Marisa Kakoulas (writer),
Dustin Cohen (photographer)
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.