Donald Edward Talbott Hardy is the best-known and most influential living tattoo artist. Born in 1945 and raised in Southern California, Hardy was a prolific artist from an early age, and discovered tattooing through a childhood friend’s father at age 10. Fascinated by the bold, bombastic images, he began applying “kiddie flash” to the neighborhood children using water-soluble colored pencil, and sought out local tattooers for inspiration.
Upon completing a degree in printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1967, Hardy declined a graduate fellowship at Yale University and instead took up tattooing, marking the beginning of a career that would slowly and significantly transform the ancient art’s formal and sociological aspects.
He began his career tattooing traditional designs on a steady string of sailors and novelty-seekers at shops in Vancouver and San Diego. In 1969, he met Sailor Jerry Collins, a venerable Honolulu, HI-based tattooer who was then nearing the end of his career. An avid communicator, Collins shared Hardy’s desire to spread knowledge, ideas, and designs among fellow artists, and to expand the limited scope of the marginalized art form.
Thanks to Collins’s rare connections with a number of Japanese tattooers, Hardy spent five months in Gifu City in 1973, working alongside Kazuo Oguri (Horihide), where he was the first Westerner to tattoo in the clandestine Japanese environment. In the Japanese tradtion, the entire body would serve as a canvas for a single, sprawling, narrative design, and took a very different shape from the contained, piecemeal Western style.
Back in San Francisco, he opened Realistic Tattoo Studio, a small, appointment- only shop modeled after the private parlors of Japan—the first of its kind in the United States—where he tattooed only original designs that incorporated the Japanese approach to scale. In 1977, he opened Tattoo City, which brought the highly recognizable, East Los Angeles-bred Chicano style—characterized by extraordinarily fine, exclusively black and gray line-work—to San Francisco. (The shop was destroyed by a fire the following year, but re-opened in 1991.)
In 1982, he founded Hardy Marks, a publishing imprint devoted to documenting alternative art—primarily the tattoo creations of Hardy’s peers and forebears. In additions to volumes on the iconic Sailor Jerry Collins and the Victorian-era tattooer Ben Corday, he published Tattootime, a ground-breaking magazine published in five installments from 1982 to 1991.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, he continued to make artwork and tattoo, blending concepts from both worlds, and began to achieve recognition from the art world. In 1995, he participated in and published the catalog for the Drawing Center’s “Pierced Hearts & True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos,” a seminal and wildly popular show. In 2005, approaching the fifth decade of his career, Hardy licensed over a thousand of his designs to Los Angeles-based fashion designer Christian Audigier, who applied the images to an assortment of apparel and lifestyle items, making Hardy a household name.