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The Father of Modern Tattooing

Our guest blogger today is local tattoo artist Dave Sloan, who will be interviewing Lyle Tuttle at this week's event in the Toby.

Lyle Tuttle didn’t know in 1945, when he was 14 years old and running away from his hometown of Ukiah, California to go see the circus in San Francisco, that years later he would be seen as the Father of Modern Tattooing. He didn’t know the heart with “mom” tattooed in a banner that he got at that circus would spark a lifelong interest in the history of tattooing, or that he would participate in bringing major changes to the industry. In fact, if you ask Lyle, he’ll tell you that he didn’t know a hell of a lot back then, while he laughs at himself as a dumb, young kid.

Whatever Lyle didn’t know, however, he did find a way to start his career in tattooing and by 1949 he was tattooing professionally after working under Bert Grimm. His first solo shop opened in 1954 and was located in a building next to the bus terminal in San Francisco. Lyle didn’t feel comfortable in the area and wanted a quick out in case he needed it. Being beside the terminal also brought him a lot of clientele. But what really changed the kind of clientele that walked into Lyle’s shop during the 1960s was the advent of women’s liberation. With women getting a new found freedom they could get tattooed, if they so desired. It greatly expanded the market, and according to Lyle, he tattooed nothing but women for three years.

Lyle tattooed Cher and Janis Joplin, as well as Peter Fonda and The Allman Brothers, just to name a few of the stars that helped bring about Lyle’s appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone in October of 1970, a first in major media coverage for any tattoo artist. This was followed by a front page article in the Wall Street Journal in 1971. This publicity was not only good for Lyle’s career, but for the entire industry as well, bringing information about tattooing to a significantly larger audience that until then had only the knowledge of old stereotypes that had been passed down over the years.

Then Lyle began traveling the world. During this time he tattooed on six of the seven continents, learning from those around him and sharing his knowledge and experiences. He brought these experiences back to the United States and began sharing them with other tattoo artists, participating in the first tattoo convention in the country.

Eventually Lyle started collecting tattoo memorabilia and currently has the largest collection in the world.  Some day this will be showcased once more, as it was in the 1970s when the upper floor of his building next to the bus terminal served as a museum. His collection of memorabilia and equipment is an important part of preserving tattoo history so that those who come after us, artist and enthusiast, can see how tattooing has grown from humble beginnings in back street shops frequented by sailors and criminals to a respectful art form enjoyed by all walks of life.

Over the years, Lyle has become a legend and a teacher for the tattoo industry, in which he participated as an artist until his retirement in 1990. To this day, he is still an active and important figure in the industry, as he still travels worldwide to speak on subjects from tattoo machine maintenance and building, to listening and talking to the younger generations about the art form. Celebrating his 80th birthday this past October, Lyle is still going strong and looking forward to coming to the IMA for “Deep Ink” with Chief White Wolf James of the Eiteljorg Museum; Junii Shimada, a female tattoo artist from Japan now working in San Francisco; and myself on November 5th, 2011, at 7 p.m. in the Toby.

Filed under: Art, Public Programs, The Toby

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