Lyle Tuttle is one of the most influential figures in the American tattoo landscape, having started tattooing in 1947, and opening his own store in the 1950s in California.
Whilst having retired over 15 years ago, he is considered an important historian and is still active in the tattooing industry as an educator and often talks at conventions. A true character, we visit his house in Ukiah, California, where he shows us his formidable tattoo machine collection, and treats us to many of his fabulous anecdotes.
How many people went to the first tattoo convention?
I seriously don’t know how many people was there, maybe only a few hundred. But then there was one in Reno, he actually organized it to sell his tattoo shop down there. He was from Texas, and he was in Minneapolis and he wanted to get home, so he thought, 'I'll have a tattoo get together, and I can probably sell the tattoo shop'. So he sold his tattoo shop that weekend, and I sold a tattoo shop that I had in Hollywood that I wanted to get rid of.... I hadn't thought of selling it, but when they started selling, I thought, 'Boy, that's a golden opportunity!'. Now sometimes there are 7 in a weekend. I heard there was one guy who would put one on every weekend, the whole damn year!
When did you start to see tattoo shops popping up all over the place?
It was after that '76 convention, that was one of the things that really started the ball rolling. I think the first big thing that started the ball rolling was when New York City outlawed tattooing, and that hit all the press…I mean high press. Anything that mentioned tattooing before that was always on a sort of low, degrading level; drunken sailors, fallen women type of stuff, and then all of sudden tattooing is in the AP, and all the services, and every goddamn paper in the world wrote something on it. The news editors, or something, sent out people to dig up more dirt on the tattoo artists, or tattooing. Then they would come across some press friendly tattoo artists, and I was one. I was sitting in San Francisco, everyone's favourite city.
When you read a lot of press, and it says you are responsible for making tattooing mainstream, were you actually trying to do that?
I love tattooing, I went and got my first tattoo at 14, and I still have an angelic look on tattooing. And when I say angelic…not angelic. I see tattooing as travel, romance, and adventure, because I was ten years and two months old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, so I remember the Second World War, and guys that would be returning to this town that used to be in the service. I was like, 12, 13, 14, with my testosterone development, and they were hot stuff to me!
With the WW2 servicemen, what kind of tattoos did they get?
I don't remember…a heart with their girlfriend's name on it...it was nothing big. And you know running around now; there are more tattooed people today than the history of the world? Because there is more population, and I think per capita more, it's trendy now.
How do you feel about it being so popular?
Y’know, I love tattooing, and I love being connected with it, it was 1946 when I got my first design.
Who did it?
A fellow called Ralph Hoffman. I couldn't figure out when I got home, some people were horrified with the tattoo. I had a couple of mothers of girlfriends, female chums, and their parents would keep saying things - I couldn’t understand it. Hell, it's just a picture on the skin! But I didn’t know all the history, and all the stigmata. I wasn’t consciously trying to erase it, but I didn’t defend it, I was just trying to put it into a good light; defending something, automatically means that something is wrong.
Then how did you actually learn how to tattoo?
It was a long drawn out process, because then it was a craft. In England, they say it was a cottage art, and then tattoo artists were about the closest thing to a witch doctor that the people will ever get. I'm sure if you went to Merlin, Arthur's wizard, and if you asked him how his magic wand worked, he would probably tell you to buzz off! But...by hook and crook, there is no better way to put it. Was there a system of apprenticeship, or was that unheard of back then?I've never heard a word of it. When tattoo artists get turned out, no, erase that; when tattoo artists get broke in, you are "broke into" the trade, hookers...get turned out...ha ha! But seriously, there was nothing like an apprenticeship, to start off with, nobody can teach you how to draw, so how would you be an apprentice? But it is a modern word, like people with those big arms all covered in tattoos are "sleeves". Never heard of it. There was a different vocabulary.
When did you see the first huge wave of change in tattoo culture?
