Tattoo and Piercing Lifestyle

Lyle Tuttle, pioneering SF tattoo artist, dies at 87.“I wanted to get tattooing out of the back alley,”


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Aidin Vaziri

Lyle Tuttle‘s obsession with tattoo art began early.

When he was 14 in 1946, he saw troops returning from World War II with decorated skin and felt an itch to ink his own. So one day he cut school, boarded a Greyhound bus from his hometown of Ukiah in Mendocino County to San Francisco and got his first piece — a heart with the word “Mother” – for $3.50.

“It looked like romance and adventure to me,” Tuttle told The Chronicle last year. “I know war isn’t like that, but I was fascinated.”

By the time Tuttle died on March 25 at the age of 87 in the same town he set out from as an adolescent, he had built a 70-year career as one of America’s preeminent tattoo artists, historians and educators. Scott Alderman, organizer of the Tattoo the Earth convention, once called him “the granddaddy of modern American tattooing,” and the label stuck.

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“Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past,” Tuttle told The Chronicle in 2002, after he had covered every inch of his body — except his face, feet or hands – with ink. “Tattoos are like plaques or postcards. They are a montage of your life. They tell stories.”

Tuttle, who considered himself a social pioneer, was celebrated for pushing tattoos toward mainstream acceptance, especially for women. He left his indelible mark on stars such as Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Cher (that was his work on her derriere in the “If I Could Turn Back Time” video) – along with more hirsute clients, such as Henry Fonda and the Allman Brothers.

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After a stint in the Marine Corps, he began his own career as an artist in 1949 and worked at several parlors around Alaska and California, primarily under the tutelage of tattoo icon Bert Grimm. He eventually opened his own second-floor tattoo parlor in 1960 on Seventh Street in San Francisco, near the old Greyhound bus station.

In the early 1960s, Tuttle spearheaded the movement to legitimatize tattoos, meeting with officials from the San Francisco Health Department to draft protocol.

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“I wanted to get tattooing out of the back alley,” he said.

He was interviewed by Dick Cavett. He was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Imogen Cunningham and Tony Lane. He appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1970, the same year he inked a bracelet around Joplin’s wrist and placed a heart on her breast.

“After I gave her the heart on the (breast) and the wrist bracelet (tattoo), I started getting all the hippies,” Tuttle told The Chronicle. “Great for business. I tattooed at parties at her house, met all the rock stars.

“But I wasn’t a peace freak. I was neutral. In 1970, somebody did a documentary on me and it ended with a scene at my studio of a black guy getting a Black Panther tattooed on his shoulder by one of my associates and I’m across the room putting a rebel flag on this redneck’s shoulder. The two are talking and smiling, they’ve got this common denominator — tattooing.”

In 1972, his full-body tattoo graced the pages of Life magazine in a feature that celebrated his tattoo work on women. He frequently credited the women’s liberation movement for the tattoos’ golden age.

“It opened up half the human race to tattooing,” Tuttle told The Chronicle in 2000. “That was a big shot in the arm.”

Tuttle was forced to relocate when the building that housed his original studio was damaged during the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, and settled into his current namesake location at 814 Columbus Ave. in the city’s North Beach neighborhood.

Even though he mostly retired from putting his needle to skin in 1990, Tuttle continued to host an annual tattoo convention in St. Louis, and traveled as an educator and historian. He also maintained one of the world’s largest collections of tattoo artifacts – the studio on Columbus doubles as a museum.

Lyle Tuttle was born on Oct. 7, 1931 in Chariton, Iowa. He grew up in Ukiah to conservative parents whom he credited with giving him total freedom. One of the most prominent pieces on his body was his self-styled family crest on his stomach — a chicken and feather bearing the Latin inscription: “Chicken today, Feathers tomorrow.”

In 2014, Tuttle earned the distinction of becoming the first person to tattoo on all seven continents after tattooing historian Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman at the Russian Bellingshausen Station in Antartica.

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“Because I was lucky to have the greatest time slot that any artist ever had in tattooing, it wound up that I had tattooed on six continents,” he said at the time. “So I had an opportunity to tattoo on seven continents. Well, I’m not out to break any records but why not do it? It’s there!”

Friedman honored Tuttle on Twitter: “He encapsulated the self-made man, a classic American archetype, and his incredible stories wandered far outside the tattoo world.”

A public memorial service for Tuttle is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday, March 30, at Eversol Funeral Home in Ukiah.

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