I came across Trevor while waiting an email from Ed Hardy’s Tattoo City. He was the guy behind that email and, while receiving it, I suddenly knew I had to interview him for I am Not a Tattoo Blog.
Trevor Lee Ewald is Ed Hardy’s main curator and gallerist: he safeguards hundreds of original paintings and works very hard to preserve them. He is also a talented sculptor, Tattoo City shop manager and… Here you can find out more!
I am glad he said yes beacuse he is one of the most humble person I’ve ever met and I can’t thank him enough for these wonderful and wise thoughts about Life, Art, Tattoos.
How did you fall in love with art?
When I was a kid I had a lot of amazing people in my life. My father’s father was an art history teacher, and florist. My dad loved and owned a really crazy show truck that had a Frank Frazetta inspired painting on the side of it, as well as being an amateur watercolor painter himself. The painting on his truck was a voluptuous giantess on a mammoth tusk sled. My mother was and is a practicing witch, so esoteric rituals and their aesthetic have long been around my home. Although my parents divorced when I was two, there was always a feeling around that being creative was a natural part of life. This continued when my mother re-married a punk rock musician who loved wood carving, and my father re-married my step mom, who taught me how to read. Although every single one of these people had very different ideas about what art was, there was this theme where all of them were alchemically instilling this creative urge into their lives through intent. Seeing so many people around me, who constantly wanted to push their craft to the next level, was really inspiring. Whether that was painting, music, writing, ritual majick, scrimshaw, or flower arrangement. There was this atmosphere around that I really found a lot of joy in. Somewhere in that disparate cauldron, I found myself drawn to that same creative urge.
Tell me about your experience with tattoos. When did it all begin?
When I was 5, I went back to visit my grandparents in Colorado. My aunt who lived there at the time ended up watching me for several hours, during which she decided to go get a dragon tattoo from a guy in Loveland, Colorado, where I was born. While she was getting tattooed, she left me at a biker bar with some dude I’d never met. I stuck around there for an hour or so drinking milk with some biker who was selling speed, between feeling up the woman he was with. When he wasn’t looking I left in search of my aunt, who was at a shop in a basement a couple blocks away. I remember she was getting a dragon design off the flash that was on the wall. Super classic, bold, powerful… me thinking the whole setup looked filthy. This sweaty biker stinking like nicotine, and BO scratching some dirty water into her skin. Needless to say, I was completely smitten. The whole idea of it was like a sliver in my frontal lobe. My aunt swore me to secrecy, so I didn’t tell my family about it, but it churned around in my brain like a piece of laundry caught on spin.
It turned out that my mom also had this little hand poked piece on her ankle, that she had done with some friends back in the 70’s. For years, she would tell me that the series of blurry dots under her skin were to count the people she killed, always with a smile.
Maybe it was the mystery of tattooing, the narrative, the danger, the sense of rebellion and my own interior tendency towards feeling outside of the squares that I met every day. But whatever it was, tattooing felt like a talisman against the mediocrity of the world.
Who/what are your daily inspirations?
I could go into detail about a lot of different things, but to me, it’s finding my own meaning in everything. This self awareness, and introspection that occurs by bouncing my own thoughts off of the books I read, the people I meet, and the experiences I’m alive to enjoy. I’m trepidatious about a lot of this type of thing because I’m afraid that the thoughts I have within myself can also become a sort of echo chamber, where in, I only allow thoughts that re-enforce my beliefs to take place. I really try to be ever vigilant, and critical of my thoughts. Finding a balance between self-confidence, and humility. I think that my empathy allows me to find inspiration everywhere, but also allows me to maintain a state of perpetual growth. Not just intellectually but emotionally. But to me it’s more about ideas that light me up, and the aesthetic aspects have to serve that. It’s why I think it’s very dangerous to become too attached to any singular way of thinking. I tend to be at my healthiest, and happiest when I’m growing. Being around someone like Ed who is constantly innovating his aesthetic, and pushing the boundaries of what he expects from himself is of course an ever present reminder to destroy the boundaries within myself, and go forward.
