The Arts
June - July 2012
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enter the Dragon

by Brian Berusch

Ed Hardy inks skin, silk & canvas.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1963, Don Ed Hardy skirted the sunny Californian coastline to arrive in San Francisco on the heels of a movement that has come to define that progressive town for the last half-century. But unlike Kerouac, Ginsberg or the legion of hippies that followed a few years later, Hardy came in pursuit of a degree in print making at the Art Institute of California in San Francisco. Why? Because images tattooed on the arms of soldiers returning home to his sleepy beach town were indelibly etched on his soul since the ripe age of 10.

“My buddy Len Jones, his father was in the Army and had these killer tattoos. I became obsessed,” shares Hardy, 67, who spends ample time at his Kaimuki home every summer. “That launched me into what I called ‘monster art,’ like the kind of stuff you’d see on the muscle cars of the mid or late 1950s-flames and women and stuff.”

Around the time he took to surfing (at 14), he came across a book of Japanese art, thinking “this could really be developed” in the tattoo realm, after the sailor stuff began to seem “tired.”

Before even graduating from the Art Institute, Hardy was accepted into Yale University’s graduate school program. But the success of a tattoo parlor he’d opened in North Beach-ground zero for the Beat movement and assorted poets, hipsters and riffraff who steered away from the tree-hugging HaightAshbury scene-kept him rooted in the Bay Area.

“Some time in the ’60s”-a phrase that surely gets muttered quite a bit by anyone who partook in the era-Hardy met Sailor Jerry, who was single-handedly responsible for the development of skin art in the U.S. But, unlike today, when tattoos are the norm among 20-somethings, Hardy attests times were a tad different.

“It was a very closed-mouth business. People didn’t talk about it much. It was still a back-alley kind of thing,” he adds, noting that this prompted his first trip to Honolulu in October of 1969. “We had a really intense correspondence right up until he died in ’73, when we were about to open a shop together in Honolulu’s Chinatown.”

Sailor Jerry’s South Seas Tattoo on Smith near Hotel Street was eventually purchased by Mike Malone (it’s now called Eternal Body Shop), another legendary inker. After Jerry’s passing, Hardy retreated to Japan, where he always imagined he’d live for at least five years. Although it happened quicker than he imagined, a revelation there pulled him back to the States. He’d open a studio in the spring of ’74, where, instead of clients picking an image off a wall, he’d consult with them-work with them-on a picture. This was novel at the time.

However, like any iconic artist, Hardy zigged when the industry and art scene zagged, launching headlong into a publishing venture called TattooTime, which was a catalog of sorts put out in 1982. The series of books became the manual of tattooing, dragged to all corners of the globe for shows, shops and expositions. Although Hardy ceased the printing after only a handful of issues, his project this year is a re-issue of the originals, which will be released as a box set around the holidays.

“One of the things I like to mention is that, on the cover of one of the later issues of TattooTime, we featured the work of a local Hawai’i guy, Leo Zulueta. He was into the straight black graphic stuff, after a stint he did doing punk rock posters. We came up with this name for his stuff-’New Tribalism’-and it spread like crazy. I mean, it had a huge social impact.”

Yet throughout all of this, Hardy maintained his style: highly detailed, colorful Japanese dragons. But after 40 years of tattooing people with these highly coveted images, he attests that it wasn’t until he etched his images onto a lithograph, spun a few prints and even picked up a paintbrush that the impression really traveled the globe.

In 2003, he was approached to license a few images to a clothing maker, and the images we’re all familiar with-the colorful dragons-were emblazoned on hats, T-shirts, jeans and so on. Hardy had seeped from the skin to the silk.

Today, Hardy can be found nearly daily at his painting studio, right behind his tattoo shop on Lombard Street and Columbus Avenue in North Beach. His son Doug runs the shop, which is still set up in the old-time parlor style.

Of course, when asked what it’s like to see an image you sketch onto a tear of paper inked on someone’s body for life go from a taboo, bad-boy sort of thing to completely mainstream, his answer is prophetic.

“It’s completely mind-blowing,” Hardy says. “It’s like The Twilight Zone. Just like the TV show. Everything seems normal at first, and then it flips.”

Hardy still keeps up with those he refers to as the “cronies” of the business, but he’s done with the conventions and the spotlights.

“It was great to me, for a long time. But I’m mainly out (touring) on my painting and art stuff. I’ll do shows in Texas and all over California this year. My 500-foot-long dragon painting travels a lot. It was at Linekona (in Honolulu) in 2004, was very well-received there. I’ll do some surfboards for the occasional Surfrider Foundation event to raise money for a cause.”

But his travels these days take him and his wife (of more than 40 years) to Japan, London, Paris and Hawai’i. In 2010 a documentary called Ed Hardy Tattoo the World released. And as much as he claims he’s settled, in the art world, there’s always another medium.

“I recently inked a board for an old pal, Robert “Wingnut” August. That was pretty cool,” Hardy concludes.

A Broadway Director’s Musical Homecoming

Greg Zane is hoping for a lot of rain when he returns to Hawai’i this summer. The local-born, New York-based dancer-choreographer-director will be back in town to direct Diamond Head Theatre’s production of Singin’ in the Rain, and he plans to have plenty of liquid sunshine spilling onto the stage.

“People should be prepared to get wet from all the splashing,” he says. “It’s one of those shows that will make you feel good after seeing it. It’s the perfect summer show.”

The production is also timely, given the recent success of The Artist and Hugo, two films that focus on the magic of silent films. Scenes in The Artist pay direct homage to Singin’ in the Rain, which is set in that waning Hollywood era.

“Silent films are back in vogue right now,” Zane says. “You are more active in interpreting what’s going on because you don’t have the voice that can tell you so many things. With silents, you are invested a little more,” he adds, noting a revival of Singin’ in the Rain in London’s West End. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes to New York.”

Zane appeared in Broadway’s The King and I in 1999, which prompted DHT artistic director John Rampage to invite him to direct a production of the musical.

“He created a monster,” says Zane, who returns home annually to direct a production for the theater.

Never daunted by the scope of a musical, he says, “I go to sleep thinking of the show and I wake up in the morning thinking about the show. It’s all about fitting all the pieces together to create the big picture. I try to channel all the cast toward the same goal of storytelling. We’re all storytellers on stage.”

What you won’t find on his set is the sort of histrionics and diva-like behavior associated with the new TV series, Smash.

“Smash is so unrealistic. In the real world, none of that is tolerated. But I’m happy for Smash because it gives musical theater exposure-as well as giving my friends in New York work.”

Singin’ in the Rain runs July 20 through Aug. 5 at Diamond Head Theatre. Tickets are $12 to $42. Call 733-0274.

—By Nadine Kam

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