It started changing in the 1960s, it has been like a domino effect, the whole country could have been wiped out. It wasn't but Oklahoma, South Carolina and Florida was sort of getting into a nervous state. Some people ask, “Why do you bring this up?” but it still was hard, the media blitz that tattooing got, from 1960 on. In 1966 this guy raped and killed 6 or 8 nurses in Chicago, and his name was Richard Speck. Unfortunately Richard Speck had a devil on his arm with "Born To Raise Hell" written around it, and it was in every newspaper in the world. You'd be surprised at how many idiots walked into a tattoo shop, and wanted that same tattoo. I couldn’t believe it! I had a little devil, and it was a little sitting devil, it was nothing like the one he had on his arm, but I mean you see worse nowadays. I put on some devils with born to raise hell, ‘cause that's what I do, I'm a commercial artist, that's what a tattoo artist is, I sell pictures to people, ‘cept they put them in the skin. Some people put them on paper and put them on the wall. So that was 1960s and bad publicity with NY city, and then 1966 not good publicity again, but it still conjured up some interest in media, and then women's liberation came a long, and all of a sudden women was getting their rights, and women wanted them right now. And they had always been repressed to getting a tattoo, and all secretly wanted one, ‘cause they curl their hair, and paint their toenails, and mess with everything in between, so why wouldn’t a tattoo be ideal for a woman? So women's liberation came by. And I love them small designs, and I love women, and boy we just gelled! And, I was in everyone's favourite city! I was the most fortunate man in the world. How did you feel when you first saw tattooing on reality TV, and the shows?I've never been on one; I've never seen one. I guess they are all right, getting to the chronological line of tattooing…women's liberation went by, and the press got enamoured with it.
So it was positive press?
Yeah, you are a reporter so I can't tell you my reporter saying!
No you can, I won’t be offended!
Anyhow…with women's liberation, things kept building up, and then the next big shot in the arm of tattooing was the hippies in San Francisco, the Summer of Love. Before that we had the Beatniks in San Francisco...they didn’t get tattooed very much, the hippies did, yes. Johnson had been up in front of congress making the Bay of Tonkin resolution, when it got to the United States end of the war in Vietnam, and if he had his sleeves rolled up and tattoos on his arm, the hippies wouldn’t have touched tattooing with a ten foot pole. So tattooing has always been a counter culture thing in a way, which is good, that is a lot of its charm. It's losing it now, ‘cause tattooing is a trend.
Does that bother you?
I just don’t know! You can’t worry about anything you can’t do anything about. I've got a ball rolling that has grown into the proportion of an avalanche, and so why would I be critical? I think that there might be a bunch of sick puppies out there one of these days, people that are overdoing it. Women fired my rocket, that was what got me all my notoriety. I was on the all the big TV shows, the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, it was something new and unexplored, and I guess maybe that people were getting tattooed but more on a quiet level, but now they are not quiet.(Says to the photographer's GF) Do you have a tattoo?Just a big tramp stamp...Ha ha, I’ve never put a tramp stamp on, but when they first came out, I thought, 'What an ideal spot for a woman to get tattooed!’, with the nice sexy little flare, and essentials of exuding sexuality for a woman is the two dimples on the small of her back - I've always been attracted to that.
If you didn't do tramp stamps, where did you tattoo on a woman?
I don’t tattoo anymore, I haven't tattooed since 1990, you have to pack up and get the hell out of here!
ha...ok where was your favourite part of a woman to tattoo?
Hmm…probably the easiest place (you have to have a mind that is absolutely void of anything ‘cept that you have a customer), a shoulder is a nice, easy place to tattoo.
Have you ever done tattooed make up?
I put on like thirty years or so, half a dozen really pathetic sets of eyebrows. And they were on little old ladies that bugged me; when I did it, they would bring me jam. The craft that is going on now with cosmetic tattooing and tattooing would burn my era to the ground. I mean it's phenomenal; they put single hairs in! How about motifs and designs, what do you like to tattoo?Being a commercial artist, y'know, it's what the customer wants.
