattoo City, a lively exhibition opening Friday at the de Young Museum sheds light on Hardy as wide-ranging artist and tattoo pioneer. Through 300 paintings, prints, drawings and objects, "Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin" is the first retrospective of his work and shows how Hardy intertwined fine art with tattooing to push both forward.
"Ed Hardy's mission (was) to elevate the tattoo form from its subculture status back in the 1960s at least to a level of a folk art. I think he surpassed that," said curator Karin Breuer. "Here it is in museum culture."
The exhibition, which follows Hardy's donation of 152 prints to the museum, bursts with colour as it tracks the 74-year-old artist's evolution.
"I'm part of a continuum," Hardy said of his art idols. "There's a lot more to my life than tattooing."
Visitors can get a projected animation of a Hardy tattoo design "applied" to their skin. They can also walk along a snaking, 2,000-square-foot (186-square-meter) scroll suspended from the ceiling on which Hardy painted 2,000 dragons in the year 2000.
"Ed Hardy is the only tattooer in the Western world who could merit a show of this kind," said Matt Lodder, a University of Essex professor who studies the history of tattoo as art. "Tattooers of a particular mode are all working, whether they know it or not, in a kind of pattern Ed Hardy was the first to lay down."
When Hardy began tattooing in 1967 after abandoning plans to attend Yale art school, he was one of the few American tattoo artists with a fine arts background. Hardy was also the first Western tattoo artist to study traditional Japanese tattooing abroad.
The exhibition displays Hardy's custom pencil sketches and watercolours beneath photographs of the works inked on human bodies.
"It's rather shocking to some people that we can jump from an exhibition of Monet paintings to an exhibition of a tattoo artist," Breuer said.
"It's a terrific affirmation, not only for myself, but for a lot of the old bandits and pirates that helped me in the business," Hardy said. "They operated outside polite society, outside of the structure that controls what people think of as art."
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