Before Ami James, Kat Von D, and reality TV, there was tattoo superstar Lyle Tuttle. Tattooing since 1949, Lyle rose to fame in the late ’60s tattooing a predominantly female clientele and celebrities like Janis Joplin, Peter Fonda, and Cher at his San Francisco studio. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the inside cover of Rolling Stone in the 1970s, an iconic image of modern tattooing. Despite criticism for being the tattoo media darling of his time, he is credited with presenting tattooing as an art form to the mainstream and promoting safe and hygienic industry practices. Tuttle officially retired around 1990 but continues to travel the tattoo convention circuit, often teaching seminars on machine building and lecturing on tattoo history. In this interview, he offers some history lessons, discusses fame, and muses on tattoo artists as contemporary witch doctors.
INKED: With your long and exciting history in tattooing, what do you consider one of the most significant landmarks in the art during your long career?
LYLE TUTTLE: Women’s liberation. With more freedom, more women got tattooed. Back in the day, I was in more panties than a gynecologist—because women were getting their tattoos inside the bikini line, little rosebuds and butterflies.
What about female tattooists?
In the documentary Covered, you said that when women would come into your studio wanting to be tattooers, you’d say: “Look, honey, you got the world’s oldest profession tied up, now you want the second? Do me a favor and buzz off.” How have your thoughts on women in tattooing changed since then? Tattoo shops today are a lot kinder and gentler places than they used to be. In the past, tattoo artists worked in arcades, and it wasn’t a good environment. Sometimes it was hard enough to protect yourself, let alone be the frontman for some woman. Women who were involved in tattooing at that time were generally married to a tattoo artist, so they worked together—there were a few man-and-wife teams. There was a woman who tattooed before WWII in the 1930s. Her name was Mildred Hull. She was on the Bowery in NYC and had a sign displaying that she was the only woman tattooist on the Bowery. She was very proud.
So you’re saying that you were talking more about the environment of tattooing at the time?
Yes, the environment has changed. It’s eco-friendly to women now! It’s a pink world! And I think women in tattooing have been good for the industry.
Do you think that celebrities have also played a big role in the popularity of tattooing?
Oh yes, sure. I remember there was this one guy who was getting an armband—his arm was the size of an oak tree—and tattoos always hurt more on the inside of the arm than the outside. And when the tattoo got into the inside of the arm, the guy said, “When I get a hold of that Dennis Rodman, I’m going to kill him…” I thought that was pretty funny.
You’ve tattooed so many celebrities yourself. Cher, Peter Fonda, Janis Joplin…
The first day I went into work after Janis died, there was a girl waiting by the front door, and she wanted Janis’s heart on her chest. A lot of people wanted the tattoos she had. I still get inquiries about her wristband, which I just freehanded from a piece of jewelry she had.
Tattooing celebrities also brought you notice, like being on the inside cover of Rolling Stone and even on their Christmas card. What was one of the best things that came of that?
Well, I’ll tell you what wasn’t: Fame and fortune don’t necessarily walk hand in hand. You have to be smart enough to make the fortune from the fame. But I never was a money-grubber. The buck was never first and foremost to me. All my publicity, which was mostly from women I tattooed, started in the late ’60s. 1970 was a bumper year for me, ’71 even more so, and ’72 was my heyday. I don’t even know why you’re talking to me now. I’m a has-been. But I guess that’s better than being a never-was.
Has there ever been a backlash to your popularity?
Not really. There were some people I alienated because of my popularity. Today, I have guys coming up to me and saying, “I want to be as famous as you someday.” And I say, “You ain’t fucking good-looking enough!” [Laughs.] But tattooing has really been kind to me.
What do you think about today’s popularity of tattooing?
It’s too easy. Too accessible. Today, you see supplier catalogs in the tattoo shop waiting room. And the shops have become pussycats and hangouts for yuppies and other degenerates. These silly bastards are getting tattooed on the sides of their necks and getting their hands all marked up. When people start screwing around with their bodies, they keep looking for new avenues and then it gets into one-upmanship. How do you take a day off? These people can’t take a day off unless they go to some blind farm. I’m not ashamed of my tattoos, but they are nobody’s goddamn business.
Tell me about your first tattoo.
When I was growing up during WWII, many servicemen coming back from the war or on leave would have a tattoo dribbled on them, and boy, those were hot stuff to me, something everything teenage boy would admire—travel, adventure, romance. Tattoos to me were like stickers on my luggage. I just had to have one.
