Artwork by and books about Don Ed Hardy.

A Southern California native born in 1945, Hardy acted on his childhood determination to become a tattoo artist and underwent a tattoo apprenticeship while simultaneously receiving a B.F.A. degree in printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1967. His specialization in intaglio printmaking, with its “speed of line, rhythm, variety, and density of structure” prepared him well for the career that followed. He turned down a graduate fellowship offer from Yale School of Art and decided instead to begin tattooing professionally.

In 1973 at the invitation of the Japanese tattoo master Horihide, Hardy moved to Gifu, Japan where he studied and tattooed. The following year he opened Realistic Tattoo in San Francisco, a private studio where he undertook unique tattoo commissions tailored to his clients’ wishes and needs. Encouraging unique tattoo commissions from his customers created a permanent shift in Western tattooing with an emphasis on the potential of tattooing as an artistic expression 

In 1986 Hardy moved to Honolulu to concentrate more on his art. For the next ten years he would commute back and forth to San Francisco to tattoo. Hardy discovered that he could utilize imagery he developed as a tattoo artist in compositions that were large and complex. Brushes and pens on paper and canvas presented a challenging departure from tightly controlled tattoo work. 

Hardy returned to printmaking in 1992, and early etchings created at presses in Chicago and San Francisco reveal a simple style akin to the “flash” in his tattoo repertoire. Later prints—particularly those done with Mullowney Printing (Nara, Japan, and San Francisco), Shark’s Ink (Boulder, Colorado), and Magnolia Editions (Oakland)—are larger, colorful, and more ebullient. Hardy describes them as a mix of “the grotesque, humorous, subtle, and flamboyant.”

Major career exhibitions include his first retrospective “Tattooing the Invisible Man” that was mounted at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica in 1999, his epic 500 foot scroll 2000 Dragons which was the focus of exhibitions in five different cities, and his finally major 2019 retrospective “Deeper Than Skin” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. In addition to showing his own works, Hardy has curated a number of exhibitions for both galleries and nonprofit spaces and frequently lectures at museums and universities. His work has appeared in numerous periodicals, books, and films internationally. He has written and published more than thirty books on alternative art under the Hardy Marks imprint that he and his wife, Francesca Passalacqua, formed in 1982.

In 2000, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2008 he retired from tattooing to concentrate on art making. Hardy divides his time between his studios in Honolulu and in San Francisco.