Major inspirations right now for books include Umberto Eco’s “On Ugliness,” David Hickey’s “The Invisible Dragon.” Both are superbly articulate texts on aesthetics, and really explore that line between repulsion, and attraction within art. I think I’m pretty fascinated by that line, and watching it blur. Which might be part of the draw to tattooing. Even to create a gorgeous tattoo, it’s still this crude blood ritual. It’s primal and raw in a world full of sterility, and bleach. Samurai philosophy, Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, taoism, and confusionism. Ritualized majick, alchemy (as the idea of imbuing an object with spiritual gravity through willpower.) Folk tales, Faerie tales and narratives as a conveyance for truths, or lies that we tell ourselves, our children, our culture. Science, and history as a macrocosmic, and sometimes microcosmic view into both the physical world, and in some cases the spiritual world as well. Other artists of course, my co-workers and the tattoo community not being the least of them. But I definitely have a nostalgic love for antiquity, and the idea of some lost golden age, even if it’s self-deluded to believe in it. Even if I defile it in my own work by referencing the same themes the Master’s honored, and focusing on tearing it down… As my mother once told me “The greatest way to honor someone, is to find them worthy of ruination.”
How did you become Ed Hardy’s personal assistant?
I was studying Japanese as a language in the early 2000’s before I moved to San Francisco, and was talking to Horiyoshi III in Japan. My understanding prior being that Ed wasn’t doing body suit work anymore. Several months later I had moved to San Francisco to Study Japanese, and Sculpture. I didn’t know anyone here, and was really busy with classes. One day while I was in my Kanji class, I received a call from a bay area number. I didn’t know anyone here, so I stepped out and answered. A short synopsis was me stuttering into the phone, while Ed invited me out lunch, and to look at an exhibition of Yoshitoshi’s Ukiyo-e woodblocks at the Asian art museum. After an afternoon of geeking out about Japanese culture, aesthetics, tattooing, and the history of the Meiji restoration, he asked me to come by the shop, to chat with him about getting my suit started with Kahlil Rintye. I’d like to take a moment here to say that Kahlil has since become one of my greatest friends, and inspirations. His humility, talent, and mindful decency still floor me every day. He has an ability to see through to the heart of things, and understand their spirit. His incisive ability to cut through the dogma, and red tape of concepts, interactions, and narratives to reach the core things that are essential to something’s nature. I can’t say how many times his perspective helped me to overcome obstacles both as an artist, and in my personal life. If you’re not familiar with his work, I recommend that you take a gander. I hope he’ll pardon me for plugging him, but he’s not the self promoting type, despite my many attempts to bring him to the dark side.
I met with Ed and Kahlil at the shop about a week later, completely nervous. The thing I remember most was Ed giving me a signed copy of the Sailor Jerry letters book before I left, and I accidentally called Ed “Jerry.” I don’t know if he noticed the slip, but he had the compassion not to make me feel like the fool I felt myself to be.
Began my body suit, and became friends with Ed, Kahlil, and the crew. Including Mary Joy Scott, who was at that time the shop manager alongside Aleph Kali. Aleph is still here, and has been with Ed for nearly 20 years now, if not longer.
What’s it like to work with such a talented (and renowned) person?
It’s been really great. There are trials like with any relationship, but I wouldn’t have stayed here so long if it hadn’t been an amazing ride. Ed really has an incredible ability to find the things that are best in people, and encourage them to develop those strengths. While he simultaneously critiques you in a way that allows you to grow. I think that when I initially came to the shop, I wanted to tattoo, and had all these absurd ideas of becoming one of Ed’s last apprentices, or something infantile like that. I of course buried them, as I was told that if I came to work at the shop, that it was strictly to be the shop manager. The funny thing is that with time, I became less interested in being a tattooer, because I really connected with Ed over his painting. Especially later when we began to collaborate, my sculpted ceramic forms, with his glazed images on them. I think it became more important to me to pursue my own goals outside of tattooing, and I think that because of that I was able to have a better friendship with him.
As a side, I should say that I think that what tattooers do every day is really incredible. People come to them, wanting to transform their bodies, wanting to become something new, something different.
To know how I felt when I began my body suit. All of it. I can’t say it enough, I think that being a responsible tattooer who cares about what they do, and their clientele, is one of the coolest things anyone can commit their life to. I mean, tattooers transform people’s bodies every day, to make them feel better about themselves. To hell with turning lead to gold, let’s talk about helping people finding some joy in this short life. That is the coolest fucking thing I can think of. Especially with custom tattooing, where the client and the artist collaborate to create a design that helps to illuminate someone’s interior life. And to know that I get to work with the person who created the idea of custom tattooing, and elevated this medium, that few believed in… I feel so fortunate. Not just because I work with Ed, but knowing all the amazing people at my shop, and the great people who are carrying the torch that Ed lit.
Tell me about your work on Ed Hardy archives and all the restoration you made through the years.
