Late one evening, during the second day of the Atlanta Tattoo Arts Festival, and after a fair amount of $2 Bass beers, I had the privilege to sit down with a man who has seen the evolution of tattooing during the last half century - Lyle Tuttle. Although Tuttle no longer tattoos, he still attends the conventions, giving seminars on tattoo machines and maintenance and is considered a legend in the industry. While we sat down in the hotel restaurant, sipping coffee and smoking cigars, Tuttle gave us his views on the tattoo past and present. Among his many talents, he is a gifted story teller as you'll hear for yourselves ...
[LYLE] When the first convention happened in '76 ... let's see (counting back) ... I'd already been tattooing for over 25 years. I've been tattooing since 1949.
How many tattooers were around back then?
There was probably about one tattooer in every major city across the United States. There was about a half a dozen or so in New York City. Philadelphia had two or three. Anywhere there was a military base, there was a tattoo shop somewhere around it.
You were on that first wave of modern tattooers weren't you?
No, not really, because I came in after World War II. During the war, with millions of servicemen and everything else, tattooing was booming. Then afterwards, there was a big lull. That's when I started.
Tattoos have always been sort of connected with the warrior class. Tattooing is a way for people to bond and in the war, there was a lot of bonding going on ... brothers in arms sort of stuff. Being connected to that warrior class goes back even before recorded history, The ancients discovered that tattooed warriors had better survival rates in battle than the ones without. Because a tattoo is a wound with some type of charcoal or color in it, it developed their antibodies and built up their immunities as far as flesh wounds went. This old tattoo artist named Curly Allan from Vancouver, Canada had a theory that tattoos could have started in battle. In the days when wood spears were sharpened by burning and friction, the sanding action made the tips charred with carbon residue. If a warrior was injured or poked with one of those weapons and survived, there would have been a permanent scar with black coloring. It would almost be like magic ... getting stabbed and recovering with this black dot left marking your wound forever. Having such marks would symbolize a warrior's bravery and survival skills and make them more intimidating.
You are covered with tattoos. When did it all begin?
I got my first tattoo when I was 14 years old in 1946. I was raised about a 120 miles north of San Francisco, in Ukiah. I still live in the house I was raised in as a matter of fact. I have been enthralled with San Francisco since I was eight, when the Golden Gate International Exposition happened on Treasure Island. I knew that with all the bright lights and tall buildings, something had to be brewing. In 1946, being 14 and all, I was able to take a Greyhound bus down to the big city. On that trip, I ran across an old tattoo shop. Duke was the tattoer that ran it. I found out that the only things a 14-year-old kid can do in the big city is get a shoe shine and drink Coca-Colas and that was about it. Well, I was getting a shoe shine and I looked back through this arcade type of place and there was this magic word that appeared ... 'tattooing.' I'd seen servicemen with tattoos and to me it was symbolic of an adventure and that's what I was on. It meant you'd been over the horizon. When I stepped into the shop, I was mesmerized! The guy looked a me and said 'What in the hell do you want!' I stumbled and mumbled and looked around and saw a heart on the wall with the word mother on it. It was $3.50. I could afford it so I was excited ... that was a lot of money back then. I pointed and said 'That one.' Man, he had that thing on me so quick ... I just couldn't believe it.
That night going home on the bus, I remember it was dark and I'd taken off the bandage, but I couldn't really see my new tattoo. I could feel it, it hurt, but I couldn't see it. So I'd hold it up whenever we went through a town and when the street lights would go past, I could catch glimpses of it. I got home, I didn't hide it from my parents, but I kept it concealed. About ten days after I got it, and it was healed, I showed my mother. She said, "You got that when you went to San Francisco didn't you?" She didn't really make a big deal about it. It was a heart with mother written in it, so it would be hard for any mother to admonish their child for that. My parents were conservative Iowa farmers, living in California, but they really allowed me to have my own head. I wasn't really punished for anything in my life. A short time later, I got to go back to San Fran to pick up my aunt. I shot up Market Street until I got to a tattoo shop. There was a little bear tattoo for two dollars and I got it on my wrist. I still have it to this day. It's been circled and colored in, but it's still there.
I have a few tattoos that I call my drunken Yokahama tattoos. I've gotten my fair share of those let me tell ya! Spontaneous tattoos - not these tattoos where you think about it and discuss ideas with your tattooer, then it takes weeks to draw, you've got to make an appointment ... and so on. Where's the adventure in that? That's why I opened my first shop next to a bus station. I tattooed there for twenty nine years.
What was the name of that shop?
Lyle Tuttle Tattoos. Nowadays, there's all these elaborate names and such, but this is a personalized business. Everybody knows my name. Not my shop's name. I'm a total product of good timing. I was the right guy at the right place and the right time.
What brought tattooing out of the lull that you said you started in?
