LAWRENCE – Tattoo art icon Don Ed Hardy has come full circle more than once. He’s gone from student of East Asian art history to commercial juggernaut and back to fine art. And even within the fashion world, he’s had a recent comeback after his early 2000s success led to overexposure and backlash.
As a friend of nearly 40 years, University of Kansas researcher Sherry Fowler was there for much of it. That’s partly why she, along with her husband, Dale Slusser, was asked to contribute an essay for the catalog that accompanies the forthcoming Hardy exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.
“Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin” (July 13-Oct. 6) is the first museum retrospective of the man known for elevating the tattoo from its subculture status to an important visual art form. The catalog is edited by curator Karin Breuer and published by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in association with Rizzoli Electa.
Fowler, KU professor of the history of art, said she met Hardy through his wife, Francesca Passalacqua, who was her Japanese-language classmate in San Francisco around 1980.
“One day she said, ‘I'll give you a ride home, but I have to leave early because my husband's going to be on ‘To Tell the Truth.’ That was a TV game show with three guests on it, two of whom were imposters, all who said that they were someone noteworthy or unusual — in this case the most famous tattoo artist in the United States,” Fowler said. “So I went home and watched the show. And I thought, ‘Well, which one is her husband?’ There were two old, salty sailor types, and then there was this young, cute guy, and I thought, ‘I hope it's him.’ And it was. Panelist Kitty Carlisle got the answer right.”
Like her, Fowler said, Hardy loved and studied Asian art (he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute), and the couples became friends.
Slusser is associate vice president for development with KU Endowment and is an affiliate of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences’ Center for East Asian Studies.
Just a few months ago, Hardy asked Fowler to write a catalog essay for the de Young show, and, with Slusser’s help, she agreed. The essay is titled “Drawing Embodied: Ed Hardy's East Asian Art Connections.”
“The amazing thing about working on somebody who's alive — you can actually email them and ask them questions,” said Fowler, who usually writes about premodern Japanese art. “But I was there for a lot of it, and I remember these things happening. Although I took care not to put myself in the narrative, I was thinking about it as I wrote.”
For instance, Fowler recalled, she served as interpreter for “the legendary Horiyoshi II” during the 1985 National Tattoo Association Convention in Seattle, an event mentioned in the catalog as one of many important milestones in Hardy’s career.
And while tattoo artists like Horiyoshi II, Horiyoshi III and Sailor Jerry Collins were influential on Hardy’s tattoo style, so, too, was his training in East Asian art, Fowler argues in the catalog. It’s also apparent in his printmaking.
For instance, Fowler begins her essay by considering Hardy’s 2007 print titled “Our Gang.” It’s based on a bronze plaque dated to the year 1001 and held in the Tokyo National Museum. She said the central figure, known as Zao Gongen, “is a hybrid Shinto-Buddhist deity. And the print is emblematic of his career because it has so many different things going on, mixing very traditional Asian art with goofy stuff and personal things.”
Among the smaller figures surrounding the deity, Hardy has even depicted himself as a rat offering up a valentine heart to his wife, Fowler said. Fowler knew that among all the figures in the print there were portraits of Hardy and his wife, but she had to confirm with him which ones they were.
Fowler’s essay broaches the topic of cultural appropriation but in this specific case dismisses any bad intent on the part of the artist or any harm to his sources.
“I don't think his work is for everybody,” Fowler said. “And sometimes I don't like it when he pushes the envelope too far. But that is provoking. That makes us think and change our minds about certain things.”
Ultimately, Fowler said, it is the passion that undergirds Hardy’s style and technique that has made him a cultural force to be reckoned with.
“He loves art,” she said. “He is so passionate. He's the kind of person who will get up in the morning and say, ‘I've been thinking about art all night; I couldn't sleep.’ When you're around him, you feel like you just want to make the most of every moment. You want to see everything. You want to do everything and experience as much art as you possibly can. He's that kind of magnetic personality.”
While the Hardy show is at the de Young, there is a related show, “Tattoos in Japanese Prints,” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
“For a long time, there was a big stigma about tattooing, and now it's everywhere,” Fowler said. “I think museums are making a real effort to connect to people, and so if you can have something historical that makes sense and connects to people's lives, they will want to learn more about it.”
Photo: An excerpt from Hardy’s “2000 Dragons” scroll, taken during its 2012 exhibition at Diverse Works in Houston. Credit: Courtesy Sherry Fowler