Shortly after I began working at the shop, Ed acquired a large collection from a private collection. He already had years of his drawings, and artwork piled up as well. When he purchased this collection, there were a large number of damaged pieces in it. About 3500 sheets of flash that had smoke, acid (the kind you find in non-archival materials like scotch tape, etc.). Basically Ed was looking into sending them to a restorationist, but the cost was astronomical… much more than the collection is currently worth. I loved all this stuff, and mentioned that I was interested in handling the project. That I was going to teach myself on a practice set of flash that I made. The majority of the work involved taking an x-acto knife to the pieces, and removing adhesive, and then using a chemical process to pull out the acid/nicotine/smoke/whatever else was in the paper to help preserve them. Doing this alone took me two 9 month periods where I worked 14-16 hours a day, everyday. During which I got to handle one of the largest collections of Brooklyn Joe Lieber, Rosie Camanga, and Sailor Jerry Collins flash in the world. Many more as well, but it was a pretty nerve wracking job, considering I needed to do it all without re-activating the watercolor pigments, while restoring them.
After this, I mentioned to Ed that there would be no record of any of the collection, if we didn’t archive the work digitally. So I got to doing that, and then later would move into assisting with the publishing of Hardy Marks projects. I worked on the Rosie Camanga book, Ben Corday, and the upcoming “Ed Hardy Tattoo Drawings” books.
I’m also Ed’s main curator, and gallerist. Using the Don Ed Hardy Archive to help promote all the projects that we’re up to.
Would love to know more about the museum you are working on together with Ed. What about the upcoming events and your goals?
Shortly after I started archiving the work, Ed and I spoke about creating a museum that would make the work available to future generations. The key goals right now are establishing enough funds, and a living trust to perpetually pay property taxes, etc. for the space he owns, and intends to use as the museum. We use a portion of the money from art sales to help facilitate that, and we have some great art shows coming up this year, and next.
What do you think about nowadays tattoo society?
I think there are a lot of sub-groups within it, which is really funny to me. I come from an era and am still enamored with the gritty image of tattooed degenerates and the fierce individualism even within their own communities. In the same breath, I really love that I can go get an incredible piece from an artist I respect. I think that there is a lot of tattooing out there, that holds little interest for me. I find that social media is a really excellent tool for independent artists to promote their work, and elevate the medium by demanding that other artists step up their game to compete. That being said, I also think that it becomes a way for mediocre talents to imitate originators, and disseminate misinformation. Looking at all the work I do in the archive every day, and seeing contemporary artists who utilize the designs of their predecessors without credit, or knowledge of their heritage is really disheartening. I remember a few years ago I was at the San Francisco Convention, and there was a book called “Revisited- A tribute to Flash from the Past” that had been released by the guys at Smith Street. The idea of the book being that contemporary tattooers repainted sheets of antique flash. The original paintings from the book were on display, and “Goodtime” Charlie Cartwright walked up, and saw that one of the artists had included credit to the originator of the sheet. To which he nodded, and said “That, is a classy move.” I couldn’t say it any better. Many of the tattooists of the early 20th century died without receiving much credit for their work, some of them, like Al Kurtzman (AKA Lew the Jew) who died in abject poverty, and influenced many of the major trends within tattooing, and pop culture. I think that when someone gives credit to a design’s originator, they display a magnanimity of spirit, and respect for the history of their craft, which only shines on them.
Who did you get tattooed by?
I have a bodysuit by Kahlil Rintye, who works at Tattoo City. I don’t want to be redundant to things that I said earlier in the interview about his character but, as you can see from these photos, the work he’s done for me is phenomenal, and in the ten years I’ve known him, he just keeps getting better.
I think that he’s really developed an aesthetic that honors two of the greatest tattooers of our last century: Horiyoshi II (Kuronuma), and Hardy. Yet, he simultaneously has allowed his own style to emerge from the practice of tattooing, and artistry that he maintains.
I recommend perusing his work on Tattoocitysf.com website. There’s much more of it there than you’ll find via social media. He tends to eschew the internet to a certain degree. Much to my chagrin as the Tattoo City shop manager, and wanting to promote his work.
How much does tattoo history culture matter for you?
