Lyle Tuttle lives today in his childhood home in Ukiah, a scenic and peaceful burg in Northern California’s Mendocino County. Between the bookends of his Ukiah years, Tuttle spent a whirlwind four decades as a tattoo artist in San Francisco, beginning his career in anonymity but ultimately soaring to celebrity status, inking the likes of Cher and Janis Joplin, his tattooed body and storytelling talent gaining him favor with the media, highlighted by a guest appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Tuttle is on his way to Indianapolis, where, on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m., he’ll appear at the IMA to converse with local tattoo artist Dave Sloan. The event is part of this year’s Spirit & Place Festival. Before arriving in Indy, Tuttle took some time to chat with NUVO about his remarkable life and career.
NUVO: You grew up in Ukiah, a quiet, seemingly idyllic Northern California town along Highway 101. How did you end up in San Francisco?
Tuttle: I went down to the big city because they had after hours clubs and a little faster-paced ladies than they have up here in the Redwoods. I knew there was some chicanery going on down there. I was about eight years old in 1939 when the World’s Fair was happening over on Treasure Island. And my folks took me down there. Well, I looked across the bay and saw all those bright lights and tall buildings and, whoopee, I couldn’t wait to get down there.
NUVO: What drew you back to Ukiah and your childhood home?
Tuttle: My parents continued living here. And I’m an only child. You have a lot more responsibility to your parents when you don’t have siblings. And I liked my parents. So I’d always come up here. Bring my kids up to see their grandparents. My mother just passed away quickly, and my father a year and a half later. And I was up here all the time helping my dad, giving him moral support. He was really lonely once my mother was gone.
NUVO: Is there anything you miss about San Francisco?
Tuttle: No. You know, you couldn’t have tied me to a Redwood tree up here and kept me here when I was young and full of piss and vinegar. These servicemen come back with those tattoos. They’d been out of Ukiah. They’d at least been to San Francisco. And I was the same way. I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I was enamored with all big cities. Now I try to drive around them. You drive around the block 20 times just looking for a parking space. It’s inhospitable.
NUVO: But the city was very good to you.
Tuttle: San Francisco has changed from the one I remember. In 1960 I opened a shop that I stayed in for 29 years. It was next to the Greyhound bus station. You know, bus stations aren’t the greatest area of a city. But a tattoo shop, a lot of people get tattoos on a hunch. It’s not a long, planned-out thing. And if you’re in a high-traffic area, you’re going to have good business. When I first moved in, I used to say I was next to the bus station on my business cards. After 25 years or so, and I was getting all this thunder from the press and everything, with women’s liberation and tattooing so many women, I’d joke that the Greyhound bus station now has on its business card that it’s next to Lyle Tuttle Tattooing.
NUVO: You were something of a tattooist of the stars, with a client list that included Cher, Peter Fonda and Janis Joplin. You tattooed Joplin at the height of her popularity, not long before her death. What was that experience like?
Tuttle: I saw her the night before on television. Haight-Ashbury was going on. That whole explosion, it was in full swing at that time. And she just returned from South America. First thing, she came roaring through the door, and she had two big Samoyed dogs. And they were in the lead. I wound up chewing out this hippie chick for bringing her dogs in. I said to her, “Would you bring your dogs to the dentist?” But then I put two and two together and figured out who it was, and I went about my business. She gave me my opinion of Capricorn women.
NUVO: Which is what?
Tuttle: Capricorn women are the ball-busters of the universe. But they don’t take tattoos well. She went downstairs to a bar to have a drink between the two tattoos, which were a bracelet on her wrist and a heart on her breast. She tossed a couple back and freaked out the clientele. They talked about her visit to that bar for months. But she was a good gal. She probably did more for tattooing than anyone.
NUVO: When word got out that you were Joplin’s tattooist, did you see a surge in business?
Tuttle: Oh, it was like sticking a skyrocket up my butt. She got acquainted with me through the media. I was the media darling for so long, the writers would come up to interview me and they could not believe how many women I was tattooing. The women all wanted a rosebud or a little butterfly, and the majority wanted them inside the bikini line because it was still an avant-garde no-no. Women had been suppressed in the tattoo department for so long. Told “No, no, no, it’s for drunken sailors and fallen women.” It was a revolt in a way. To be honest, I think tattoos are better suited for women than men.
