“El Tigre” (2009) is a re-interpretation of Ed Hardy’s iconic self-portrait. (Courtesy Don Ed Hardy/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Ed Hardy exhibit shows all sides of tattoo artist

‘Deeper than Skin’ looks back on long career beyond the brand

The first retrospective Ed Hardy exhibit in the de Young Museum emphasizes the artist in “tattoo artist.”

With over 350 objects on display, “Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin,” on view from July 13 to Oct. 6, gleans through more than 60 years of Hardy’s dedication to the ancient practice of skin modification. It shows how his artistry developed in many forms since 1955, when he was 10-year-old Donald Edward Talbott Hardy sketching tattoos on lined paper in Newport Beach.

Drawings, paintings, etchings, boogie boards, porcelain objects and interactive installations illuminate a career beyond the merchandise that transformed his name into a global brand.

“It’s a crowning jewel of everything that I did and I never expected it,” says Hardy, 74, who attended an advance press opening for the show this week.

The exhibit, curated by Karin Breuer, looks like an abstract, minimalistic tattoo shop.

Buzzing neon light fixtures introduce the exhibit, spelling out Ed Hardy, and hang over the introductory labels in every section. A vivid red backdrop in the first portion of the show makes the whole gallery pop, almost to the point of assaulting viewers’ eyes. There’s also a designated wall of flash tattoos — designs printed on paper board seen in most tattoo shops to help clients find inspiration for their next skin art.

The rough chronological presentation is an appropriate way to showcase Hardy’s evolution. It starts with his earliest years when tattoos had just grabbed his imagination and concludes with his newest work, including several 2009 reinterpretations of his iconic 1967 self-portrait etching, “Future Plans.” (Hardy retired from tattooing in 2008 but continues to paint.)

The show also has entertaining three-dimensional and interactive installations aimed to overcome the limits of showing art meant to be seen up close and on skin. Patrons can sit down, place their arms underneath a projector and see an Ed Hardy tattoo materialize on their bodies. The visualization of ink on skin obviously isn’t perfect, but still quite effective.

But the centerpiece of the show is “2000 Dragons,” a 4 1/2- by 500-foot long scroll featuring 2,000 dragons painted with acrylic in various simple and complex forms. It is hung with steel airplane wires and bulldog clips — as it was originally showcased in Los Angeles at Track 16 Gallery.

A soundtrack playing near “2000 Dragons” is what Hardy listened to as he painted it during the first seven months of the new millennium. Though the raw distortion of Nirvana’s 1991 song “Aneurysm” doesn’t really travel well in the space, it’s insightful to hear the sonic contexts of the artist’s life.

An Ed Hardy exhibit cannot overlook the Christian Audigier fashion line that transformed Hardy’s name into a brand and emblem of edginess in the early 2000s.

But this small section of the exhibit feels like an afterthought to Hardy’s finer works or brief intermission in his long career. Perhaps that’s deliberate, considering his qualms about the product. (“It became ‘Ed Hardy by Christian Audigier’ and I wasn’t happy about that,” he wrote in his 2014 memoir “Wear Your Dreams.”)

Many viewers will likely have the brand floating in their minds, entering the exhibit, but will quickly find it’s far from the point of this retrospective. “Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin” is all Ed Hardy by Ed Hardy.

IF YOU GO

Ed Hardy: Deeper than Skin

Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Oct. 6

Admission: $13 to $28; free for ages 5 and younger

Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

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