I think that the very idea of Tattoo Culture is a fairly new advent, and that there is this a group of people who parasitically market the idea of it, using a platform of nostalgia to monetize a sub-culture that they wouldn’t have been interested in 15-20 years ago. I don’t have an issue with people making money off of tattooing, it is inherently a commission based art form. Tattooists work their bodies into the ground, and they should be compensated for it. Tattooing is one of the last bastions for artists to go, if they don’t want to be sucked dry in the corporate wringer, or a corrupt gallery system. So seeing all of these magazines and television shows who have fabricated the idea of “Tattoo Culture” has been great in that there is a higher demand for tattoos than ever before in history, it is inherently a duplicitous relationship by private groups who are often not interested in honoring, or giving back to tattooing. The irony of this being that they often try to market their place within that as being timeless, when in fact they’re the epitome of bad fashion kitsch. Even worse is when they attempt to market ideas that are hundreds of years old, and try to brand it as a new idea. Look at the rise of the idea of “black work,” it’s a brilliant re-branding of “neo-tribalism” which Ed coined with the first “TattooTime” in the early 80’s. At a time when he and Leo Zulueta blasted the doors off that movement, while trying to honor and educate about the punk movement, and its tribal parallels. The popularity of it became such a household term, that for the better part of a decade a whole generation of tattooers would roll their eyes at the idea of doing another “tribal” piece. On one level it’s great to see the exuberance of youth, and the younger generations of tattooers who are trying to deny their predecessors, because that’s sort of punk rock in a way, but it’s also a shame, because it undermines their ability to see the depth, and richness of their own culture. Instead of the product of “cool” they’re being sold, they could tap into a community that developed and fostered the growth of this medium, and sought out the roots of it to create new fruit. I can’t go so far as to say there is some sort of black and white moral issue with young people wanting to believe that they’re breaking new ground, but they’re cheating themselves in a delusion of grandeur that alienates them from the real richness of the living history they’re obviously eager to be a part of. In their ignorance, they deny something that exists whether they care to believe in it or not.
I feel obligated to backtrack to clarify something in the last paragraph. I’m not implying that all galleries are inherently disingenuous, as I know how much work goes into producing a high quality art show. It’s grueling, and it’s a complete procession on faith, both on the artist, and gallery/curator’s behalves. That being said, the gallery system can either be symbiotic, or a complete leech on the artist community. I think it’s very important for young artists to understand that. Especially with tattooing becoming more and more recognized as a Fine Art, the rights of the tattooer/artist are becoming more important to establish. It’s amazing to see Ed’s vision for tattooing being realized, but the inevitable afterbirth of that actualization is that people who have no genuine love for the industry, or medium are trying to make a quick buck off of hard labor, and the creativity of the artists within it. It will be difficult for the Art world to ever completely monetize tattoos as objects, due to the ephemeral quality of them dying with the wearer. The exclusion of course being the grisly trend of preserving skins after the body has died. I think that this is exactly why the fashion, and lifestyle manufacturers have tapped into tattooing, prior to the fine art world. It’s far easier to make money from the commodification of trend, and to generate a youth culture, than it will be to convince people that it’s cool to hang the skins of the deceased on their walls.
As a small side note, I think that it’s really amazing how strong this community is in supporting companies formed by its own artists. Seeing the way companies like Black Claw, Waverly, and all the independent machine builders who also tattoo, care about tattooing, and are involved in this community in a way that is sincere is incredible.
I love to hear about the people who support their own, and at least in my experience, there’s a lot of that within this community. It’s like hearing two of my favorite slogans in one place, in tandem: “Think globally, act locally,” and “Community is everything.” It may seem silly on one level, but if you think about the people who really make money off of movements, and collect capital in one place, just remember the allusion to the gold rush of 1849 “you can mine for gold, but the real money is in selling pickaxes”. The person selling the equipment makes the real money most of the time. Maybe it’s just the DIY, punk rock sensibility creeping in, but I find it romantic.
Who are your favourite historical figures?
I love history, and the reason why I love different people varies right next to their strengths and weaknesses. I love H.P. Lovecraft for his ability create atmosphere, and mood. Teddy Roosevelt for using the money of big business on his campaign trail, and then sticking it to them with it during his presidency. Taira no Tomomori for being a tenacious prick. Even in death, his ghost supposedly finished the goal he couldn’t meet in life. Herod, Lincoln, St. Francis of Assissi, Teresa of Avila, the list could go on.
I don’t think that a great historical figure is defined by our ability to judge what they accomplished, but to learn from what they accomplished in a way that allows us to grow ourselves.
To know when to embody, and amplify their best qualities, see their faults, and to grow beyond them. We have both the privilege, and the burden of standing on the shoulders of giants. Hardy is one of those giants within this industry. Dan Higgs, Chris Conn, all of these people. We have the honor to live during their time, to learn from them, and to push the boundaries of what they’ve done, but also to bear witness to their genius.
I stand tall at 6’10”, but in this industry I walk with men, and women who possess an artistic prowess that dwarfs me. I’m proud to be amongst their ranks. Thank you for having me.