It was wartime 1939 when Lyle Tuttle, 10, caught a glimpse of his future on the arms of servicemen coming home from duty: tattoos. To Tuttle, tattoos were the epitome of self-expression, a lifetime gift to oneself, the markers of adventure. And so, at age 14, on a trip to San Francisco from his hometown in Ukiah, he got his first tat: a heart with the word “mother” scrolled across it. When he made his way home that day, he was on top of the world.
“I was the cock of the walk,” he said.
It wasn’t about any first particular tattoo that he saw that inspired him; it was about what they represented.
“It was just the idea. It wasn’t the design; it was just the presence,” he said. “They mean travel, romance and adventure; you have to go off and earn them.”
And that became his lifeblood for the next 30 years working out of his shop in San Francisco. He is a shameless self-promoter — admittedly so — and claims that he had a part in the popularization of tattoos. He also said that the women’s liberation movement dynamically changed society’s take on tattoos, which now have gone mainstream, from biker crews to soccer moms. In his list of famous clients, he spoke of Janis Joplin and Haight-Ashbury quite fondly.
“It was a wonderful time here in San Francisco; [Joplin] was at the forefront of rock and roll,” he said.
Tuttle is now in quasi-retirement. He’s been known to tattoo his signature and whatnot these days, though he hasn’t done it regularly in years. He noted that, really, besides doing what every person does —“work, save, buy real estate,” which led to his need not to work anymore — that the number of extremely talented tattoo artists who have hit the scene has grown exponentially. And with that reality, instead of trying to compete with these new artists, he takes pride in having helped popularize the once-taboo art form.
Tuttle will again be making an appearance at the fifth annual Ink for a Cause this weekend, Sept. 13-15, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in San Miguel Hall. For more information, visit www.inkforacause.com.