The world of tattooing is one that brings up images of grimy, badass dudes in dark basements smoking cigarettes and listening to metal while getting inked up. It’s not a clean-cut industry by any standard, and it was never intended to be—it’s always aimed to go harder. And thus, its icons, like in music and fashion, are always the rebels—the ones in the pack who are down to start something new and adventurous, redefining what the craft really means.
Sailor Jerry and Don Ed Hardy entered this world in a time when only the rugged and ruthless were going hard and getting permanently marked up for life. They had to live and operate in that world to pursue their passion, and it was a test for both of them. Dealing with soldiers, sailors, and gangsters would harden up anybody, but we’re here to decide which of these two godfathers of American tattooing—Sailor Jerry or Don Ed Hardy—came out harder in the end.
Caitlin LoPilato: At age 19, Sailor Jerry (born Norman Collins) enlisted into the Navy during World War II, which is where he was exposed to the traditional Japanese art and Southeast Asian imagery that contributed to his signature style. You can imagine what it was like for thousands of sailors to arrive together on Hawaii—which, at the time, had very few tourists—with tons of spare time. Oftentimes, they were coming either to or from war, so they weren’t looking for cute entertainment. A district in one of Hawaii’s port neighborhoods was established as an outlet for sailors, where they could go to fulfill three purposes: to get drunk, to get sex, and to get tattooed (or stewed, screwed, and tattooed, as the saying goes). Brothels, strip clubs, bars, and tattoo parlors lined the streets, and Jerry was a part of it all. In fact, it’s this unkempt, rebellious attitude from which Jerry credited the origins of his style.
As he launched his artistic endeavors, tattoo art was a subterranean, secretive community, and Sailor Jerry was one of the strongest of the bunch, keeping his designs and experiential information close to his chest. Back in the day, tattoo artists exchanged designs using “run offs,” or scratched sketches of the piece that could then be transferred onto the skin. Jerry always sent his run offs with a purposeful flaw in the design, concluding that if the artist was foolish enough to not catch the blemish, he wasn’t worth sending designs to—or Jerry would continue to send him flawed designs to get a good laugh.
Alexis Castro: Admittedly, Don Ed Hardy’s start in the tattoo world does not have the same hard-sounding history behind it that Sailor Jerry’s does. Hardy’s story starts off a little earlier, when he would mark up his neighborhood friends with wet colored pencils and eyeliner before he was 10. An affinity for art was always a part of Hardy’s character, and eventually he decided to enroll in formal art school at the San Francisco Art Institute to develop his skills further. After turning down a graduate studies opportunity at Yale, he linked up with Sailor Jerry for an apprenticeship, and his life took a shift away from art academics and toward tattooing legend.
While Hardy took a safer route into the industry, that doesn’t mean that over the course of his career he didn’t find himself around some sketchy and dangerous people. While studying under Sailor Jerry, he rubbed shoulders with some of the same vagrants and tough guys we hear about in Jerry’s history.
Some time later, Sailor Jerry connected Hardy to one of his friends, Horihide, out in Japan, who took him under his wing and schooled him on a style that became a central part of his artistic DNA. In that time, Hardy was inking up some of Japan’s hardest criminals, the Yakuzas, who are in a league of their own in terms of ruthlessness. So while Hardy may have started off as a nerdy art-school type of sorts, he was for sure tested by having to master his craft around some shady situations and people.
CL: Most notably, Jerry’s work includes consistent imagery of liquor bottles, snakes, wildcats, dice, anchors, and knives—inspired by the personal weapon he kept in his pocket and used (quite frequently) when customers gave him trouble.
As the story goes, a customer once came into Jerry’s tattoo shop and took a poke at him. Jerry whipped out the knife, and after the customer doubted his willingness to take action, Jerry murked the dude without a second thought. Then, in totally epic fashion, Jerry sewed him up and gave him a tattoo of the knife that almost killed him. Kind of savage, but entirely legendary.
AC: Hardy was definitely influenced by both Sailor Jerry and Horihide, in terms of his design choices. His time in the archipelago nation under Horihide infused his catalog of work with the tigers, koi fish, and geishas we know him for today. His intricate dragon designs are among his most easily recognizable work, and are pretty much a trademark for him. His work eventually flawlessly set up a “signifier and signified” relationship between his own blend of American and Far East-inspired imagery, and spray-tanned gaudy Jersey Shore types. That’s pretty much the pinnacle and definition of something being “iconic,” whether for better or worse.
Regardless of the origins of his artistic style, Hardy definitely gets a lot of credit for popularizing some version of the Japanese-style in the States. Talk about serious clout. Receiving credit for turning something hot again when you weren’t even crawling about when it was hot the first time is a sure sign of a straight boss and icon. He did with Japanese-style tattooing what Migos did with Versace. Can’t really knock anybody for being so good at their trade that they overshadow those putting in work long before them.
CL: Originally, there were only a handful of colors available to tattoo artists. Not satisfied with the selection, Sailor Jerry developed his own array of pigments, which opened up avenues for other artists, like Ed Hardy. Most importantly, he developed a purple pigment—a task dubbed impossible by one of Jerry’s tattoo artist competitors, Lou Norman. Up for the challenge, Jerry developed the color, then designed a purple dragon on a customer’s forearm, only to send him over to Lou’s shop to show him the purple tat and rub it in his face.
