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Tattoo legend Ed Hardy inks his life story in 'Wear Your Dreams'

Ed Hardy and Alex Cohen.
Ed Hardy and Alex Cohen.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Ed Hardy and Alex Cohen.
Ed Hardy draws with sharpies on Alex Cohen in the KPCC studios.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Ed Hardy and Alex Cohen.
Ed Hardy's mermaid drawing on Alex Cohen's arm.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Ed Hardy and Alex Cohen.
Ed Hardy's tattoos.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Ed Hardy and Alex Cohen.
Tattoo artists (L-R) Don Ed Hardy, Jack Rudy, and Bob Roberts exchanged ideas and tricks of the tattoo trade in the late 1970s.
Courtesy Tattoo Nation Movie

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Mention Ed Hardy, and it could conjure up an image of the ornate and gaudy apparel that bears his insignia. But not everyone knows that Hardy is a respected tattoo artist who inspired many other artists to take up the needle. 

When Hardy first entered the business, having a tattoo was considered taboo, sometimes even illegal. He was offered a full scholarship to Yale's Master in Fine Arts programs, but turned it down and started his shop.

More than 40 years later, one in three American adults under 40 has a tattoo, bringing mainstream an art form once reserved only for a distinct minority. 

"I never, never dreamed of this," Hardy said. "It's become so widespread, and I think it's going to be the most significant cultural change as an earmark of the late 20th and early 21st century, because there are millions and millions of people worldwide and all these cultures are tattooing." 

He sets the record straight in his new memoir "Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos." He took the time to sit with Alex Cohen to talk about his life's work behind the needle and what he thinks about tattoo culture today. 

Interview Highlights

On developing his passion for tattooing at a young age:

"My best friend's dad had some tattoos from World War II. We really focused on them one day in 1955. I was ten years old, and I thought this was the most incredible art I'd ever seen: the idea of putting pictures on people. I was drawing avidly, as my mother encouraged me since the age of three. It's all I knew how to do, all I wanted to do, and that's what got me started."

On giving a tattoo:

"It's very intense, and of course you get into the groove. You just do it, but you have to be so hyper-aware that you're working on a person. The sensitivity of them on a physical level, and the fact that you're doing something that's on forever. It's extremely complicated, and a lot of it has to do with not only formal things, like working on skin, but the temperament of the person and all the psychology. There's a whole lot of baggage attached to it."

On the global emergence of Ed Hardy merchandise:

"It was triggered for me by a cover article in Juxtapoz Magazine about a painting show of mine, Track 16, in Santa Monica. Two guys who had a small clothing company approached me and wanted to use my images. I said 'yeah, let's go for it'. Within a couple of years, it began generating a lot of attention in the garment industry and (Christian) Audigier saw this work and said 'oh, I must have the master license'. And it went from there.

He (Audigier) was true to his word. He ramped it up instantly into this enormous international thing. He had contacts with everybody in celebrity culture, which is not my world, and I opted to be completely in the background, which is why nobody knows Ed Hardy is a real person. At one point, there were 70 sub-licensees. We ran into some legal problems with it, got all that ironed out, and now Christian's out of the picture, and my wife and I co-own with a big brand management group in New York. I'm much more hands-on, and we're reconfiguring the domestic approach of it. It's huge in China, Brazil, [and] India."