Lyle Tuttle

Written by Rocky Geneva on . Posted in blog

Lyle Tuttle, well-known American tattoo artist and historian of the medium, the forefather of modern tattooing, we all heard his name, we’ve all seen at least one of his creations. But after all this, how much do we really know about him?

I’ve been searching for some reading in tattooing history by Mr. Tuttle and found out some interesting things about his life and work. He was born in 1931 and grew up in Ukiah, California. As a youngster Tuttle embraced the passion for tattoos, he started falling in love with them growing up during the World War II, many servicemen coming back from the war or on leave would have a tattoo dribbled on them. So in 1946, at the age of fourteen, he went to San Francisco and purchased his first tattoo for $3.50 by a tattooer named Duke who ran the shop. It was a heart with mother written in it, because it was the only one that he could afford at that time. After that it was all uphill for the soon to become one of the best in the biz.

His parents were conservative Iowa farmers, living in California, but they allowed him to be himself, and think with his own head. So three years later in 1949, he was tattooing professionally. In 1954 he opened his own studio in San Francisco, this first shop was open for nearly 30 years. The shop’s name was Lyle Tuttle Tattoos, and it was located near a bus station. Tuttle considers that this is a personalized business, everybody knows his name not the shop’s name. He doesn’t get the need for all these elaborate names and such that occur nowadays.

Tuttle is convinced that women’s liberation  put tattooing back on the map. With women getting a new found freedom, they could get tattooed if they desired. Then the black people started getting tattooed, that was the other big blast for the tattooing industry. Once magazines and newspapers like The Wall Street Journal started coming out with articles about tattoos, it more acceptable, and this brought a better grade of artists into the picture. Tuttle appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the inside cover of Rolling Stone in October 1970, also The Wall Street Journal did a front page story on him, in the personality profile section in 1971, becoming an iconic image of modern tattooing.

When the first convention happened in ’76, Tuttle had already been tattooing for over 25 years. He was a tattoo superstar who rose to fame in the late ’60s tattooing a predominantly female clientele and celebrities like Janis Joplin, Peter Fonda, and Cher.

Many tattooists of his day disliked his statements to the press and so called “shameless self-promotion”, so his fame within tattooing was somewhat controversial. When Tuttle was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in October 1970, Sailor Jerry put the picture inside his toilet. 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.

He has been tattooed on six continents, and has never knowingly tattooed a minor. He has become a legend and a teacher within the industry in the years he has been tattooing. Tuttle officially retired around 1990 but continues to travel the tattoo convention circuit. He will still occasionally tattoo his signature on a friend or acquaintance. Although Tuttle no longer tattoos, he attends the conventions, and is still extremely involved in tattooing, speaking on the history, machines and the folklore of tattooing. He devoted more than fifty years of his life to this industry, and is enjoying where it’s at now.

His life motto is “No sweat.” Don’t ever sweat over anything and don’t let anyone make you sweat. He has it tattooed on the back of his leg in kanji, but the phrase couldn’t translated exactly so it reads “Perspiration No”.

Lyle Tuttle’s Tattoo Museum in San Francisco boasts the largest tattoo memorabilia collection in the world.


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