He'll also visit Bohemia, an Ashland art gallery, for a new exhibit of his work running Friday through the end of the month.

Back in a day when soccer moms didn't have tattoos, back before soccer moms, in fact, Ed Hardy was fascinated with those inky icons dear to sailors, carnies and jailbirds. It was the 1950s, and as a boy Ed was tattooing the neighborhood kids of Corona del Mar, Calif., sketching in Maybelline eyeliner and filling in with colored pencils.

Flash forward half a century. French fashionista Christian Audigier (Von Dutch, Kookai, Naf Naf) is producing Ed Hardy clothing, there are Ed Hardy stores in New York, Los Angeles, Tucson and Dubai, and Hardy presides over a growing empire.

In the years between, Hardy tattooed drunken sailors in San Diego, graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute, turned down a graduate fellowship from Yale and became probably the first Westerner to study traditional Japanese tattooing with a master in Japan.

This weekend he's coming to town for the Ashland Independent Film Festival for "Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World," the new film from documentary filmmaker Emiko Omori, which documents his rise to cultural icon. He'll also visit Bohemia, an Ashland art gallery, for a new exhibit of his work running Friday through the end of the month.

"They're sort of layered things," he says of the artworks in a phone interview from San Francisco. "Hand work in different media. The gallery people made a trip down and picked out the stuff. I left it up to them."

Hardy is a poster boy for the wisdom of the advice to do what you love and the money will follow. He never wanted to do anything but art and tattooing, which didn't figure to make him rich and famous. He knew he'd arrived at a new level when he was chatting with a hotel maid about her tattoos and mentioned that he "used to tattoo."

She figured out whom she was talking to and went crazy.

"She said all her friends were wearing my stuff," Hardy says. "To see people connect with your art has been very cool."

Hardy says nobody but Emiko Omori could have made the film. It's not just that they've been friends for 35 years, it's her visual sense. Her camera lingers lovingly over Hardy's work, and her rhythms give him space to tell his story.

It's like he was alt before there was an alternative. He was obsessed with art beginning with the hot rod art of the 1950s. He hung out in the penny arcades of the Nu-Pike, the freewheeling old amusement park in Long Beach, with its faux Victorian bric-a-brac and its peep shows.

"Just wildcat," he says. "Crazy rides, bars, definitely not family rated. It was the Other with a capital O."

He got into surfing. Abstract waves and water themes still show up in his work, and he still surfs occasionally.

His father, who left the family but stayed in touch, sent him souvenir jackets from Japan with their fearsome dragons and tigers.

By the late '50s he was reading beat poetry and Buddhism, anything cool. He read "Naked Lunch" and discovered Goya and Picasso. He got a copy of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and hung out in the coffee shops of Laguna Beach.

"There was a particular convergence in California," he says. "Surf mysticism and that whole deal suddenly being available."

In 1963 he landed in San Francisco as a student at the Art Institute, and everything came together. He had talent. He found mentors. His work was shown in galleries. When he graduated he turned down a full ride to graduate school at Yale.

"The San Francisco scene made it easy to say no," he says. "Plus I was working at the Post Office. When you got out of school you could get a teaching job, which was easy then, or you could get something unrelated to feed yourself."

One night after a few drinks he and some buddies got tattooed, and he met tattoo artist Sam Stewart.

"Seeing Sam lit the fuse," he says. "It's this banditry thing. He showed me Japanese tattoos and said to check it out."

He honed his chops tattooing in Vancouver, British Columbia, and in San Diego for old tattoo hand sailor Jerry Collins, where he learned the trade working late at night. In 1973 he went to Japan for six months of study with a master.

"I'd worshipped the art and the philosophy," he says, "and then I realized they're just mortals."

He returned to the states and tried something unprecedented. He opened a private studio on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco in which every piece was a commission for people looking for something unique, all by appointment. It was American work with a strong Japanese influence. One day the writer Armistead Maupin ("Tales of the City") wandered in, hung out and wrote a piece about Hardy. The business flourished.

"I loved it," he says. "It would only have worked in SF or New York."

He did it for 20 years, then moved with his wife to Honolulu and started making art that wasn't on people's bodies. He'd immerse himself for a time, then fly to San Francisco and tattoo for a few weeks to make money.

A few years ago some fashion people approached him at an art show, and he licensed the rights to produce a line of clothing based on his imagery. The stuff started to sell, and bigger people got interested. In 2009 Iconix Brand Group acquired a 50 percent interest in Hardy Way LLC for $17 million, and suddenly there was an Ed Hardy store on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, and Bruce Springsteen and Madonna and Mick Jagger were wearing his stuff.

All this enabled Hardy, 64, to repair to Honolulu and focus on his fine art and his Hardy Apero Marks Publications, which publishes books. He's talking from Tattoo City, his shop in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, where he drops in from time to time and checks on the artists tattooing there.

Sticking to his guns in the end dropped him smack into a mainstream, commercial world he'd spent most of his life indifferent to or actively avoiding.

"It's been completely crazy," he says, "like 'The Twilight Zone.'"

He'll make three appearances in Ashland on Saturday and Sunday, then it's off to San Francisco and Hawaii.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment. Reach him at 541-776-4478 or varble.bill @gmail.com.