When did you get it?
In 1946. I went to San Francisco when I was 14 one day—I lived 120 miles north of San Francisco—but not to get a tattoo, just to see the big city. I passed by a shop and peeked in the door and the guy says to me, “What the hell do you want?” I said, “Umm,” and pointed to a heart with “mother” because I could afford that one. I remember when I stepped over the threshold of that shop I had no idea where it was leading me. It was stepping into a time machine. It consumed my whole life.
What was it that was so attractive to you?
I don’t know. It was an atavistic tug. Atavism is a reversion to primitive nature. I believe in genetic remembrance. How many thousands of generations of cultures have had tattoos as an important part of their culture? Tattooing is the mother art. It’s been around as long as anything else. Neanderthals could have tattooed; there’s evidence of that in cave paintings. But the damn church got involved and destroyed everything they didn’t agree with, so there’s a gap in the record, but it dates back long before written history. Being a tattoo artist is the closest goddamn thing the general public has to a witch doctor they are ever going to get. We all suffer from the lost tribe syndrome.
When did you start tattooing?
Three years later I was tattooing professionally, in 1949. The designs we’d do in those days are what they now call “old school.” At least they spell school correctly. Now there’s “new skool” with a K. I’m coming out with a school, a style of my own called “old stool.” We’ll only use brown outlines.
You can come out of retirement for that!
Yeah. [Laughs.] It’s funny because I come out of retirement a lot. Anywhere I’m at, I’m asked to do a free autograph tattoo. I’ve been doing it for 15 years or something. One guy came up to me and said, “I get so goddamn tired to roll over in the morning and see your name on my old lady.” There are also people with my portrait tattooed on them that I’ve signed. What I got a bang out of is, one time, a woman got so mad at me, she went out and had my name laser removed. That’s a real peacock feather in my hat!
Why was she mad?
She erroneously thought that I had said something about her at a convention. Someone must have told her a lie, which started off as me being drunk in a bar. I drink. I usually start around 12 noon, but I don’t get drunk.
You mentioned conventions. I see that you’re still going around the convention circuit a lot and teaching seminars.
I’ve been doing seminars on machine building for 10 years. I’m an amateur machine builder. I don’t have a factory or anything. I build them for my entertainment. But I’d never thought that I’d be teaching anybody sitting in a classroom and divulging secrets. In the past, it would be unheard of.
But you have done a lot to preserve tattooing’s past. Tell me about your museum collection. What are some of the highlights?
Well, for one, there’s my Edison autographic printer. It was made for cutting perf [perforated] patterns. They punch all these holes in a piece of paper following a design to transfer the artwork, so it was used as a stencil to make copies. It wasn’t invented as a tattoo machine, but it was the first electric handheld device with a reciprocating motion. You don’t need much penetration to go through paper, but to tattoo a person, you have to have a much longer stroke. So in 1891, Samuel O’Reilly, an Irish tattoo artist who became well-known in New York, came up with the idea to increase the stroke to make it more powerful and penetrate the skin. He’s credited as the inventor of the electric tattoo machine, but Edison really was. O’Reilly only made a modification of the autographic printer. That’s the granddaddy of all tattoo machines even though it was not designed for it. Edison in all his stuffiness would probably have frowned upon tattoos.
Have you ever thought of writing a book?
A literary agent asked me once, “Why don’t you write a book?” But something stuck in my head that I heard someone say: “To write is not to live because you’re reliving.” Why rekindle an old relationship when you [can] go out and make a half a dozen new ones? On Benjamin Franklin’s [mock] epitaph—I don’t remember the exact words—was something like, “Here lies Ben Franklin, like the cover of an old book with its pages torn out…the story will be written again in a greater and grander edition.”
In your 80 years on this earth, what personal doctrine or ideology have you developed?
“No sweat.” Don’t ever sweat over anything and don’t let anyone make you sweat. I have it tattooed on the back of my leg in kanji, but they couldn’t translate “No Sweat” exactly so it reads “Perspiration No.” I’ve been at Chinese places and pulled my pant leg up and they stare at it, beyond their comprehension. I’m actually just seeking to find one truth. If I find one, then maybe I will find the second one. Man is always looking for the secret. I’d like to know one goddamned truth before I die.