Once upon a time, only sailors had tattoos, and the only places to get inked were the shabby street shops located near the bus station. There was a low-rent bar or two in the vicinity, to be sure, which helped lubricate the decision and the process. Then along came a transplanted Southern Californian named Ed Hardy, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute with an appreciation for Japanese art and hand inking, who pioneered a serious art approach that, some 35 years later, is as entrenched in American culture as jeans. Emiko Omori’s upcoming documentary, Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World, a collaboration of sorts between the two artists, grew out of a friendship that dates to 1974.
‘I was looking to get a small tattoo,” Omori recalls, sitting in a caf‚ not far from Tattoo City, Hardy’s North Beach outpost at Lombard and Mason. “Somebody sent me an article written by Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) on Hardy. It was a private shop, like Japan: no signs outside, you’ve got to make an appointment, you’ve got to have a consultation. I didn’t even know this existed. I hit it off with him and, ultimately, I got a large back piece from him in the late ‘70s and made a movie about him.”
That 16mm half-hour doc, Tattoo City (1980), premiered at the Castro Theatre with Les Blank’s Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers on a lively bill of new work by local filmmakers. Submitting herself as a virgin canvas, so to speak, Omori became far more inextricably linked with her movie than the typical director.
“Originally, I was going to get somebody else that I was going to photograph getting a big tattoo,’ she explains. “That fell through, so then it was like, ‘OK, I’m getting a big one.’ I wanted somebody with a clean back, not somebody who had a lot of things on them.”
Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World makes liberal use of the lustrous Tattoo City footage, abetted by subsequent sequences of Ed Hardy at work. As his millennial observance, for example, Hardy painted 2,000 dragons on a 500-foot-long scroll in 2000. Omori was there with her camera, getting so close that he repeatedly had to instruct her to step back. (The short film shows wherever the scroll is exhibited.)
As it happens, Hardy listens nonstop to all kinds of music–from the Stones to opera–when he works, but the rights to those tunes would be prohibitively expensive. So Omori, working with a music supervisor who unearths evocative but less pricey sounds, has given herself permission to insert all kinds of music throughout the film.
Omori, whose body of work includes Rabbit In the Moon and Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm (with Wendy Slick, who’s also co-producer on Hardy), describes the new, feature-length doc as “kind of a journey through his mind.” The filmmaker is being typically self-effacing. Yes, Ed Hardy’s name–which now graces a clothing line that various celebrities have been spotted wearing–will sell a few more tickets than hers. Yes, she has the greatest respect for his talent and art. But Omori shot, edited and narrates the film, which makes it not just a labor of love but a record of a friendship informed by a shared appreciation for Japanese art and culture.
Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World has had a couple of sneak preview screenings in Hawaii and Oregon, and June 5 in the Mendocino Film Festival (where program director and veteran filmmaker Pat Ferrero is an old friend). The film will be finished in time for the fall festival circuit. Although Hardy’s name and work enjoy wide popularity, bridging high art and low art and spanning generations, Omori has realistically muted expectations about a theatrical release.
Notes From the Underground
That’s East Bay filmmaker Frazer Bradshaw’s daughter “playing” the American “lead” in Babies, the documentary that spans a year in the life of four infants in different countries. Bradshaw (Everything Strange and New) was originally referred to director Thomas Balmes as a potential cinematographer by local filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt; when Hattie’s birth coincided perfectly with Balmes’ schedule, she was “cast” in the film. Jon Shenk’s Higher Ground, following Maldives Pres. Mohamed Nasheed’s crusade to save his island nation from rising seas caused by global warming, was one of the eight projects selected for the Good Pitch @ Silverdocs program. The D.C.-area festival runs June 21-27. TNT is developing “Graysmith,” a TV show based on the life of the S.F. cartoonist, Zodiac author and part-time private detective. Ridley Scott is an executive producer, for what it’s worth.
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