Thanks to a massively successful partnership with French fashion designer Christian Audigier forged in 2004, Ed Hardy has become a household name the world over — a rare feat for any artist, let alone one who's spent most of his career in a tattoo parlor rather than an art studio.
"All this public stuff has been so weird for me the past decade," he laughed in a phone interview before he traveled from the Bay Area to Houston for two concurrent exhibitions at DiverseWorks and the Art Guys studio compound off North Shepherd. "It's like the Twilight Zone whenever I see someone wearing a shirt with some of my designs on it."
A formally-trained artist with a degree in printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute, Hardy retired his tattoo gun in 2009 to focus on his work on canvas and paper, mediums he has used as a sort of refuge from commissioned tattoos since the late 1980s.
"When I first got back into art in the late '80s, I returned to a lot of this monster art I made as a kid growing up in southern California," Hardy said.
The Death or Glory exhibit at the Art Guys gallery explores the first 10 years of Hardy's foray into traditional painting, which ranges from tattoo-styled images of cartoon characters to swirling biomorphic forms one might find in the work of Yves Tanguy or Max Ernst, two 20th-century artists Hardy mentioned as early influences.
"Art history is probably my biggest passion and has always strongly affected my work," Hardy said of his paintings, noting his long-standing interests in Asian art as well as in the European masters of the 16th and 17th centuries.
"When I first got back into art in the late '80s, I returned to a lot of this monster art I made as a kid growing up in southern California," he said. "You can definitely see that in the Art Guys show as well as other strong elements from the surfing and hot rod culture from my childhood."
A single continuous drawing measuring 500 feet in length, Hardy's unforgettable 2000 Dragons at Diverseworks picks up the timeline where Death or Glory concludes.
"It hasn't been shown for a number of years and I'm excited to see in on display again, especially since 2012 is a dragon year," he said. "Since the piece is so long, the configuration is totally different everywhere it's installed. It's always great to see how it will end up."
On view by appointment only through mid July, Death and Glory is at the Art Guys studio (5757 Knox).
2000 Dragons starts Saturday at DiverseWorks with a special opening party and book signing with the artist from 3 to 6 p.m. The exhibit runs through July 7 and includes an additional series of recent paintings.