Women's liberation! One hundred percent women's liberation! That put tattooing back on the map. With women getting a new found freedom, they could get tattooed if they so desired. It increased and opened the market by 50% of the population - hell of the human race! For three years, I tattooed almost nothing but women. Most women got tattooed for the entertainment value ... circus side show attractions and so forth. Self-made freaks, that sort of stuff. The women made tattooing a softer and kinder art form. Then the black people started getting tattooed. That was the other big shot in the arm for the tattooing industry, actually. The printed word has done more for this industry than anything. What your doing right now as a matter of fact. I was on the cover of Rolling Stone. The Wall Street Journal did a front page story on me, in the personality profile section in 1971. Soon after that, this one girl called me up that was so ecstatic. She said she came from an uptight stockbroker type family, and ended up marrying a stockbroker, but always wanted a tattoo. Her father was totally against the idea. Then one day out of the blue, her dad called her up and said "Why don't you get a tattoo honey?" He had read about tattoos in the goddamned Wall Street Journal and that made it okay! The printed word lingers on. TV is fleeting. You see it and it's gone. Magazines started coming out and people started spreading them out. More people became aware of the art form that it was becoming. With tattooing becoming more acceptable, it brought a better grade of artists into the picture. That's still the case - it just keeps getting better and better. How can a guy that's devoted more than fifty years of his life to this industry not enjoy where it's at now. I'm proud to be part of it's history. I proud of what it has become and look forward to see where it goes from here. Tattoos are everywhere now, Hell, we've even got a goddamned free tattoo magazine now! Look at these things laying all over the place (pointing out all the PRICKs scattered about).
As a forefather of modern tattooing, you've seen the industry through all its highs and lows. What's you're take on the progression of tattooing and the state of the industry now?
Tattooing has many facets, it's like a diamond. You can't see the facets from one view. You have to see it from all different angles. There is no formula to it. People get tattooed for different reasons. For some people, it's a mild rebellion. There is the peer pressure element. The word 'chickenshit' has probably caused more people to get tattooed than any other reason. For some, it's a form of finding their lost tribal ancestry, so sometimes there is a cultural wave that causes a boom. Tattooing has changed radically over the years. Sterilization is much more important now. Anytime an industry blossoms, it gets a higher profile and scrutiny so everybody has to change with the times. I mean, we used to work with sponge and buckets a long time ago. There just wasn't as many diseases floating around back then. That's a whole other side of the industry.
What's your feeling about the clinical side? Do you think it's a bit overkill compared to the sponge and bucket days?
We just had to convert. There was never any great tattoo disease epidemic or anything. There are no diseases that have been created by tattoo artists. I've truthfully never actually seen an infected tattoo from a professional tattooer. I've seen infected tattoos. Hell I've had a few on me that got infected. One was right in a pull spot on my arm. The scab got heavy and one day I was working on my old Model A Ford before the tattoo healed and dragged the goddamned thing across the bumper and scratched the scab off. That one got infected, but it was my fault not the tattooer. It eventually healed. Then when I got tattooed in Samoa, I got a really bad infection. I hate the tropics and I hate the bugs in the tropics. People who live in the tropics have learned to tolerate bugs, especially in the primitive cultures. I saw one Samoan guy let this fly crawl on his face and take a goddamned drink out of his eye for Christ's sake! That's how used to insects they are. So when the tattooer was working on me, they wouldn't brush away the damn flies. I mean I saw pictures after it was over and the goddamn flies were all over my open wounds - drinking out of the incisions like hogs in a trough. Two days later, I had this infection start happening. I hopped on a plane, flew over to America, and got a shot of penicillin in the ass and everything turned out okay. But it was those goddamned flies, not the tattooer, that gave me the infection!
The people in the tattoo industry should be proud of themselves. They have really pulled themselves up from the boot straps. They learned all the proper procedures and safety standards on their own. We taught ourselves everything we know. Doctors go to medical school to learn about sterilization and such. We had to do it on our own. We are self-educated and I feel that the industry should be self-regulated. Tattooers love their profession so much that they do overkill on the sterilization aspect.
Are you still tattooing?
No, I haven't tattooed in about 15 years. Being a tattooer was an enchanted profession for me. It ruined my education though. I didn't finish high school because I had tattoo static in my head.
Any famous names you've tattooed?
Janis Joplin, Peter Fonda, Cher ...
You did the one on her ass?
Yeah, and now I hear that she's getting the goddamned thing taken off. That's one insane wom ... wait I'll stop there (laughter). I don't have any axes to grind. I'm a gentleman, don't you know. Janis Joplin was another wild one. She was a great copy writer. Madison Avenue couldn't have said it better - 'People who get tattooed like to fuck a lot!' She was great. When the rock 'n' rollers started getting into the tattoo scene, I tattooed Joan Biaz, the Allman Brothers and all their roadies.
What are your thoughts on the future of tattooing?
Well, the human race has been doubling and tripling at an astronomical rate since the dawn of recorded history. The rate of human population growth has steadily increased to the point that it only takes a fraction of the time it once took to double the population. Think about all that new skin and think about all that new skin that is just turning eighteen. The possibilities for tattooing are limitless and there is more skin getting made everyday.