Oh yeah, and when Lou literally had a stroke after seeing what Jerry had done, the Sailor sent him an all-purple design of a rose bouquet to Lou in his hospital bed.
AC: While there’s no history of Hardy’s designs inducing seizures, he definitely still found a way to take everything he learned under good ol’ Sailor Jerry and Horihide and come up with something nobody had ever seen before. Hardy was truly a groundbreaker in the field, and eventually pushed others to blaze uncharted trails in tattooing as well.
In a time when tattoos were mostly black and blue, Hardy tried to push the boundaries of what a tattoo could end up looking like. He eventually expanded Sailor Jerry’s research on pigments that were safe for the skin, opening up a floodgate of possibilities in terms of new ways to blend colors together.
The biggest thing that set him apart was his adoption of the Japanese painterly style that made tattoos feel as though they had an airbrushed quality to them. This was a major drift away from rigid and monochromatic designs in favor of a more fluid style with a more complex color palate, and we still see that as the norm today.
Other Commercial Ventures
AC: I’ll go ahead and announce ahead of time that Hardy will have to take the L on this one. While his clothing brand had at one point reached empire status, carried everywhere and seen on anyone and everyone from celebrities to dads with mid-life crises, it was obnoxiously loud and difficult to pull off. At its peak, the brand was raking in hundreds of millions of dollars annually in earnings.
Hardy will be the first to tell you that aligning with designer and entrepreneur Christian Audigier—the same man who built up Von Dutch—on the clothing venture led to the eventual decline of his brand. While the relationship started off strong, with Audigier building up the brand’s rep through his celebrity connections and reach, the whole thing eventually became too big to contain. It’s the same situation we see with streetwear brands that sell out to major mall retailers that cater to squares and end up gaining a reputation for being corny with the cool kids as a consequence. Consumers immediately drop the brand and move on to the next new thing.
In the case of Ed Hardy, the lames who rocked his clothing were under a much more public gaze, and one major slip up had the power to bring the whole house down. Hardy pegs reality star Jon Gosselin’s preference for repping the brand as the nail in the coffin for his T-shirt business. The Jon & Kate Plus 8 star unfortunately made a whole nation of viewers associate his brand with general scumminess, and that was the end of that.
CL: Let’s allow Sailor Jerry to secure this W, shall we? After the legend passed, Ed Hardy and Mike Malone launched Sailor Jerry Ltd., which produces tattoo-inspired clothing, ash trays, playing cards, and shot glasses—totally paying homage to Jerry’s rugged aesthetic. They’ve even collaborated with iconic names like Iggy Pop and fashion labels like Schott NYC for collections.
CL: Sailor Jerry was noted for his brutal honesty within the tattoo community; as he gained notoriety and aspiring artists reached out, he’d always respond, but would tear the designer’s work to shreds if he deemed it as trash. Through his badass tendencies, Jerry garnered an esteemed reputation of respectability.
He’ll also be forever remembered for his reckless humor that made it both into his designs and his life as a sailor. As a part of a prank during his time in Hawaii, he snuck out at night, scaled a statue of King Kamehameha—an 18th century Hawaiian leader—and tied two coconuts and a large stick of bologna in between the statue’s legs. The next morning, the prank made headlines and law enforcement launched an island-wide investigation—just a peek into the playful legacy that Jerry stamped onto the tattoo community.
Under its surface level, however, his work combined two tropes—the rough-around-the-edges, patriotic essence of the American sailor with the mysticism and delicacy of Eastern artistic tradition—which will forever tell stories of war and heartache through captivating intricacy and innovative stylistic indifferences. Because of this, Sailor Jerry defined the craft in two eras—Before Sailor Jerry (BSJ) and After Sailor Jerry (ASJ)— and remains one of the most influential names in tattoo art’s history.
AC: It might be safe to say that Hardy was the first celebrity tattoo artist to exist as we know them today. Sure, Sailor Jerry is a giant household name in his own right, but his rise to pop culture recognition occurred post-mortem, following a decision to trademark his nickname for a line of products. A decision that Hardy was a part of, no less. Hardy lived in the actual spotlight, although few may know of his rich history in tattooing outside his T-shirt line.
Don Ed Hardy left his own unique legacy in the tattoo world, despite being a protégé of the man who set off a new era. The man redefined what was deemed as “important” in the tattoo world. He explored it as its own true art form, always looking to expand on what could be marked on somebody’s body, and how he could go about doing it. He even garnered a reputation for challenging his clients to make more conscious decisions about their ink, involving them in the design process rather than having them pluck any old design out of a book or from the tattoo parlor’s walls. He treated each piece he did as a meaningful work. That’s exactly what you would expect from someone whose alternative career choice would have been to write about and study these sorts of legacies for others to hear about.
Sure, his legacy might be slightly tainted by a few embarrassing moments of jerks rocking his clothing, but the man is a certified gawd in his own right.