NUVO: And, as you’ve said, the women’s liberation movement was a boon for you and the tattoo industry.
Tuttle: All of a sudden, bingo, you have all these women working down in the Financial District. And here I’m in the Wall Street Journal — that’s golden. They published an article putting me and tattooing in a good light. Tiffany, the jeweler, got so disturbed with that, they put out a counter-ad the next day taking exception to the Wall Street Journal having an article saying that tattoos are all right. They said they’d didn’t feel that it was and that they always stood for good taste. I mean, damn, it was a heck of a period there at that time.
NUVO: You were photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone’s 1972 Christmas card. How did that opportunity come to be?
Tuttle: I’d opened up a tattoo shop down on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. I was in the shop one day, and I got a telephone call from Annie and she introduced herself. I’d never met her before. And she said, “I got a proposal to make to you and I want to know if you’re going to be in the shop later today.”
I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Well, I’m going to fly down, I want to ask you a question.”
I said, “Ask me right now.” And she said, “No, I don’t want you to say no.”
So she came down and ran the idea by me, and I said, “Hell yeah!”
All that, it was like stepping stones. It just led from one thing to another. I used to call it the stairway to heaven.
NUVO: Tell me about the photo shoot.
Tuttle: Have you seen the picture?
NUVO: I have, yeah. It’s a striking image.
Tuttle: Those lights are taped on me. And there was an intersection of lights down by my testicles, where the electric cords went in two different directions. Boy, I got lightheaded, I think, because of a magnetic aura or something. I was on backdrop paper. They had a light shining to give me a halo effect. So they snapped the picture and gave me the money and away I went.
NUVO: Were you pleased with the photo?
Tuttle: Oh, yeah. It couldn’t have turned out better. That was a great shot. And that’s your immortality, those photographs and stuff.
NUVO: Your body is covered in tattoos. And one of your claims to fame is that you’ve been tattooed on six of the seven continents. What’s your most memorable experience as the recipient of a tattoo?
Tuttle: Each one of them is a punctuation in your life. In 1972 I went to Samoa and got tattooed. They tattoo manually down there, like they have for many years. And the reason I went to Samoa was, in America, you get a certain amount of admonishment for being a tattoo artist. And here there were these Samoan people coming into my tattoo shop, and they were men, women and children who revered tattoos. I thought, damn, this is utopia for tattoos, I got to go down there. So I read up on it. And tattooing is part of their culture. If you’re a young man growing up in Samoa, you’ve got to have that traditional tattoo or you can’t even enter the chief’s chambers. That’s where that adoration and respect comes from. So I went down there and got tattooed, and they made me a chief — which is not like what you get at a tourist tepee camp in Arizona. They took me up in front of Parliament and read it. That was a great honor.
NUVO: You stopped tattooing 15 or so years ago. What do you miss about life as a tattoo artist?
Tuttle: Nothing. I’m busier now than I’ve ever been. I’m going to be in New Orleans this weekend, and then Indianapolis the next weekend, and then St. Louis the next weekend, and then Richmond the next weekend. Tattooing, you’re sitting there, living in a world that you’re creating, meaning you’re drawing a picture. You know, people who live on small islands can get Asiatic fever, they call it. That’s a thousand-yard stare of a hundred-foot island. So, you know, I don’t really miss tattooing — I mean, as a professional tattoo artist putting pictures down.
NUVO: Not even as a creative outlet?
Tuttle: As tattooing became more and more popular, a better grade of artist was brought into the profession than would have ever thought about being a tattoo artist before the popularity it has today. It’s just steamrolling now. The closest tattoo shop when I was a kid was in San Francisco. There are four tattoo shops in Ukiah now. Today I would be the guy who would look at the tattoo on your arm and say, “What are you doing with that?” I was never for popular causes. It wouldn’t appeal to me today, I don’t think.