What if the customer says 'do whatever', what kind of things did you do?
Stars, and the smallest amount covering the largest amount of space for the most money!
I was a commercial tattoo artist! Some writer early on asked me if there was some sexual gratification for me, and I said “Yes”, and boy, his ears perked up, ‘cause he thought the could get something to sell to the National Enquirer, and I said, “After I work a long day, I go over to the cash register and I lift it up and I look at all the figures in there…and I have an orgasm.” So, that was my aspect of it, y’know?
When you worked with the SF department of health, how did that relationship come about and develop?
I was in communication with them, ‘cause they would come down and inspect the tattoo shop, and I was the only tattoo shop in the city at the time, which I was for years. But there are 50 tattoo shops now.
Were there actual cases of people getting sick from tattooing that you know of?
When I first started tattooing, you have to realise that this is back in Jurassic Park, because I had my first tattoo in 1946 I started tattooing professionally in 1949, and accepted practice with doctors was to boil their instruments. I mean, there was autoclaves and everything else, but that was on a higher echelon. Dentists would have tiny little boilers, and we weren't to that standard. A bucket, a sponge and community inkpots, and they had been doing this for thousands and thousands of years. And then it got into the age of electricity, a little bit before the turn of the century. So for all those years that tattooing had been electrified, there was never any great epidemics, of anything. The human animal is pretty sturdy. So when NY City was outlawed and a couple of other states, they had just identified type B hepatitis, and I went, *boing* “We gotta do something!” ‘cause we didn’t have any communication in those days, there were no magazines. If you had a tattoo friend, he was a hundred miles away, or a thousand miles away. Anyone who wanted to tattoo was potential competition. Tattooing is alive and well, so um, I'd rather see it that way then it being outlawed altogether. Y'know, tattooing is such an enchanted profession and such a great lifestyle and everything else, that I just sort of think that there are too many people that have been enchanted in this world that don’t deserve it. Right ok, that's a great quote.You gotta give them something to hang their hat on. Y’know, we are the closest thing to a witch doctor that the general public will ever have.
So, you stopped tattooing when?
I don’t know...I only know because of the Internet, ‘cause they know a lot more about me than I do. Somebody asked me when I last tattooed, and I think it was 1990, I mean, that is almost twenty years ago.
Did you go from tattooing to doing educational seminars?
Tattooing is a lot like fishing, you can't have a cell phone in your hand, and you can't be dictating a letter and fishing. And tattooing is the same, you need to be able to relax, ‘causes it's a stressful enough a job as it is.
Do you think people realise the responsibility they take on when tattooing?
My criticism with tattoo artists today is…I wish to Christ they would all get a tailor! I think a tattoo artist is a profession; I always wanted to make a good presentation of tattooing. There are shops today, you can't believe! They are all full of neon that would just burn my old tattoo shops to the ground. One of my kids said my tattoo shops looks like a Laundromat without any machines in it. So then Amy Ho from Rolling Stone magazine who wrote the article about me, said, "You have to redecorate your shop!" She said I should make it look like a Victorian whorehouse! Tattoo shops, when I was exposed to them were in arcades and things, and as the sterilisation went up, you had to have a good public persona, I thought, a tattoo artist should at least look like a dentist - do you want your teeth drilled by some asshole, on a skateboard, filling your teeth? No! But you see, I'm a dinosaur, I'm 77!
How about machines?
I got the world's largest collection. This building over here is a steel vault; I got to call the burglar alarm people ‘cause there is millions of dollars' worth of stuff.
“When I was ten years and two months old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, and the closest tattoo shop was in San Francisco. Ukiah today has three. Today if I was that same kid, same age, I would probably walk up and say to you, “What are you doing with that shit on you?” Never a rebel, or into popular causes, and I'm tattooing both of those today, and I'm sure that I would looked past it - too bad, I would have missed
a great romance.”