Known as the “father of modern tattooing,” Lyle Tuttle is one of the most revolutionary figures of the tattoo world, with stories of his life and work covering the globe in many mediums. He was the first tattoo artist of the 20th century to go “mainstream” with his practice and processes by appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in October of 1970 for tattooing famous musicians and actors of the likes of Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, the Allman Brothers, Cher, and Henry Fonda.
Looking for Excitement…and Tattoos
Lyle was born in 1930 in a small Iowa town, but later moved with his family to Ukiah, California where he grew up bored and itchy for excitement. At the age of 14, he ran away from home to visit a circus that was performing in San Francisco. It was then that Lyle got his first tattoo. He paid $3.50 to get the image of a heart with a banner pronouncing “mom” across it, and he was hooked from there on out on the art of tattooing and the thrill of rebellion.
Intrigued by the art and practice of tattooing, not only from what he saw at the circus when he was young, but also by the tattoos of the returning service men that he encountered, Lyle began his career as a tattoo apprentice in 1949 under Bert Grimm, watching and learning as Bert worked in his shop on the Nu-Pike amusement park in Long Beach. He has said that the tattoos of the sailors and soldiers that he saw when working with Bert had a deep impact upon not only his life, but also his tattoo designs. He called the tattoos of the service men “adventurous and romantic,” and saw them as luggage tags or passport stamps for the skin — they showed everyone where you had been in the world, and where your true interests and feelings laid.
Setting Up in San Francisco
Tattoos held a special kind of magic for Lyle, and he knew that he was hooked. He wanted to be a tattoo artist and share his version of that magic with as many people as he could.
Lyle opened his own shop in San Francisco five years later. The “shop next to the Greyhound station,” as he put it on his business cards, helped to draw in all types of customers and characters, so even though it wasn’t in the best part of town, he stayed there and worked for more than 30 years. That shop was where he tattooed many legendary people, as well as hordes of every day folks that were clamouring to get a Tuttle tattoo.
Female Appeal and Janis Joplin
Lyle has quoted the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s as the start of his popularity. “With more freedom, more women got tattooed. Back in the day, I was in more panties than a gynaecologist, because women were getting their tattoos inside the bikini line, little rosebuds and butterflies,” he once told a reporter. The increase of tattoos spurred on by women’s lib was part of what drew celebrities to Lyle’s shop, and vice versa. When Janis Joplin came to him to be tattooed, she was photographed with her new tattoo showing, and Lyle and other tattoo artists were flooded by demand from women for “the Janis tattoo.”
But Lyle isn’t just a prolific and famous tattoo artist that’s given tattoos on all seven continents, he’s a voracious ink collector that has also received tattoos on six of them. He’s covered in tattoos from neck to ankles, back to front, and everywhere in between. Lyle is the first artist to be able to claim the distinction of having practised his art on every continent in the world.
Clash with Sailor Jerry
Lyle made a mark on the tattoo world by sharing his opinions on the art of tattooing with anyone that would listen, and appearing in magazine and newspaper articles around the world. He was even a guest house on the Tonight Show. Not everyone was appreciative of his outspoken practice of talking with the media, especially fellow artist, Sailor Jerry Collins. Sailor Jerry would tell artists and customers that came to his shop in Honolulu, Hawaii that Lyle was a “sellout,” and that his talking to the media was just “shameless self-promotion.” Sailor Jerry felt so strongly about the topic that he cut out Lyle’s photo from his Rolling Stone article and pasted in onto his toilet, and told his friends and colleagues that he was going to use it as target practice.
Tattoo Memorabilia Collector
During his world travels, Lyle had the opportunity to take part in the very first tattoo convention, as well as becoming an avid collector of tattoo memorabilia. He housed his carefully curated items on the top floor of his shop in San Francisco. He now owns the largest collection in the world, and has helped to preserve the rich and colourful history of tattooing for future generations. His collection includes tattoo machines, flash art, and every other icon of the tattoo world that you can think of, and it helps to show the progression of the art of tattooing from a practice hidden in the back-streets of major cities, reserved mostly for sailors and criminals, to the respectful art form enjoyed by people of all walks of life as it is today.
Tuttle’s Lasting Appeal
Love him or hate him, the “father of modern tattooing,” has left an indelible mark on the tattoo world. His colourful and outspoken character and embracing of the times sky-rocketed him to fame, and left us with an entirely different outlook on tattoos as a whole.
Even though he officially retired in 1990 after sixty years of tattooing and moved back to his home town of Ukiah, California, Lyle still actively participates in the tattoo world as a speaker and teacher, and says that he’s actually busier now than he was as a full-time artist. Even though he is now in his 80s, he continues to travel the world to talk about his great love of the art, as well as appear in many documentary movies about tattooing, and take part in various trade shows, conventions, and art gallery showings.
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